NEWS ANALYSIS: Six-million dollar questions on the Mamasapano tragedy

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/27 January) – Social media has been awash with commentaries on the clash on Sunday (January 25) between members of the Special Action Force, an elite police unit, and armed groups in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Perhaps it would be more accurate to use the word “clashes”, as it appears from news reports that the policemen first engaged the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

In what’s obviously a lopsided battle, the SAF lost some 50 of its men in one of the worst reversals of the country’s security sector. The last time government forces sustained a high number of casualties in a single day was sometime in 1992, when around 40 Army soldiers were killed in an ambush by New People’s Army rebels in Surigao del Sur.

(Im)balance of forces

The SAF members went to Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano to get – most likely dead or alive –Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan of the Jemaah Islamiyah and Filipino Basit Usman of the Abu Sayyaf. Marwan carries a $5-million bounty on his head and Usman a million dollar prize.

Military sources claimed that the BIFF is coddling Marwan, who is said to be an explosives expert, and Usman. The BIFF broke away from the MILF a few years back owing to disagreements on the conduct of peace talks with the Philippine government. Its followers comprise one of two MILF units that staged attacks after the Supreme Court struck down the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain as unconstitutional.

It’s not clear how many policemen carried out the operation to get Marwan and Usman. Reports on the number of casualties varied, with the number ranging from 44 (the figure given by PNP) to 50. Twelve operatives were wounded, the PNP added. The MILF on the other hand said 64 policemen belonging to two unnamed units died.

Based on these figures it is likely that around 100 SAF members joined the operation. With their training, they are suited for the job. Their commander however possibly overlooked at least three things: (1) they were entering an area, most likely a camp, where enemy forces are concentrated and hence, the high possibility of being outnumbered and outgunned; (2) they would be handicapped by their relative unfamiliarity with the terrain; and (3) their presence in large number could be easily detected, if not by the rebels themselves, then by their civilian supporters.

The disparity in the number of casualties – 44 policemen (PNP figure) and eight rebels – suggests that at least two of these factors were present. Assuming that both sides had the same number of fighters the rebels still enjoyed an edge with their superior knowledge of the terrain. And if the policemen’s presence had been tipped off to the rebels, they (policemen) had clearly lost the element of surprise and were instead placed at its receiving end.

Blurred details

One of the things that have remained unclear is this: Against which group did the SAF sustain a bigger number of casualties? How many policemen died in the encounter with the BIFF, and how many were killed in the subsequent clash with the MILF?

Authorities implied that the encounter with the MILF occurred when the police operatives unintentionally entered their territory. As MindaNews (January 26) reported: “Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas said the SAF operatives were going to serve warrants of arrest against the targets who were reportedly in the area of the BIFF but because of the maneuverings, apparently got inside an area of the MILF where a misencounter occurred.”

Roxas’ statement carries a host of meanings. What exactly did he mean by “maneuverings” in the BIFF area that led the policemen into an MILF lair? If the government forces already had in sight the BIFF camp, they could not have strayed into an MILF area except if Roxas used the word “maneuverings” as a clever substitute for withdrawal after being outfought by the breakaway group. The same statement implied almost total ignorance of the area on the part of the policemen.

Another possible operational lapse has emerged too: There seems to be no extraction point, a must in all commando-type operations, which may explain why many policemen were killed as they tried to get out of hostile territory. It would help to know if the surviving policemen were rescued within a contiguous area or in different spots that are quite far from each other. If there was an extraction point, intervening events could have prevented the remnants of the SAF from reaching there. For instance, confusion and demoralization might have set in after some of the commissioned officers died.

Who ordered the operation?

Had the operatives succeeded in getting their targets, or had the number of government casualties not reached this high, nobody would have cared. But several policemen died, and it remains unsure if their targets, Marwan in particular, died during the clash. As such, authorities are now obliged to explain the whole thing. Secretary Roxas and PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina told media they had no knowledge about it and that it would be tackled by the board of inquiry.

The denials by both top officials raise an interesting, if intriguing, question: Who was behind the operation? It is doubtful that Director Getulio Pascua Napeñas, the head of the SAF who was relieved following the Mamasapano clash, acted on his own since the deployment of a large number of personnel from their headquarters to a province down south could not have happened unnoticed by higher officials.

If Napeñas did act on his own as SAF chief, what motivated him to do so? Without naming names, Roxas said he was not discounting the possibility that the bounty for the targets served as incentive for the operation.

Now here’s the initial scenario: Roxas and Espina knew nothing about the operation. As SAF chief, the operatives who went to Mamasapano naturally took orders from Napeñas. The final piece of the jigsaw is to know who ordered – or maybe coaxed – Napeñas into sending those young men to their death. Is our mystery guy a government official or an outsider? (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)