In pursuit of Marwan, deaths in the marshland

TUKANALIPAO, Mamasapano, Maguindanao (MindaNews/ 01 Feb) — “Hindi namin namalayan ang pagpasok nila. Nagising kami nang nagputukan na” (We did not notice their entry. We woke up to the sound of gunfire), residents say of what happened here on Sunday, January 25.

Oren Mangulamas said most residents were asleep when at least two platoons of commandos from the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) – nearly 80 officers and men—passed through their village on their way to capture or kill  the Malaysian bomb maker  Zulkifli bin Hir.

“Marwan” or “Mads” as he is known among the Philippine anti-terrorism community, is on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “most wanted terrorist” list.

The US government has offered US$5 million (PhP 220 million) reward for any information that would lead to his capture.

The SAF was also there to arrest Basit Usman, a Filipino citizen described by the United States  National Counter Terrorism Center as a “bomb making expert.”

Mangulamas said the entire village of Tukanalipao was awakened by the sound of gunfire at 4:30 a.m.

“We did not know who they were. We did not recognize their uniform,” he said.

Retrieval of bodies of slain police commandos  in Brgy. Tuka, Mamasapano Maguindanao on Monday morning, January 26. Village officials initiated the negotiation to get the cadavers from the scene of Sunday’s firefight. MindaNews photo by Ferdinandh Cabrera
Retrieval of bodies of slain police commandos in Brgy. Tuka, Mamasapano Maguindanao on Monday morning, January 26. Village officials initiated the negotiation to get the cadavers from the scene of Sunday’s firefight. MindaNews photo by Ferdinandh Cabrera

The municipality of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the core area of the proposed Bangsamoro region under the peace agreement  between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Based on the roadmap of the two parties,  the Bangsamoro government that would replace the ARMM, is supposed to be installed on June 30, 2016.

At present, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the charter that would govern the future Bangsamoro, is being deliberated by Congress. Under the roadmap, once ratified, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) would take over from the ARMM, until the first set of officers of the Bangsamoro is elected on May 9, 2016 and will take their oath by June 30, 2016.

Military intelligence says Mamasapanot town, which has a population of 22,354 as of May 2010, is the base of the MILF’s 105th Brigade and it is estimated that there are at least 1,000 loose firearms in the hands of rebels and residents.


The Philippine anti-terrorism community has been trying to arrest Marwan since  he was suspected to have been making bombs for the Abu Sayyaf and training local terrorists in building improvised explosive device (IEDs).

The  Philippine Anti-Terrorism Council, presently headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, was able to trace the movements of Marwan after he survived an air strike in Sulu in 2012.

According to military officials, Marwan fled to Lanao del Sur until he was forced to run again with the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade hot on his trail

“Marwan  sought to hide in the camps of  the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano. It was a matter of expediency,” said Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., who heads the government peace panel’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of  Hostilities (CCCH).

Galvez said the PNP gathered two platoons from Special Action Force (SAF) units across the country and the elite SAF 84th Special Action Company, a seaborne unit from Zamboanga City – at least 80 commandos in all to attack Marwan’s hideout.

The PNP Special Action Force especially its Seaborne Unit is a highly trained anti-terrorist unit. Their members received training from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team and specializes on raids and urban warfare.

What’s happening?

“MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said a group of SAF personnel went to Barangay Pidsandawan, also in Mamasapano town, a village controlled by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Murad was in a meeting with the Central Committee in his base in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao when they learned about the clash.

He sad they were “surprised” because they were not notified that there was a military operation.

Under the ceasefire agreement , police and military are required to coordinate with the MILF if they launch operations in rebel-held areas to avoid misencounters.

Accounts from various military and residents said the SAF strike unit broke into two when they reached Barangay Tukanalipao either late Saturday night or early Sunday.

The SAF Seaborne Unit forded a river to reach Barangay Pidsandawan where the Malaysian bomb maker is believed to be hiding with his alleged wife,  Jeromee Dongon, the former wife of the late Abu Sayyaf leader, Khadafy Janjalani.

Another group of SAF personnel took up positions and served as a blocking force near a footbridge beside the river in Barangay Tunkanalipao while a smaller group remained on the road to guard their vehicles.

It was the SAF blocking force, the 55th Special Action Company, that bore the brunt of the fighting. The smaller SAF attack force also engaged the BIFF numbering 200 fighters

“The fighting started around 4:30 a.m. on the side of Barangay Pidsandawan. By 6 a.m. our forces from Barangay Tunkanalipao  were also engaged., “ Murad narrated.

Murad said at least 20 of their fighters initially engaged the SAF blocking force but  soon more reinforcements from the MILF 105th Brigade arrived. He said some 100 MILF fighters may have been involved in the fighting.


“The fighting became intense. Sometimes the opposing combatants were only separated by five meters ,” Murad said.

Galvez,  head of the government’s CCCH, confirmed this.

He said they received the same reports of  the intensity of the fighting and how the SAF blocking force was stymied by the terrain: flat terrain of the cornfield and the river with waist-deep waters.

Galvez said some of the MILF fighters were armed with “Barit,” a home-made version of the US-made Barret 50 caliber sniper rifle.

“Despite being locally-made, the rifle was very effective in picking up targets,” he said,

Galvez said the rifle can explain why some of the PNP casualties bore gaping wounds on the head and bodies although he cannot discount the possibility that slain policemen were “finished off.”

“Like in any guerilla war, the MILF fighters took the armor vests of the slain policemen. After that who knows, shoes, pants, uniforms and mobile phones,” he said.

Galvez said 43 of the policemen were killed on the spot in Barangay Tunkanalipao and another died at the hospital. Sixteen policemen were also injured in the day-long clash.

It was the biggest government loss since NPA rebels ambushed an Army unit killing 54 soldiers in San Miguel town, Surigao del Sur.

Murad said  they  also suffered 11 fighters dead with undetermined number of wounded. MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, however,  gave a list of the dead MILF during their meeting with the government peace panel in  Kuala Lumpur on January 29 to February 1. The MILF listed 18 slain guerrillas.

“Not a massacre”

“It was not a massacre. We had casualties too,” Murad said, adding, “we did not attack any government troops. The incident was dictated to us, it was not the MILF that started it.”

“It was self-defense,” Murad later told reporters.

News of the fighting reached the government and MILF CCCH teams who had just accompanied the head of the Independent Decommissioning body to the MILF’s Camp Bushra in Lanao on January 24.

Galvez  said that from Iligan City to Cotabato City, “we were literally flying” as they rushed to the city en route to Maguindanao.

MILF CCCH chief Rashid Lidasan, who relayed to his counterparts  as soon as he was informed early that morning, this “kakaibang” (strange) operations that initially the MILF thought was an operation by the military because of the camouflage uniform used by the SAF operatives.

The CCCH or ceasefire committees of both government and MILF , immediately convened a crisis response team and went to work along with the International Monitoring Team (IMT).

The CCCH also contacted military and MILF units to find out who were involved in the fighting.

Galvez said it was only the SAF and no single unit of the Armed Forces of the Philippines that engaged in the clashes. On the other hand, they learned from their MILF counterparts that members of the MILF’s 105th brigade based in Tukanalipao were involved in the fighting, claiming they were fired upon first by government troopers..

From the IMT headquarters in Cotabato City, the crisis response team then proceeded to Shariff Aguak near Mamasapano arriving at around 11 am Sunday, to meet with Zacaria Goma, commander of the MILF’ 105th Base Command, and Wahid Tundok, commander of the MILF’s 118th base command.


Before the ceasefire, the SAF units had allegedly been subjected into a “pintakasi” as droves of MILF fighters who came to reinforce their comrades, arrived to inflict more harm to the police commandos.

“What laymen do not know is it is very hard to ask fighters to stand down. In the heat of battle, the fighters’ adrenaline and the desire for revenge for fallen comrades are just too high to ask them to lay down their guns,” Galvez said

Galvez said they managed to stop the fighting around 2 pm and start recovering the dead by early Sunday evening.

“Both Tundok and Goma helped us disengage the forces involved in the fighting. They contacted their sub-commanders to disengage them,” Galvez narrated.

For more than ten hours, the SAF commandos fought without any support, medical assistance and air support from neighboring units of the Armed Forces of the Philippiens (AFP) because the operations were not coordinated with the military.

Because they wanted very much to maintain utmost secrecy in their operation against Marwan, the PNP decided to keep out of the loop the Army 6th Infantry Division and the Philippine Air Force in Cotabato City .

The PNP unit also did not inform the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG). That would have facilitated their entry in Barangays Tukanalipao and Pidsandawan.

AHJAG is the cooperative mechanism between the government and the MILF to allow law-enforcement units to enter rebel-controlled areas.

Former PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima and former AFP Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista received the Revised Operational Guidelines for the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group from Government chief peace negotiator Merriam Coronel Ferrer in  July 23, 2013.

No coordination, no reinforcements

“How can we send reinforcements when we did not know their mission, their objectives and their location. We do not even have their radio frequencies and mobile phone numbers,”  6ID operation chief Col. Alan Hambala asked.

Hambala said what they did was to station the Army reinforcements at the headquarters of the 1st Mechanized Brigade in Sharif Aguak more than 14 kilometers from barangay Tunkanalipao.

“We  always observe the primacy of the peace process and its mechanisms. That is why we were surprised with Sunday’s PNP SAF attack,” Hambala said.

The SAF did not also receive support from the Philippine Air Force which has two Huey helicopters and a pair of  Siai-Marchetti SF-260 light attack aircraft deployed at Awang Airport in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao.

“We did not have proper coordinates where the SAF were hiding. We could have flown persuasion flights around the area,” a Philippine Air Force official said.

Some of the military officials also questioned the soundness of the operational plan of the SAF in arresting Marwan.

One Army Scout Ranger official said why the SAF did not deploy their own snipers to counter the rebel snipers.

“Their escape plan sounded shaky. They do not have a Plan B,” he said.

US troops

One startling episode in the Jan. 25 incident is the presence of US soldiers helping in the evacuation of some wounded policemen.

Television footage showed American soldiers in civilian clothes evacuating several wounded policemen from a  white and green helicopter on Monday morning, Jan. 26.

The helicopter is reportedly owned by Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska and contracted by the US military to support various  Department of Defense (DOD) operations in all parts of the world including the Philippines.

Contacted by MindaNews, US embassy spokesperson in Manila Kurt Hoyer said US service men serving in the Joint Special Operations-Task Force Philippines responded upon request from the Armed Forces of the Philippines “to assist in the evacuation of the dead and wounded after the firefight in Mamasapano.”

PNP and military officials said members of the PNP Seaborne unit was able to kill Zulkifli bin Hir but fellow terrorist, Basit Usman, was able to escape.

Police in Manila said the commandos chopped off one of the fingers of Marwan and took a picture of the corpse but without a body many remained skeptical.

“These police commandos are well-trained on extracting DNA,” a military official said referring to the SAF’s Seaborne Unit.

He said the policemen knew that carrying the body of Marwan would be a hindrance since the commandos have to wade across a river to get back to their parked vehicles.

“There are so many ways to extract good DNA. A bone would be a good source, “ the official said.

The official said getting DNA and other proof are essential after Marwan escaped an air strike in Sulu when Philippine Air Force OV10 bomber dropped a huge bomb on his camp in 2012 in what media reports then described as a “US-backed airstrike.”

He said they could not prove that Marwan died in the air strike because there was no DNA proof yet.

From Sulu to Lanao to Maguindanao

Leaving Sulu after the air strike , Marwan reportedly went to Lanao del Sur and was a suspect in the July 2013 bombing at a row of restaurants in Limketkai , Cagayan de Oro killing eight and injuring 48 others.

By this time, he had allegedly teamed up with fellow bomb maker, Usman, and together they reportedly established a base in Mamasapano town under the protection of BIFF.

“It was a matter of expediency, Marwan and Usman trained the BIFF on how to make improvised explosive devise (IED) which they used against the military,’ a military intelligence official said.

“There are reports that they run factories of improvised explosives devices, which they sell to fellow terrorists. They have injured and killed so many people, and they have continue to threaten the safety of our citizens as they roam free,” President Benigno Aquino III said on Jan. 28

High stakes

The prize for the heads of Marwan and Usman was too steep, however.

Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., chair of the Senate Committee on Local government suspended the scheduled committee hearings on the BBL at the Senate and in Mindanao on Jan. 26, a day after the Mamasapano bloodbath.

The lower House followed suit with its Ad Hoc Committee on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, suspending discussions on the security provisions of the BBL.

MILF chair Murad, however, said  the MILF is fully committed to the peace with the Philippine government.

“An enduring peace and justice remain our primary objective, “ Murad said.

Murad formed a Special Investigation Commission to be composed of members from the MILF Central Committee and its armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

He said the committee is tasked gather information and interview witness to know what happened in Mamasapano last Jan. 25.

Murad promised sanctions will be meted on any MILF fighter that may be found for any wrongdoing.

He said MILF commanders Tundok and Goma will not be included in the investigating committee.

“Our concern is the truth. In order to give meaning to their death, we must resolve not to let something like this happen again,” Murad said.

Both the government and MILF peace panels met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and issued a statement on Jan. 31, that they will support the investigations being conducted by the Board of Inquiry of the Philippine National Police and the MILF Special Investigation Commission. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)