The long-promised peace deal struck between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Southern Philippines is struggling to hold after fighting again erupted, this time on two fronts with more than 80,000 people forced to evacuate their homes.
The latest violence left about 80 people dead, but at the heart of the hostilities was the deaths of 44 commandos on January 25 during a botched raid on Muslim rebels. The incident angered the nation and created another un-needed crisis for President Begnino Aquino.
A police report into the incident found that Aquino had bypassed the chain of command and enlisted the help of close friend and police general Alan Purisima, who had already been suspended from the force, pending graft investigations.
The raid targeted a handful of internationally wanted terrorists in the small town of Mamasapano in southern Maguindanao province.
But fighting erupted with the MILF and the splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Free Fighters (BIFF), the armed wing of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM).
The 112-page report found that unrealistic assumptions based on poor analysis amid a lack of flexibility and coordination between the police and military had contributed to what it called a “defective” operation.
Aquino said the information he had been handed was wrong and blamed Getulio Napeñas, head of the Special Action Force for the botched, secret mission. The report found that Napeñas, Purisima and Aquino had “kept information to themselves and deliberately failed to inform” the current national police chief about the raid.
It was not a good look for Aquino, who has faced calls for his resignation, including from factions within the Catholic church and politicians who have always opposed him.
“Appropriate government agencies should pursue the investigation of the Mamasapano incident to determine the criminal and/or administrative liabilities of relevant government officials, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other individuals,” the police report said.
However, largely overlooked in the strike was the killing of the Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir, a U.S.-trained engineer who was also known as Marwan. The United States had a $5 million reward out for information on his whereabouts.
Marwan had fought alongside dead al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and was on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists for his activities in Indonesia and the Philippines. He was head of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) as well as a member of the now defunct Jemaah Islamiyah’s (JI) central command, which carried out a series of bombings across Indonesia, which included the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that left more than 200 people dead.
Over the last five years, Marwan was widely believed to have been training aspiring bomb makers with the Abu Sayyaf, a particularly virulent strain of thugs whose specialties include the kidnapping and ransoming of foreign hostages.
The military has said that another suspected Filipino terrorist Abdul Basit Usman – described as a slippery bomb maker – had escaped three days before the January 25 raid with four Indonesians. He has a $1 million bounty on his head and is understood to be among highest ranking Abu Sayyaf leaders.
But the biggest issue is realizing the peace deal signed with the MILF almost a year ago. The deal was designed to end four-decades of war that claimed about 200,000 lives. The MILF has agreed to co-operate with authorities conducting investigations into the January bungle.
But the BIFM and its leader Ameril Umbra Kato appears less conciliatory. Kato led the breakaway from the MILF about three years ago amid ideological differences and their demands for an independent Islamic state in the Southern Philippines.
Aquino was not expected to resign over the issue although calls are mounting for an apology while the MILF remains accommodating.
The BIFM, however, is a not party to the peace deal and Kato is a threat that Manila needs to treat seriously if it is to avert any further potential damage in finalizing a peace deal that took years to negotiate.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt