In a bloody incident alarmingly reminiscent of the Mamasapano debacle last year, 18 government troopers were recently massacred by the Abu Sayyaf on Tipo-Tipo, Basilan island while on the hunt for one of America’s “most wanted.” This latest military disaster came as the country celebrated Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor), a public holiday honoring its war veterans.
According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), about 120 Abu Sayyaf fighters ambushed soldiers from the 44th Infantry Battalion during a planned assault against the terror group. “They were ambushed as they were on their way to execute their mission,” the military spokesman said, adding that the Abu Sayyaf also beheaded four soldiers involved in the clash.
Other military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had a more distressing assessment, pointing out that an entire platoon and an officer were “wiped out in the encounter,” which lasted more than 10 hours.
Just like Mamasapano, where government troops (although composed of ‘special forces’ policemen rather than AFP soldiers) were mobilized to capture or kill Malaysian terrorist and bomb-maker Zulkiflu Abdhir (a.k.a. “Marwan”), who was in the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s most wanted international terrorists’ list, this latest government offensive is against another terrorist in America’s “most wanted” list: Isnilon Hapilon.
Hapilon is the leader of the Abu Sayyaf group on Basilan island. He was a key player in the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnapping incident where the terror group took 20 hostages, including three Americans. The Abu Sayyaf eventually beheaded American Guillermo Soberano while another American, Martin Burnham, was killed in a cross fire during a government rescue operation. For this, Hapilon was indicted in US courts for “terrorist acts against US nationals,” earning for him a spot in the FBI’s most wanted.
Recently, video footage has surfaced of Hapilon pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Abu Sayyaf leader had reportedly been appointed by the Islamic council as the overall leader of the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines.
Like for Marwan, the US has also offered a $5-million reward for information leading to Hapilon’s capture and prosecution. Perhaps this explains the sizeable contingent earmarked by the Philippine military’s top brass for this recent operation.
About five battalions (approximately 5,000 soldiers) and additional companies of strike forces under the AFP’s Western Military Command (Wesmincom) headed by Maj. Gen. Mayoralgo de la Cruz have so far been deployed in the offensive operation to chase 70 to 80 Abu Sayyaf fighters led by Hapilon.
Despite the huge manpower and resources, this recent offensive targeting Hapilon turned out to be another Mamasapano-like debacle. They not only failed to capture the Abu Sayyaf leader and had to settle for an alleged Moroccan bomb maker named Mohammad Khattab, the Philippine military also suffered its largest single-day combat loss this year.
We are not warfare experts but when an entire platoon is decimated and government troops suffer bigger losses than its less sophisticated enemy, it’s a no-brainer that someone committed a major blunder, either due to bad planning or bad execution.
As it is, a ranking military official has already called for a probe into the massacre, calling it “a failure of leadership from top to bottom for lack of experience, failure of intelligence and failure of realistic planning to include intelligent mission planning.” Another military officer blamed Dela Cruz for micromanaging the operations at the expense of the soldiers’ lives.
Aside from the obvious snafu, we are puzzled as to the motive for the recent Basilan assault, especially since the military sees Hapilon as an ordinary criminal rather than a terrorist.
Since 2014, when video of Hapilon swearing allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came out, the country’s government officials and military officers have repeatedly dismissed Abu Sayyaf’s claim of allegiance as more aspirational than real. “They’re not really ISIS,” AFP spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla told reporters in Dec. 2015. “We view them as mere criminal gangs,” he added.
So the question is: Why did the Aquino government throw such a large military contingent to capture or kill a mere “criminal” like Hapilon? And why is the military rather than the police going after these so-called criminal gangs?
The way we see it, since the hinterlands of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a “no-man’s land” for US forces, both legally and tactically, the Aquino government is providing the manpower to do the dirty work of capturing or killing America’s most wanted terrorists. It doesn’t matter whether they’re PNP troopers or AFP soldiers.
The bottom line is, in exchange for a $5-million bounty and some vintage military hardware, our troopers are being used as “cannon fodder” for America’s “war on terror.”
If this arrangement continues, the Aquino government should be ready to prepare more body bags, especially after the revelation that the Basilan operation was leaked to the Abu Sayyaf after the AFP “coordinated” the assault with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
It seems Sen. Bongbong Marcos was right in junking the BBL after all.