The Shadow of the Eagle as Mamasapano probe opens

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Jan 29 2016 05:47 AM

American operatives exercised lead roles in the planning, preparation and botched operations last year against a Malaysian terror suspect hiding in a southern Philippine hamlet known as a stronghold of Muslim rebels.

The United States gave “real-time” intelligence assistance and training to members of the Special Action Forces (SAF) involved in the hunt for Malaysian terrorist Marwan and his Filipino accomplice, the sacked director of the elite cop unit told a Senate panel.

Getulio Napeñas, who is seeking a Senate seat in this year's elections, also told senators his insistence on time-on-target information sharing was on the urging of American advisers. 

The lack of coordination has been blamed for the deaths of 44 SAF members. More than a dozen rebels and armed residents, and six civilians were also slain in the carnage that lasted till late afternoon.

US involvement went on through several oplans targeting Marwan, up until the January 25 Mamasapano operation. The United States wanted Marwan for the deaths of American citizens in the 2002 Bali bombings. It offered a $5-million reward for information leading to the capture of Marwan, who had since moved to Mindanao and masterminded other bomb attacks.

That aid was filtered through a very small group focused on the get-Marwan mission, called in its January 25 version as Oplan Exodus.

Only President Benigno S. Aquino III, the suspended national police chief Alan Purisima, Napeñas and PNP intelligence chief Fernando Mendez Jr. were involved in the final planning. There was no oversight from other key Filipino officials who could have warned of grave unintentional consequences, including a breach of a ceasefire agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Peace a major casualty

Marwan, SAF troops, civilians, rebels. There was one other major casualty of Mamasapano: The peace legacy that President Aquino and, yes, the US government had been touting as the key to progress and security in one of the world’s most volatile areas, a region prized by both big corporations and the rampaging ISIS.

Filipinos erupted in anger when a previous Senate probe indicated a reluctance by the military to deploy the artillery and mechanized armor Napeñas belatedly sought for his beleaguered forces.

Transcripts of previous hearings show Purisima informing Aquino early morning that the SAF had run into guards of Basit Usman, Marwan's Filipino accomplice who managed to escape from Mamasapano. This was after he told the President that Marwan was dead and a SAF member wounded.

Despite US intelligence, instead of between 15-20 men from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway MILF group, there were scores within deployment range of the target area.

Purisima, text messages show, also failed to inform the President of that particular fact. He did not correct the Commander-in-Chief's 7:59 am text:

If I remember correctly 160 SAF troopers were directly involved in this operation plus provisions for other PNP and AFP units to assist. The terrain is flat and clear as opposed to upland forested or jungle terrain. Why could they not contain and or overwhelm 15 to 20 members of opposing force. Are they still in contact with other targets? If not, and the opposing forces escaped, are we now back to square one?

As a result, Aquino ordered : "Basit should not get away."

Aside from the BIFF, the area is also home to MILF supporters. A big formation of mainstream rebels was within a kilometer of the target. Alerted by gunfire -- dozens of residents had joined the fray -- MILF forces engaged the retreating SAF and a blocking force, exacting the most casualties.

The MILF ultimately became the scapegoat, blamed for the SAF slaughter. Politicians decried what they called the rebels' treachery. They used Mamasapano as the bogey to crush the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law, the key condition for forging a permanent peace with the MILF.

The government itself had signed an agreement with the rebels -- praised by foreign states and development donors -- on the conduct of military and police operations in its strongholds.

The ceasefire aimed to prevent ground clashes; the agreement is premised on an MILF pledge to root out extremists and criminal gangs in its areas.

Policy as main threat

The ceasefire monitoring body involves the Armed Forces. Military officials factor this in during operations.

The President did not bother to inform top AFP officers that he had approved a US-supervised plan that listed the MILF among the "enemy forces" in Mamasapano.

“The AFP has internalized the peace process and operates within this framework. It is an instrument of national policy, in this case the ceasefire with the MILF,” a retired AFP officer who has direct experience in the peace process stressed in an earlier interview.

“Had the President given a clear signal to ignore existing ceasefire mechanisms or exempt the January 25 Mamasapano operation from coverage, the military would have obeyed.”

(READ: AFP officials can't usurp top-level policy

But Napeñas and American advisers viewed that same agreement and assimilation of former rebels in the AFP, the result of a previous peace pact with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), as the greatest threat to the hunt for Marwan.

Purisima said Americans had no involvement in the intelligence packet initially furnished by the PNP Intelligence Group.

Questioned by Sen. Ralph Recto, Napeñas gave examples of where military involvement jeopardise the outcome of operations to hunt down terrorists. He cited one operation where the military reneged on a promise to loan mechanized units because of a ceasefire provision requiring coordination with the MILF.

In the hunt for Abu Sayyaf commander Purugin Indama of Basilan, Napeñas said surveillance showed the targets of an aerial bomb moving away 15 minutes before attack.

"Nakita doon sa surveillance. Galling din sa liaison namin na Americano ang impormasyon na 'yun. From the Seaborne and siya din mismo ang nagsabi sa akin na alam nya na before naibagsak ang bobmba sa kalaban, nakaalis na sila." (Surveillance showed that. I was also told by our American liaison from the Seaborne. He knew that the targets left just before planned aerial bomb.)

Conflicting goals

While there is suspicion that the military-police rivalry may be rooted on the big rewards (there was also a P7-million reward for Marwan from the Philippine government), the real cause of the debacle may be the tug-of-war between doves and hawks from both governments.

MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal has the most clear-eyed reading of events: A collision between the government's commitment to conflict resolution and its support for the United States' global "war on terror" sparked the clash that derailed the Mindanao peace process.

Unlike the country's communist insurgency, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government, the MILF officially enjoys some support from Americans.

Like Philippine officials, the MILF was initially reluctant to focus on the US government role in Mamasapano.

But pressed at a peace forum, Iqbal expounded on the MILF’s balancing act with a supportive superpower viewed with hostility by Muslims who have experienced the fallout of its global war on terror.

Below is an excerpt of a piece I wrote for ABS-CBN News. 

“Ang trato namin sa Amerikano iba sa komunista,” Iqbal said. “May bilateral agreements. Kung nandiyan ang US troops, hindi mali sa amin.” (Our view on American presence differs from that of the communists. There are bilateral agreements between the Philippines and the United States. We see no problem with the presence of US troops.)

“But in Mamasapano, there were complications,” Iqbal acknowledged. He confirmed that Americans funded Oplan Exodus, gave intelligence, operated drones for real-time monitoring of the target and SAF teams, and evacuated government forces.

Two national policies -- conflict resolution and supporting the US-led war on terror -- “crossed paths” in Mamasapano, the MILF negotiator pointed out.

“Imbes na ang priority ay conflict resolution, naging war on terror, kaya nagka-leche-leche na,” Iqbal said. (Shifting the priority from conflict resolution to the war on terror caused the mess.)

Those conflicting goals led to the shut-out of the AFP, which Mr. Aquino approved. He ordered Napeñas to increase the number of troops for Mamasapano, knowing it was a stronghold of the MILF.

Who ordered ceasefire?

Military officials have repeatedly said they could not deploy mechanized units or artillery for fear of hitting friendly forces and civilians. In any other situation, they would be applauded for this. (Elsewhere, they mow down civilians, especially those suspected of supporting communist rebels.)

AFP officers insist Napeñas did not give clear locations of his men. SAF personnel testified that they regularly updated Napeñas of their positions. The SAF commander, at least, knew where his men where. Yet more than half of close to 400 men were not moved from their highway waiting posts.

The biggest revelation of the latest Senate hearing answered the question: Who ordered a halt to reinforcements.

From ANC's coverage of the hearing:

Napeñas: (Despite SAF asking for help via radio), Purisima ordered us to ceasefire, hold on to our position, and don't move forward.

Purisima: I contacted MILF persons to assist us in pulling out MILF troops. I was just giving Napeñas the info MILF gave me.

Purisima: I asked MILF to pull out their troops because our SAF forces were already at a disadvantage ("nahihirapan na ang SAF natin").

The AFP had scrambled to convene the ceasefire body mid-day in a bid to halt the carnage. But it was apparently still Purisima who meddled -- without coordinating with the AFP.

By this time, the President would have come to realise the horrible fallout of Mamasapano.

Aquino did not even discuss events with his AFP chief of staff or Interior Secretary Mar Roxas until late afternoon. Nobody bothered to shake him awake because he seemed to have been busy dealing with other persons -- Purisima and some other still unknown parties.

Nobody seemed in charge -- except for Purisima and the American companions of Napeñas, who at one point was told off by a military officer for trying to order the firing of artillery.

Everything that followed -- the dodging, the hedging during his speeches and that of officials during congressional hearings -- were all premised on salvaging what the Commander-in-Chief and his men, enthralled with Americans, had jeopardized.

A lot of the shadow-boxing and outright lying in the weeks following Mamasapano were precisely aimed at hiding the US hand.

"The bloodshed triggered bitter recriminations in one of America's closest allies in Asia, and put sharp new strains on Manila's security relationship with Washington," said a special report by the LA Times.

Within weeks, the Pentagon announced that it was withdrawing a special operations task force. It had been sent to the Philippines after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and had become a model for U.S. counter-terrorism teams later deployed around the globe.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III's government delayed plans to give U.S. troops, warships and aircraft wider access to military bases that the Obama administration sought for its strategic "pivot" to Asia. The planned expansion has been stalled since.

The botched raid also left a landmark 2014 peace deal between the Philippine government and entrenched Islamic rebels in tatters, sparking a renewal of violence by insurgent groups.

"It was a bungled operation and it has had major fallout," said David Maxwell, a retired Army colonel who commanded the U.S. special operations force in the Philippines in 2006 and 2007.

CIA? Or FBI?

The LA Times quoted Pentagon officials insisting, "No Americans joined or issued orders to the assault team."

But they gave orders from the command post. They were still trying to give orders to reinforcing military officers in the afternoon.

Napeñas said his men underwent training in the US Joint Task Force facility in Zamboanga City.

Asked about the general identities of the trainers by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, defense chief under two Philippine Presidents, Napeñas said some were members of the US military, “but some are mere members of the Joint Task Force”.

Napeñas later said he presumed the non-military members of the Joint Task Force were from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), since “they were giving us intelligence”.

However, BAYAN USA, an overseas chapter of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, announced that it has filed a Freedom of Information Act request before the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, to uncover the role of the agency in the bloody Mamasapano incident.

The FOIA request covers communications between the FBI and PNP, DNA tests results on Marwan, as well as details of the supposed bounty set up for the targets of the operation.

Enrile offers an explanation for American reluctance to use the military. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries does not include police operations. It covers defense against external threats, like China. Anti-terror covert operations, especially one with a potential to derail a major peace policy (also backed by the US government) is a particularly slippery slope.

The Senate hearing adjourned with no clear answers. If anything, senators play at the edges of the US question but show reluctance in directly accusing a superpower. Elections are, after all, in the offing.

Information gatekeepers

The Senate's original report on the Mamasapano incident raised the question: Who actually called the shots in Mamasapano.

Accountability is a requisite for Justice. While President Aquino is Commander in Chief, the US government can neither wash its hands of the blood of those it tapped to do its dirty work.

If the US was giving real-time info, did the relay or withholding of information affect the decisions to save or not, on that fateful day?

Did the relay or withholding of information affect the planning of the operation? Did the relay or withholding of information prompt the Philippine government to cut losses on a triumph that was crossing over to disaster category?

In other words, did information lead to a decision to sacrifice SAF men?

Information – the right information provided at the right time to the right people – plays a great factor in success.

The major disasters faced by the United States – including the Twin Towers bombing – were partly rooted in information being hogged (jealously compartmentalized by competing but allied organizations) and thus not passed on to key decision markers, or passed but ignored, or passed, weighed and then buried under other priorities.

Aquino, Purisima and Napeñas seemed to rely heavily on US military might, including advanced technology for intelligence.

Now Napeñas is hinting that, for all intents and purposes, Philippine leadership may have been a farce in Mamasapano -- although Filipino lives were at stake. That may be the greatest treachery of all.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.