Dozens of Philippine Commandos Didn’t Have to Die

Elite cops feared telling the army about their mission would tip-off rebels


by ROBERT BECKHUSEN

The police commandos set out to capture two Islamist militants before sunrise on Jan. 25. What happened was the worst disaster for Philippine troops in decades. All during a war that’s supposed to be over.

During the operation, around 400 officers from the Special Action Force—an elite unit within the Philippine National Police—neared the town of Mamasapano on the southern island of Mindanao when snipers hiding in coconut trees started shooting.

The gunmen pinned down the police for 12 hours. The commandos ran low on ammunition and called the army for reinforcements, which didn’t arrive. The rebels shelled the trapped officers with rockets and mortar fire.

By the end of the fighting, at least 44 police officers were dead. Photographs depicted several dead officers clustered in tall grasses—one with a wound to his head. A survivor said the rebels closed in and killed the wounded soldiers.

It’s the worst loss of life in a single day for Philippine troops in at least 23 years.

Eight rebels died in the fighting. It’s unclear who the police clashed with. The militants appeared to be members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters—a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

A brigade of MILF fighters also participated in the battle, according to Philippine media reports. But it’s unclear if the MILF rebels were under the direct command of the group’s senior leadership.

The battle shouldn’t have happened.

The MILF signed a peace agreement with Manila in 2014. As part of the agreement, MILF would disarm—it hasn’t yet—and enter politics in a new administrative region called Bangsamoro. The rebels also promised to cut ties with the Al Qaeda-linked terror groups.

It was supposed to be the end to a decades-long war that, in 2002, brought in $300 million worth of American military aid and U.S. Special Operations Command’s Joint Task Force 510. Around 700 commandos—at top strength—aided government troops in the war against the rebels and Al Qaeda affiliates Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah.

The tropical, rugged island is an ideal battleground for insurgents. American commandos are still in the Philippines, although their numbers are now much reduced. During the war with the Islamists, 17 Americans and more than 600 Philippine troops died.

Above—SAF troops load the bodies of police commandos into vehicles on Jan. 26, 2015. AP photo. At top—a SAF commando mans a checkpoint on Sept. 10, 2013. Bullit Marquez/AP photo

Following the ambush, the rebels agreed to stop shooting and allow Philippine police and American troops to retrieve the wounded and dead.

The U.S. task force helped airlift the commandos with a Bell 214 helicopter, but did not participate directly in the fighting.

Most of the Islamist groups’ leaders are dead or in prison. But the targets for the SAF’s Sunday operation were among the few remaining commanders still at large—Basit Usman of Abu Sayyaf and Zulkifli bin Hir of Jemaah Islamiyah.

But the SAF didn’t tell the army about the operation, fearing the mission’s timing would leak to the rebels. Nor did the SAF tip off the two agencies responsible for coordinating with the rebels and maintaining the cease fire.

“Yes, we did not coordinate as we don’t want any leak,” one SAF officer told the Philippine Star. “But was it correct to just let your brother-in-arms die in the hands of the enemy?”

But had the army intervened, it would break the ceasefire with the MILF. Then a lot more people would die.

For the army’s part, the troops “were ready to reinforce the police commandos, but that their hands were tied by the government’s ceasefire agreement,” the Star reported.

Manila is blaming the SAF for the “misencounter,” which is the government’s term for the clash. It’s possible the BIFF rebels believed the police operation was targeting them—and not just the two Islamist leaders.

Interior Minister Manuel Roxas suspended SAF chief Leo Napenas from his post pending an inquiry. The chief of the National Police also said on Jan. 27 the operation went without the agency’s approval.

“It was an overkill and not a misencounter,” former interior secretary Rafael Alunan told ANC Dateline Philippines. “It was a plain and simple massacre.”

But the other problem is the BIFF—which doesn’t agree with the ceasefire deal in exchange for an autonomous region. Rather, it wants a fully-independent Islamic state, and has developed ties with Abu Sayyaf.

Another possibility is that the BIFF was providing cover for the Islamists.

According to the Combat Terrorism Center at West Point, the rebel group originally splintered from the MILF’s heavily-armed 105th Command. More ominously, the rebels have planned assaults with Abu Sayyaf and together with MILF splinter factions—a three-sided alliance that opposes both the MILF’s senior leadership and the government.

“The largest and best equipped of the MILF’s various field divisions,” the think-tank depicted the 105th Command in a 2013 report.

The rebels have “a relatively large armory composed of pistols, M-60 machine guns, modified long-arm sniper rifles, .50-caliber heavy weapons, mortars, improvised explosive devices, landmines and various types of automatic assault weapons.”

The BIFF used those weapons to deadly effect against the commandos.

Another problem is that if the MILF disarms and joins the political process, and subsequently can’t control hardline rebels in its territory, then it’s not much of a peace.

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