The killing of 44 PNP/SAF commandos in Maguindanao: What, why, how, and possible consequences

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva
The Bohol Chronicle
February 1, 2015

Last Sunday, January 25, 44 Special Action Force (SAF) members of the Philippine National Police died in an 11 hour-gun battle in Tukanalipao village, Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.

The police operation had been against high value targets Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir (known as Marwan) and Basil Usman—who had bounties of US$6 million and US$2 million respectively. Marwan also lay dead in his hut. A photograph of the dead Marwan was taken and a finger from the right hand was cut for DNA testing with U.S. agents. He was considered the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia.

Guerrillas from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) attacked the SAF; and members of guerillas of the MILF itself were drawn into the fighting that resulted in the massacre of 44 SAF forces.

SAF/PNP Director Getulio Napeñas admitted that he did not coordinate with the military before launching “Oplan Wolverine,” the disastrous Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (SAF) operation to get “Marwan,” the Malaysian terrorist. He said: “It was a command decision and we had been working on it for a long time. And as a commander, I decided that it was best not to inform other units in the police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines about the plan of initiating the actual assault. It was a judgment call and I take full responsibility. xxx We worked hard on this and we couldn’t allow our work to go to waste by informing the MILF. We don’t trust the MILF,” he said, because he knew that Mamasapano town was controlled by the MILF, which has three command bases there—the 106th, 105th and 118th.

He said, however, that he made a call to one of his immediate superiors, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, the PNP officer in charge, but not to his higher superior, Secretary Mar Roxas.

Napeñas said the secrecy about the operation was deliberate and recommended by intelligence operatives on the ground. Not informing the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was part of the whole plan, he said. At the start, the source said, all operations related to the plan were jointly undertaken by the PNP and the military. But, as admitted by Napeñas, the SAF carried out the Mamasapano operation alone.

Without coordination with the military and the MILF, which are observing a truce following the signing of a peace agreement between the Moro rebels and the government last year, the SAF police force walked naked into unsecured territory. Consequently, Napeñas was sacked on Tuesday pending investigation of the debacle.

What happened on the ground? From a report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 30, we learn the following account. The 392 police commandos divided into groups were positioned as early as 3 a.m. on Sunday. The plan, according to Napeñas, was for a surgical operation of only 30 minutes. Four nipa huts in the village were the targets of the assault. At 4:20 a.m., part of the assault force was able to enter the nipa hut where Marwan was sleeping, Napeñas said.
“Marwan woke up, and he managed to be the first to shoot, that’s why some of us were hit. But we returned fire and killed him outright,” said Napeñas.

The exchange of gunfire brought Marwan’s security to action. As the policemen were about to pull out, they came under fire from all directions. The team got out, said Napeñas, who described the other side as BIFF and MILF forces who “came from all directions.”
At past 6 a.m., the joint monitoring team from the MILF and the government called a ceasefire, Napeñas said, but the “MILF did not stop shooting.” The MILF refused to heed the monitoring team’s call for a ceasefire, he said. The firefight continued and the containment or blocking force was pinned down in an open field. “They could see each other. It was close-quarters combat. Those who were killed were from our containment force,” Napeñas said. And he added that the deaths of 44 of his men pained him.
Marwan had been on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of most wanted terrorists. The bureau initially offered a $5-million reward for his capture, then raised the bounty by another $1 million. Initially, too, the reward for Usman’s capture was $2 million, but later the FBI raised it to $3 million.

“We did not go into Mamasapano for the money or to be called heroes. We did it for you, for all of you. Not for glory but for the thousands more who could die in Marwan’s bomb attacks. Look into Marwan’s profile and you will see why we decided to neutralize a very dangerous man,” Napeñas said.

But Napeñas was relieved just the same to give way to an investigation, which would be carried out by the PNP Board of Inquiry. Napeñas said he respected Roxas, Espina and the investigation of the Mamasapano operation.

Napeñas told the PDI: I need to say that those boys died thinking not of the money but of the many more people who could become Marwan’s victims. The death of my men pains me. I love them. I am their chief, but we as a command stand with pride that we took down a very dangerous man,” Napeñas said.

In his Philippine Star column (Jan. 30), Boo Chanco wrote that President Aquino III said he knew of the plan to capture the fugitive terrorists and he was talking directly to the SAF/PNP director.

Chanco quoted the President saying:” I was surprised to learn that the heads of the Western Mindanao Command, or even the 6th Infantry Division had only been advised after the first encounter involving Marwan and Usman; the SAF forces were already retreating, and the situation had already become problematic.”

This is why the President suspended SAF head Napeñas who took full responsibility for the massacre of the SAF forces.

Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas who has supervision over the PNP was kept in the dark about the operation against Marwan and Usman.

Former President Fidel V. Ramos, a veteran military strategist and tactician and former head of the AFP and Secretary of National Defense, said that the problem lay with: “poor strategic direction from the Commander in Chief,” President Aquino III himself. According to Boo Chanco, “FVR enumerated some other factors that caused the carnage: inadequate confidence-building measures among the civilian-military-police stakeholders, poor/lack of coordination, faulty written standard operating procedures and rules of engagement, slipshod monitoring of the existing ‘ceasefire,’ lack of teamwork between maneuver and the fire support elements, poor unit troop leadership, poor tactical intelligence, and lack of sincerity to pursue peace on the part of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.”

Boo Chanco also noted: “The lack of trust on the part of [the Aquino] government in not involving the GRP negotiating panel [led by the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the head of the Government negotiating panel] and their counterparts in the MILF was a strategic mistake.

Sadly, the massacre of 44 PNP/SAF commandos strains the Mindanao peace process and the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that has made great progress in the House of Representatives in the nationwide hearings led by Representative Rufus Rodriguez as chairman. It should be noted that several opinions have been voiced against the possible unconstitutionality of certain provisions of the pending Bangsamoro Basic Law that has evolved after some 18 years of MILF rebellion, the peace talks and final agreement, and the formulation of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law.

*****

The historic promise of sustained peace and effective development in Mindanao hinges on the establishment of the Bangsamoro as an autonomous regional political entity marked by genuine powers and authority, and substantial local resources. In fact Bangsamoro will afford us all the vision of a future Federal Republic of the Philippines with a parliamentary government replacing our highly centralized unitary system and our dysfunctional presidential government. All these can be the great legacy of President BS Aquino III, the Senate and the House, and our Moro brothers and sisters led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The 44 PNP/SAF commandos are national heroes who gave their lives for their country. In justice each and all of them deserve the nation’s recognition and ample and sustained assistance to their bereaved families. The evoke the admiration and compassion of the Philippine national police and citizens nationwide.

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