An excerpt from my new book Shadow Wars, available for pre-order from Potomac Books.
The U.S. military battled Islamists in the Philippines beginning in 1899, when the islands — the spoils of the Spanish-American War — became an American territory. The fighting raged in fits and starts for the next hundred years, mostly in the southern region of Mindanao.
By 2001 Mindanao was a haven for a shifting alliance of Islamic groups dominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf — the latter two Al Qaeda affiliates. In December that year Jemaah Islamiyah plotted an attack on the U.S. embassy in Singapore, but Singaporean authorities intervened.
Remote and rugged, the southern Philippines were the tropical analogue of the mountains and deserts favored by Islamic militants elsewhere. “Pretty much nothing but jungle and mountains and rice paddies,” is how Rocky Zeender, a former Special Forces soldier who spent three years in the region, described the terrain. “It was extremely dense jungle, extremely dense forest, very steep terrain and very difficult to travel, sometimes impossible to travel, by vehicle, only by foot.”
In January 2002, Special Operations Command deployed Joint Task Force 510 to fight the Islamists alongside the Philippine military. The task force would soon change its name to Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines and grow to include 600 soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and civilians operating trucks, gun-armed speed boats, helicopters, C-12 cargo planes and U-28 spy planes.
Under the cover of a training exercise in March 2002, Washington sent Gnat drones — the smaller, slower, older brother of the Predator — to the Philippines. Comments by a military spokesperson created the impression that the Gnats were Pentagon assets, but in fact the military didn’t take possession of its own Gnats until the following year. The Gnats in the Philippines were apparently CIA models, purchased in parallel with the agency’s initial contingent of more powerful Predators.
A photo snapped at Edwin Andrews air base near the southern city of Zamboanga, where TF-510 was based, showed men in civilian clothes — probably General Atomics contractors — fussing over a Gnat before or after a mission, with Philippine Air Force OV-10 Bronco attack planes hunched in the background.
The “training” fig leaf stuck. Philippine law barred foreign forces from conducting military missions on the islands, so the U.S. task force was officially limited to advising native forces. The Americans stretched that definition as far as it would bend. In fact, the U.S. military was at war in the Philippines, a reality reflected in the drumbeat of American dead.
Accidents were the biggest killer. On Feb. 22, 2002, an army MH-47 helicopter exploded and crashed into the sea off the southern Philippines while returning from a nighttime mission, killing 10 of the 18 people on board. Four more troops died in accidents between 2004 and 2007. Enemy ambushes also claimed lives. On Oct. 2, 2002, a bomb packed with nails exploded outside a cafe in Zomboanga, killing a Special Forces soldier. Seven years later, on Sept. 28, an improvised explosive device (IED) struck a Humvee. Two American commandos died.
With that being said, Philippine troops did most of the fighting, on the ground, at sea and in the air. With American assistance — valued $15 million a year initially, gradually increasing to no less than $30 million — the country’s ragtag military grew leaner, smarter and more lethal.
The OV-10s, numbering a couple dozen at their peak, were the backbone of the tiny air force and bore the brunt of the intensive bombing campaign against the southern militants. In May 2000, four Broncos dropped 500- and 750-pound bombs on a MILF encampment, clearing a path for army soldiers to seize the base. Forty-three MILF fighters died along with four government troops.
But the two-seat, twin-motor attack planes, armed with machine guns and unguided gravity bombs, were of Vietnam War vintage and badly in need of upgrade. Lt. Mary Grace Baloyo, then one of the Philippines’ few female Bronco pilots, was returning from a training flight when one or both engines apparently failed. Baloyo’s copilot ejected, but Baloyo stayed in the plummeting bomber long enough to steer it away from populated areas — and died when it slammed into the ground. Baloyo’s March 2001 crash was just one in a tragic litany of accidents that gradually cut the Bronco force in half.
While it’s not clear that the United States provided funding specifically for the OV-10s’ enhancement, it was only after the Pentagon began underwriting Manila’s military that the air force, in 2004, finally signed a $6-million contract for upgrades. American firm Marsh Aviation provided new engines, each with four propeller blades instead of the usual three and set up a better maintenance program. The changes “enhanced the operational capability and readiness of the Air Force,” the Department of National Defense crowed.
And that was just a first step. A second round of upgrades seven years later would transform the Broncos into high-tech, precision bombers capable of pinpoint raids in the dead of night. Combined with an expanding force of U.S. drones, the ancient bombers became the Philippines’ — and by extension America’s — most lethal weapon in the fight against Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian arm.
And almost no one beyond the jungle battlefield even noticed.
From humble beginnings, America’s drone force in the Philippines grew in size and sophistication — although the expansion was rarely officially acknowledged. An offhand mention in 2002 by a military spokesperson of the Gnat drone was one the U.S. government’s few comments on the robot arsenal in the Philippines in anything but an emergency context.
Instead, the drone escalation was marked mostly by its failures and the destruction it wrought — that is, the damage from robotic strikes plus crashes and alleged shoot-downs of the flying ’bots. When missiles exploded and the shattered hulks of downed drones began turning up, officials were sometimes compelled to explain. And when governments held their tongues, the drones’ prey — the Islamic militants — did not hesitate to speak.
In March 2002 a Gnat plunged into Caldera Bay, 10 miles west of Zamboanga City. In full view of local seafarers, U.S. Navy SEALs and Philippine divers recovered the robot “almost fully intact,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of Special Forces in the Pacific, told local media. “Nobody got hurt. The pilot is safe,” Wurster joked.
Four years later on Feb. 10, 2006, an unidentified UAV described as having a one-meter wingspan — possibly a hand-launched model used by U.S. Special Operations Forces — crashed into villagers in the mountains on Jolo Island, a MILF stronghold.
Muslim villagers, sympathetic to the rebel group, told a TV crew they would return the white-painted robot to the U.S. or Philippines government for 100,000 pesos — around $2,000. Media reports called it a “ransom.” There is no indication it was ever paid.
According to the New York Times, sometime in 2006 U.S. Predators fired a “barrage” of Hellfire missiles at a militant encampment thought to harbor Umar Patek, an Indonesian member of Jemaah Islamiyah suspected of helping orchestrate the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed more than two hundred people.
Patek survived. Five years later in January 2011 he was arrested in Abbottabad, Pakistan, not coincidentally the same town where Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May the same year. An Indonesian court sentenced Patek to 20 years after he admitted making the Bali bomb.
Col. David Maxwell, commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines at the time of the alleged attack, denied the Times’ report. “In all my time in the Philippines in between 2001 and 2007, there has never been a Predator or Reaper deployed, and there have been no Hellfire missiles, let alone ‘a barrage of Hellfire missiles.’”
The October following the supposed drone-launched missile barrage, U.S. Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in the Philippines for a training exercise. They brought along an experimental Silver Fox drone built by Advanced Ceramics Research, based in Arizona. The 25-pound UAV with the eight-foot wingspan could support “a wide variety of missions, ranging anywhere from route reconnaissance, rear-area security, search and rescue, to battle-damage assessment,” said Cpl. Jesse Urban, one of the drone’s operators.
“This is an important asset for us,” Urban said, adding a note of caution that was already common knowledge among American UAV operators. “The environment here consists of weather that is less than favorable.”
In part for that reason U.S. drones continued dropping out of the sky over the southern Philippines. An unspecified UAV with an eight-foot wingspan — possibly a Silver Fox struck a coconut grove near Maguindanao on Oct. 18, 2008, and crashed. U.S. and Philippine officials tried to cover up the incident, but local reporters broke the news.
Two weeks later another UAV went down in Talayan, outside Maguindanao — MILF territory. Rebels claimed they shot it down. A photo posted online was unambiguous: the ’bot in question was another Silver Fox.
“The spy plane is still in good condition and intact and we will not give it back to the U.S. military,” rebel leader Mohagher Iqbal told a reporter. “It is now the property of the MILF.”
Not to be outdone by their American comrades, Philippine troops began crashing their own homegrown UAVs in rebel territory. Manila’s navy modified hobbyists’ radio-controlled helicopters for video surveillance. One of these apparently flew overhead during a “fierce firefight” between government troops and rebels in Maguindanao in June 2009.
“Commander Wahid Tundok ordered one his sharpshooters to zero in on the pestering air vehicle,” MILF told reporters. “And with one shot, it crashed down in a hillside.”
The army reportedly tried to buy back the wreckage for 400,000 pesos — $8,000 — but the rebels rejected the offer. Manila denied even operating the drone. But the evidence of drone warfare outweighed years of sporadic denials from Manila and Washington. And the best evidence was in the increasing scale, accuracy and deadliness of government strikes on MILF and other militant groups in the Philippines.
With commandos on the ground, upgraded OV-10 bombers overhead and a veritable armada of robots in support, U.S. and Philippines forces squeezed and bled the militants over a decade of covert combat.
In mid-2010 the U.S. Congress approved a $19-million package to further upgrade the Philippines’ small force of OV-10 Bronco bombers. The arms transfer, handled by Raytheon, included at least 22 500-pound satellite-guided bombs plus the training and technical assistance to use them.
The first bombs arrived in the Philippines in November that year. The following month, Bronco pilots sat down with an American expert in precision munitions. Training ramped up in January, and in March technicians began modifying the Broncos to carry the new bombs. The first test drops occurred in May. In June another batch of bombs arrived.
In early 2012 the U.S. shadow war on Islamists in the Philippines was a decade old. U.S. Special Operations Forces — some 700 at their peak — trained and equipped Philippine forces, fed them intelligence from drones and satellites and accompanied them into battle.
Seventeen Americans had died along with some 600 Philippine soldiers. But the militants suffered proportionally greater losses. In 2002 the U.S. and Philippine governments printed wanted posters depicting the 24 most wanted terrorists from Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and other groups. Ten years later, 19 of the terrorists were dead or in custody.
Before dawn on Feb. 2, 2012, an informant texted U.S. and Philippine commanders to say he was with three of the remaining five wanted men — Zulkifli Bin Hir and Muhamda Ali from the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah group and Abu Sayyaf’s Gumbahali Umbra Jumdail — at a remote Abu Sayyaf camp on Jolo Island. U.S. troops launched a Scan Eagle drone that silently orbited over the rebel base, matching observable details with the informant’s texts.
American and Philippine commanders confirmed the targets’ identities. They sent requests up their respective chains of command, seeking approval for an air strike. The replies came back promptly.
Two Broncos, each carrying two of the precision bombs, launched — most likely from Edwin Andrews Air Base, the Philippine air force’s main southern outpost in Zamboanga.
The informant walked away from the encampment, observed the whole time by the overhead drone. Between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m., the Broncos dropped their four bombs, pulverizing the rebel base. Survivors stumbled away under the Scan Eagle’s watchful gaze. Philippine troops were on their way.
The informant strolled back into the blast zone to count the dead. Jumdail had been “obliterated,” Bin Hir was “cut in half,” and Ali was heavily bleeding and barely breathing, according to the informant’s texts.
Later there would be official doubt over Bin Hir and Ali’s deaths, but the blow against the Philippines’ terrorists was a decisive one nonetheless.
Sensing an opening, in late 2012 Philippine president Benigno Aquino extended an olive branch to MILF, by far the largest of the Philippine insurgent groups. In exchange for laying down their arms, the Islamists would gain political autonomy within a new southern Philippine state.
MILF, perhaps sensing doom in a continued struggle, pounced on the offer. The rebel group renounced its ties to Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, sparking at least one gun battle between MILF and its former allies. In February this year Aquino visited the rebel stronghold in Mindanao to finalize a peace deal. The treaty promised to finally deprive terrorists of their safe haven in the Philippines.
With the signing of the peace deal, America could tentatively claim victory in its Philippines shadow war. And in June, Adm. Bill McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, said the American presence on the archipelago nation could begin to wind down.
Shadow Wars is available now for pre-order.
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