American soldiers did not join in any actual combat but they did provide intelligence, training, real-time information, equipment, and aircraft in a successful but controversial anti-terror operation in southern Philippines.
This was one of the findings of the Board of Inquiry of the Philippine National Police, which was created to probe the operation which killed 67 Filipinos, including 44 members of the police elite unit Special Action Force (SAF). The January 25, 2015 operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao succeeded in killing Bali bomber Zhulkifli Bin Hir/Zulkifli Abhir (Marwan) but was also viewed as a tragedy because of the high number of casualties.
Marwan was a Malaysian citizen who escaped to the Philippines after the Bali bombing. He was a wanted international terrorist with a $5 million bounty placed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The police operation to arrest Marwan raised several issues that have undermined the leadership of President Benigno Aquino III. The president was accused of violating the chain of command when he designated a suspended police general to coordinate the operation. The police general also failed to properly inform the army and even the top leadership of the police about the operation.
Another blunder is the failure to coordinate the planned attack with Muslim separatist rebels who control the area. The rebels are not linked to Marwan and they have a ceasefire agreement with the government. Aside from Marwan’s team, it was the rebels and other private armed groups which figured in a deadly clash with the police.
There is also the issue about the unclear involvement of the Americans in the operation. Residents recalled seeing foreigners and a flying object in their village during the week of the encounter. But an information officer of the U.S. embassy told local media that “no U.S. surveillance drone was used” in the operation.
Last week, the police finally released its report about the Mamasapano incident; and it tackled, among others, the role of the Americans in the operation.
Below are excerpts of the report:
“Six American nationals were at the Tactical Command Post in Shariff Aguak starting on the eve of the operations to provide real-time information (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance) to the SAF troops.”
“The US counterparts provided real-time information on the actual movements of friendly and enemy forces in the area of operations…by providing technical equipment and aircraft, which they themselves operated.”
“The severed left index finger of Marwan was sent to two representatives of US-FBI waiting at General Santos City.”
The report emphasized that “there were no armed US troops engaged in combat in the area of operations.” It added that the technical support was valuable because the police “was able to elude large enemy formations, thereby avoiding further casualties.” It also recognized the medical evacuations performed by US personnel. It did, however, note that the decision to submit Marwan’s finger to the FBI is not standard procedure; the DNA sample should have been turned over to the local police crime laboratory.
The report is probably the first time that a government agency has given details about the involvement of the U.S. in local military operations. The implications are also staggering. Based on the report, Americans were aware of an anti-terror operation, while the army, the acting police chief, and the secretary of Interior and Local Government were only informed about it on the day itself, when the attacking forces suffered heavily and needed reinforcement and artillery support. The Americans were even stationed at the Tactical Command Post.
Senator Ralph Recto is curious to learn more about the involvement of the Americans. “Let me clarify: I do not object to the American’s [six] assistance in hunting down terrorists, but in this particular case it seems the US role was extraordinary. Up to what extent can we allow them to play a role?”
“Because it is clear to me, this wasn’t just assistance in providing intelligence; we were given equipment. Look at the situation: the PNP [police] did not coordinate with the AFP [army] but they coordinated with the Americans; there’s something amiss there,” he added.
Congress, which suspended public hearings about the operation, will probably ask for more information about this issue once it resumed sessions.
Aquino’s credibility as leader and commander-in-chief has been eroded because of the Mamasapano operation. It also affected the ongoing peace negotiations with Muslim rebels. As for military cooperation with the U.S., expect rising skepticism among local leaders.