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A ‘Bangsamoro’ in place means a thousand ‘Marwans’

In our grief over the massacred 44 Special Action Force commandos, and our outrage over the incompetence of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, who hardly lifted a finger to save them, we have forgotten the obvious:

The main target of the operation, Zulkifli bin Hir aka Marwan, had been given not only refuge but also most probably a training facility by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in its territory.

Marwan had been in MILF territory most likely since August 2003, as hinted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Our armed forces, wittingly or unwittingly, may have even provided him a smokescreen to go deep underground in the insurgents’ lair by claiming that he had been killed in an air strike in Sulu in 2012.

Instead of protesting that an international terrorist was given refuge in MILF territory, what did Aquino and his negotiators complain about after the Mamasapano massacre? That it was the SAF’s fault, they didn’t “coordinate” with the MILF in the raid.

Did they really believe that the MILF wouldn’t tell Marwan to move to another place if they had been told by the SAF that they were going to raid Mamasapano to capture the terrorist?

The MILF has been able to provide refuge to an international terrorist even without the Bangsamoro government stipulated by the “Bangsamoro Basic Law.” What more when the Bangsamoro government has been set up, having sole command of a Bangsamoro police that acts as the only armed organization in its territory?

They will have 1,000 Marwans – global jihadists – training mujahideens from all over the world in Maguindanao. This is especially alarming with the revelation the other day of national security adviser Cesar Garcia, that Marwan was involved with the globally hated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The FBI info on Marwan: Living among the MILF since August 2003?
The FBI info on Marwan: Living among the MILF since August 2003?

“We must understand the role of Marwan. Aside from his previous involvements in numerous activities such as the Bali bombing and the other bombings in southern Philippines, he had a very important role as the facilitator of the movement of some people to ISIS,” Garcia told another daily.

What Garcia didn’t mention is the fact that with Marwan’s link to the ISIS, he could have tapped that organization, known to have a $5 billion war kitty, to provide financial resources to the MILF.

I had always been skeptical about the role of Malaysia in the peace talks with the MILF, since it was Malaysia that had financed its original organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and trained its officers corps (including the incumbent MILF Chairman Murad Ibrahim) in a camp in their territory. This was done as a countermove against the country’s claims on Sabah. I’m more skeptical now with a Malaysian like Marwan getting refuge in our territory, rather than in some Malaysian jungle.

I don’t think Marwan had been spending his last two years in MILF-controlled territory farming or hiking the mountains for pleasure. In fact, there are reports that “Marwan’s students” are planning a retaliatory strike. While he most probably would have been training MILF cadres in explosives, he would have also trained international jihadists.

$5 million bounty
This is what angered American security authorities – that the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice Program” had offered $5 million for Marwan’s head, putting him in the same “bounty price range” as Jamel Al-Badawi, brains of the USS Cole attack that killed 17 American sailors. The US apparently was hoping that even the top MILF leadership could be tempted to surrender a highly valued asset for such a hefty reward of P200 million.

One would be so extremely naïve – as President Aquino’s negotiators have been —– to believe that the MILF didn’t know that Marwan, one of the world’s top terrorists, wasn’t living in Mamasapano, or moving around in the insurgents’ territory.

Residents even in a normal rural community know that an “estranghero” (stranger) has entered their neighborhood, and he would in fact immediately become the topic of tsismis (gossip) and speculation by the local wags.

I was the first journalist to enter MILF territory, in 1996, and spent several days at its main camp Abubakar As-Sidique in Barira, Maguindanao.* Even at that time, 18 years ago, I was shocked that the MILF practically had its own territory in Maguindanao, with its troops in full uniform patrolling their areas as if they were the government’s regular forces, and with the rest of the country ignorant of such a formidable force.

I hadn’t expected the hike to the first MILF camp to last until evening, and my worry was that in the blackness of a moonless night, the MILF squad that escorted us might encounter an army unit. I mentioned this to the squad’s commander, and he laughed: “From the highway, nobody enters our area, even the (Philippine) military, without our approval and monitoring.”

I learned later that the MILF had a network of couriers, mostly kids or teenagers in dirt bikes, who served as an information system that allowed each of the MILF’s camps to know any movement of people within their territories. And that was during the pre-cell phone era. Since that time, the MILF, after a brief difficult period when President Joseph Estrada attacked their camps, has undoubtedly built up its forces and territory.

The MILF is taking us for fools if it claims that it didn’t know Marwan was in their territory.

Base commands
According to various accounts, two MILF units, the “105th Base Command” and the “118th Base Command,” had engaged the three SAF companies in firefights in less than half an hour after Marwan was killed.

That means that wherever Marwan was, he was close to MILF bases, and had his MILF-provided security detail. “Base Command” is the MILF’s nomenclature for its military formations of full-time fighters, whose camp is in a certain “base.” These base commands are supposed to be the core around which its part-time guerrillas would rally in order to form bigger formations when war breaks out. It’s preposterous, as the MILF claimed, that its troops were “awakened” by the sound of gunshots. These troops were most likely patrolling the area, as is their routine, and were immediately ordered to intercept the SAF troops.

The MILF’s savagery with which 44 police troopers were killed – not one wounded was captured and several were shot at point blank – was a message to government that it can’t do this again; the Republic must recognize MILF territory, and seek permission for entry. That obviously would allow them to alert international terrorists under its protection in its territories.

Aquino’s propaganda line is that it is a choice between peace and the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

The reality is that a Bangsamoro state in central Minandano will mean a thousand Marwans, and thousands of SAF troopers who would have to take them out, and most probably be killed.

(*The reportage from this was published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, September 5, 1996, with the main article entitled, “The fire next time: has Manila let the Moro movement go too far? “

An abstract of the articles reads as if these were written only this month: “While the Philippine government looked the other way for the past two decades, the MILF has grown to an uncertain but formidable size and entrenched itself deeply in Mindanao. The group, which broke away from the MNLF regards its struggle as a crusade, and is unlikely to be bought off as the MNLF was. Manila, unwilling to admit the group’s size, says the MILF has 8,000 troops. The MILF itself claims 120,000 and most foreign analysts estimate 40,000, with half active at any one time.”)