The United States’ role in Oplan Exodus that killed an international terrorist but led to the worst massacre of Philippine troops in recent history must be established if we are to understand and put closure to this national tragedy brought upon us by this incompetent president.
A report by the respected Los Angeles Times on the episode, published September 2015 or after months of investigative work—which I excerpt below—depicts our government and the military as puppets that US special forces de facto directed as part of its international war on terror.
According to the LA Times report, US special forces trained the police commandos, gave them high-tech equipment, “ferried them around” using aircraft flown by US contractors, pinpointed where Marwan was hiding, provided photographic aerial maps to the site, and even provided “real time” intelligence while the operation was being undertaken using drones.
Indeed, Zulkifli bin Hir, aka “Marwan,” a Malaysian, wasn’t really high in the Philippine police and military’s order of battle, as he was believed to have been given refuge by the MILF for his huge financial donation to the insurgents, but only on condition that he didn’t undertake his terrorist activities in Mindanao.
It was the US who designated him as “HV1” (high value target no.1) here as an international terrorist linked to its archenemy Al-Qaeda, with the FBI putting a $5 million bounty on his head; this was mainly because he was believed to have supplied the bombs in the 2002 Bali attack, and had trained Islamic terrorists around the world in bomb warfare. The US also wanted to prove that nobody can escape the long arm of its law: Marwan was indicted in August 2007 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
Former police colonel Getulio Napeñas, then commander of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force that undertook the mission, testified in the Senate hearings on the massacre last year:
One of the Americans ordered (Army 6th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Edmundo) Pangilinan to fire the artillery. However, Pangilinan refused and told him “Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here!”
Why would an American dare order an army general to fire artillery if he had no commanding role in the operation?
There were several pieces of evidence of US involvement in the operation disclosed in the Senate hearings: testimonies of a local mayor and an SAF trooper that they saw drones circling the battle field, Napenas’ disclosure that there were six Americans at the operation’s command post, and his explanation that a Federal Bureau of Investigation officer was waiting at General Santos City airport to whom a SAF officer gave Marwan’s severed finger right after the operation, for DNA testing in an FBI laboratory in the US.
There was in fact photo evidence of US involvement: Newspaper photos of Caucasians tending to and loading the wounded on a helicopter on the day of the massacre. The chopper’s markings are clearly visible. Why didn’t the Senate establish who or what agency or what country operated this helicopter? Like meek colonial subjects, the Senate and the press shirked away from finding out why that helicopter was there pre-positioned for the operation.
How can we pretend to be a sovereign nation when Oplan Exodus was almost entirely an American operation, from which it swiftly distanced itself from when it resulted in 44 of our elite police troops massacred?
It is the American role in the Mamasapano operation that explains what had been a mystery to me. This is something that can’t be discussed, for some flimsy national-security reason, only in closed executive sessions in the Senate. The nation, the loved ones and relatives of the massacred SAF 44, deserve to know the truth.
Where could this President — who had never really shown himself to be really decisive and courageous — find the guts to pretend to command Oplan Exodus, even asking his close friend Police Chief Alan Purisima – in spite of Purisima’s having been sacked a month before — to be his “executive officer?”
From the Americans, who assured him that, short of having American boots on the ground, they were on top of Oplan Exodus. The Americans probably told him: “We’ll do all the work. Just be in Zamboanga City to congratulate your troops for a job well done.”
As the operation unraveled, Aquino was still probably hoping for the American military to somehow turn things around. After all, the Americans saved his mother at the last minute in 1989, when US Phantom jets swooped from Clark Air Base to force down the RAM rebels’ T28 Trojans (the so-called “Tora-Toras”) that were bombing Malacanang, and thereby defeating that coup that had nearly won.
This time around, of course, no US fighters swooped down on Mamasapano. The kind of drones the US sent were unarmed.
This president could be guilty not only of criminal negligence but treason, for letting a foreign power undertake a military operation within our country, one that resulted in 44 SAF troopers massacred.
Excerpts from the LA Times article Sept. 2015:
“Before dawn on Jan. 25, a Philippine National Police commando team crept toward a thatched hut in the marshy jungles of Mindanao. They were hunting Marwan, an elusive bomb maker with a $5-million U.S. bounty on his head.
But they weren’t hunting alone.
Five or six U.S. counter-terrorism advisors assisted from a police command post nearby, tracking the assault team in live video from a U.S. surveillance aircraft circling overhead. “Their main role was to provide tactical, live intelligence,” said a Philippine officer who was present.
As the 3 commandos closed in, one stepped on a buried mine. The explosion wounded him and brought a burst of gunfire from the hut.
After a firefight, the American-trained team rushed in and radioed “Bingo, Mike One” to the command post. “Operation Exodus” appeared a success. The wispy-bearded target was dead.
To make certain, they sliced the right index finger off the corpse. DNA tests by the FBI later confirmed that it belonged to Marwan, nom de guerre for a Malaysian-born, U.S.-educated engineer linked to multiple terrorist attacks across Southeast Asia, including a 2002 bombing that killed 202 people in Bali, Indonesia.
But his death came at a dreadful cost: 44 police commandos and four civilians were killed, along with 17 militants, in a fierce daylong battle after the initial assault. The bloodshed triggered bitter recriminations in one of America’s closest allies in Asia, and put sharp new strains on Manila’s security relationship with Washington.
“It was a bungled operation and it has had major fallout,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army colonel who commanded the U.S. special operations force in the Philippines in 2006 and 2007.
This account is based on interviews with U.S. military officials and Philippine National Police officers, including survivors of the raid, as well as on formal inquiries by Philippine authorities, including a Senate committee and the Justice Department.
The U.S. “apparently gives us access to information and resources that have assisted us in our local operations,” the Senate panel concluded in March. “However the question is … who is driving the cart? Was the operation authored by Filipinos?”
Pentagon officials say the answer is clear: No Americans joined or issued orders to the assault team.
But the debacle marked an inglorious end to a little-known 13-year U.S. military advisory operation in the Philippines, an effort credited with improving its army and police and with reducing the number of insurgent groups.
At its height, five years ago, more than 600 U.S. special operations troops deployed to Muslim-dominated Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines, according to Maj. Karolyn McEwen, a spokeswoman for U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific.
The U.S. force kept a low profile, working out of a base called Camp Navarro in western Mindanao. The government in Manila has battled Islamic separatist groups and communist insurgents on Mindanao for decades.
The Americans avoided a direct role in the fighting. They instead trained police and army units, advised them on counter-terrorism operations and ferried them around, sometimes in aircraft flown by U.S. contractors.
Over time, the U.S. focus increasingly turned to trying to capture or kill Marwan, who was believed hiding in western Mindanao. He became “HV1,” the highest value target in the Philippines.
Zulkifli Abdhir, his real name, had been indicted in 2007 in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California. The 16 charges included supplying bombs to Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terrorist group that U.S. officials link to Al Qaeda, and Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine-based militant group that recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Philippine authorities blamed Marwan for at least nine bombings since 2002 that left 46 people dead and 207 injured.
But helping them find the bomb maker proved maddening for the Americans. Security forces had launched nine unsuccessful operations against Marwan since 2006. But he got away each time.
His escapes raised suspicion that he was getting help from nearby Philippine soldiers, perhaps rebel fighters integrated into the army as part of reconciliation efforts.
When police received a promising tip in mid-2014 that Marwan was hiding in the remote area of Mamasapano, the U.S. special operations task force helped track Marwan to a small house on stilts and began months of aerial surveillance.
U.S. military advisors supervised training of the police unit at a seaside resort and in the jungles of Mindanao before the raid. They also provided night-vision goggles, maps and a hand-held retinal scanner to confirm Marwan’s identity.
On the night of the assault, some of the police officers fell behind in crossing rivers and trekking down dark jungle trails. Only a third of the assault team had reached Marwan’s hut when the shooting started about 4 a.m.
Eager to get out, the team skipped the retinal scanner and cut off a finger instead, sticking it in a Ziploc bag.
But hundreds of Islamic fighters from other villages soon joined the battle. They pinned down the assault team and 350 other police officers who had deployed in the jungle to guard their escape.
“One by one we were getting hit and it slowed us down to carry the wounded,” said a police officer who survived the battle. “As the day went on, we felt helpless.”
U.S. advisors, relying on aerial video, helped some commandos “elude large enemy formations, thereby avoiding further casualties,” a police investigation found.
But the attackers spotted scores of police officers hiding in chest-high corn near Marwan’s hut and began raking the field with heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Most of the 44 dead were later found there.
After the 14-hour battle, a Black Hawk helicopter flown by Pentagon contractors landed and U.S. Army medics helped treat the wounded and collect the dead, U.S. officials said.
A few days later, Philippine police turned over the finger to an FBI agent in the city of General Santos on Mindanao. He rushed it off to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va.
The FBI had DNA from Rahmat Abdhir, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in Sunnyvale, Calif., in 2007 on charges of illegally sending $10,000, plus hand-held radios, Colt .45 magazines and other material to a designated terrorist — his older brother, Marwan — in the Philippines. Abdhir pleaded guilty to one count and is serving a 10-year sentence at the federal prison in Lompoc, Calif.
Two weeks later, the FBI issued its result: “After a thorough review of forensic data and information obtained from our Philippine law enforcement partners, the FBI has assessed that terrorism subject Zulkifli Abdhir, also known as Marwan … is deceased.” (Emphasis mine.)