Maguindanao killing fields and SAF 44
Federico V. Magdalena, PhD
HONOLULU – January 25, 2015 is a bloody day in the town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao. This is where 44 members of Special Action Forces (SAF) perished. SAF is the police commando that launched Operation Wolverine to arrest two “high-value” terrorists: Marwan (Jukifli Abdhir) and Usman (Abdul Basit Usman). These terrorists are behind the series of bombings in Mindanao, authorities claim. SAF succeeded in taking down Marwan, with photo and cut finger for DNA testing as proof. (The FBI confirmed the DNA signature was indeed Marwan’s, after comparing it with his brother who is under US custody.) Unfamiliar of the terrain, however, they retreated into the lair of the 105th Base Command of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Outnumbered, the MILF mowed them down mercilessly with the help of rogue rebels, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Many call the death of SAF a “massacre,” the second to happen in Maguindanao province since 2009 when 57 civilians allegedly died in the hands of a local warlord. While SAF succeeded by killing Marwan, they gave away 44 of their kind and more than a dozen injured in exchange. The MILF also reported 18 of their members died, including some civilians. The brutality speaks about the way they died, defying the notion that it takes only a bullet to kill a person. At least 11 of the 44 SAF casualties were mutilated – their heads bashed or missing, their guns, cellphones, and personal belongings stolen. A fallen SAF commando from Iligan City bore signs of torture, with his eyes gouged out.
The clash is an ”overkill,” so complains PNP Officer-in-Charge General Leonardo Espina, who asked the MILF to at least return their guns to rebuild confidence in the peace process. The government and MILF just signed a peace deal in March 2014, where both parties are supposed to observe a ceasefire. Congress is now deliberating on a bill to grant more autonomy to the Bangsamoro (term for Philippine Muslims) and abolish, or replace, the dysfunctional Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao.
Marwan is on the list of Washington’s most wanted terrorists with a bounty of $5M on his head. A Malaysian engineer who trained in the US, he served as officer of terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah from Indonesia. He was part of the plot in the deadly Bali bombing in 2002, where hundreds of tourists died. In 2003 he sought refuge in Mindanao. Usman, his local counterpart and student, has also been accused of masterminding several bombings in Cagayan de Oro, Bukidnon, Iligan, and General Santos. He has a price of $1M for his capture, dead or alive. (The reward money for Usman and Marwan is said to have been increased by a million bucks each to make it more tempting for bounty hunters, according to a source.) Both are protected by BIFF, according to MILF chief Mohagher Iqbal. Ironically, MILF and BIFF coexist in the same territory. Both were seen fighting together, against the SAF who turned like a fair game in an open corn field in Tukanalipao, a remote village in Mamasapano.
Who is to blame in this carnage? After the initial accounting, SAF is at fault according to those who are themselves at the center of this botched operation. But the finger pointing has continued – among the military, Malacanang, MILF, priests, and even local officials in the likes of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, who is kept in the dark, declared it was a “misencounter” between the police and MILF/BIFF. A Board of Inquiry is now probing into the matter.
Is the SAF leadership to blame, or is it the MILF and BIFF who killed the valiant SAF 44? Pity, blaming SAF is like blaming the victim. They failed to coordinate their action with the MILF, military, and their superior officers. Maybe the blame rightly belongs to the president who, as commander-in-chief, knows about the operation but did not alert the AFP when help was urgently needed. Maybe it is PNP chief Alan Purisima, who has a direct hand in the operation but did it solo. Maybe it is the MILF’s fault, for not informing the government beforehand about the presence of bad elements in their midst. It seems that somehow they all share the responsibility.
For his part, President Benigno Aquino III earned widespread flak: he did not show up when the remains of SAF 44 arrived at Villamor Air Base. He also seemed to have exonerated General Purisima, a longtime friend, who was widely believed to have a direct hand in the botched operation. Purisima was mum since day one, and has been suspended since December 2014 for graft charges. Former president Fidel Ramos accused Aquino for “breaking the chain of command,” knowledgeable as he was of the plan. Aquino was, in fact, in Zamboanga City that day SAF launched the Mamasapano raid. Some of the commandos are from that city. Other sectors, including religious leaders and militants even call for Aquino’s resignation. Perhaps stung by these criticisms, he ordered Justice Secretary Leila De Lima to study the filing of charges against those responsible for the mayhem, to include some MILF commanders. He was to issue a stern warning later to the MILF to turn in Usman, if they have him, or help in his capture, or clear the way during the pursuit to get him. But these are knee-jerk reactions after the fact.
By now, everyone wants to get to the bottom of this gruesome incident. Congressional hearings on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the instrument that would give autonomy to the Muslims under the 2014 peace deal, have been tabled. At least eight bodies have been created to conduct investigations to ferret out the truth and pin down those accountable for the massacre. Will they provide the right information, or only add to the growing confusion and endless fingerpointing? Some say a Truth Commission will be more credible.
SAF Commander Getulio Napeñas, Jr. was sacked shortly after the incident. He was blamed for not coordinating with the military or MILF command. But Napeñas quickly retorted, “we don’t trust the MILF.” He invoked the case of the US Navy Seals who got Osama Bin Laden without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities. True enough, informing the “coddlers” of terrorists might result in the valued targets slipping away. How could the MILF make the public believe that they do not know about Marwan and Usman? Eid Kabalu, former spokesperson of the MILF, has doubts that the MILF command is unaware of their existence – these terrorists have lived with them for years.
But something more is under question as events unfold. Napeñas is reporting to General Purisima, who has no official jurisdiction as he is under 6-month suspension by the Ombudsman. General Espina as OIC has been kept out of the loop, and so has DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, who both learn of Oplan Wolverine when it is already in motion. Napeñas argues that Roxas is not part of the chain of command.
According to the 1997 agreement on cessation of hostilities, both the government and MILF must exercise coordination and restraint in handling cases like this. Government forces must give the MILF prior notice when they apprehend criminals in their territory. But the MILF is also enjoined to provide information, not sanctuary, to the government about these notorious elements, and are duty-bound to block their entry or escape. If they are equal partners in promoting peace, the tasks of coordination and cooperation must be mutual, not one-sided.
The massacre of SAF 44 also opened a crack in the presumed non-alliance between MILF and BIFF. The BIFF is a breakaway faction that insists on secession or independence, as the MILF pursues a substate arrangement under the 2014 peace covenant. On the ground, they are like one “family,” as BIFF spokesman Abu Misri Mama termed it.
At this time, relatives of the victims – both from SAF and MILF – cry for justice and accountability. Will they get it while PNoy is still president? Or will they suffer the same fate of the aggrieved parties in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, now on the verge of becoming a cold case?