by Alan Robles
At least 44 Special Action Force police commandos were killed in a daylong fight with fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MLF) and its breakway group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on January 25 in the municipality of Mamasapano in Maguindanao Province, Mindanao. The MILF/BIFF suffered at least eight casualties. The commandos were trying to neutralize two terrorists, Zulkifli bin Hir (aka Marwan) and Basit Usman, who were supposed to be staying in the village of Tukanalipao, in MILF controlled territory. There are reports that Marwan was killed, but these haven't been confirmed.
This is what I know so far about what happened, I have no doubt more info will come in.
1. The Sunday operation was called "Wolverine". It was based on a standing order apparently issued by the President in 2011 to neutralize certain terrorists. Question: what qualifications did this standing order have? Did it define conditions under which the operation was forbidden (such as venturing into MILF territory in possible violation of a ceasefire agreement). Because otherwise it would be tantamount to a blank check. And did the standing order require an executive-sign off on specific operations? In other words, the President had to approve any operation.
2. Wolverine involved SAF alone. Commandos are elite, highly trained, very expensive units intended to be used in quick ops, not prolonged attritional battles. Reports say that 390 SAF commandos, three platoons, were deployed for the operation.
3. The SAF declined to ask for AFP assistance and support. It seems there were no plans and provisions for support, extraction and rescue in case everything went south.
4. The SAF did not inform the MILF of the mission. The SAF commanders knew there were three MILF command bases in the municipality, each presumably capable of deploying strong forces. You're going to send several hundred commandos, guns blazing, in what is supposed to be ceasefire territory. Imagine how the armed hostiles will feel about it.
5. "Wolverine" had no armor, air and artillery support. I'm not even sure the commandos brought heavy weapons such as HMGs and/or light mortars or recoilless rifles.
6. The target area is open marshland with swamps and a river. Tukanalipao is a village accessible only by a rickety bamboo bridge. The commandos were apparently not familiar enough with the terrain to have set up a safe withdrawal route, which goes against the grain of standard commando ops where units know every detail of their operational area.
7. It seems there was no contingency plan detailing steps to be taken if the operation went wrong.
8. Both terrorists had a combined bounty of US$9 million, offered by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, for their capture
9. The SAF commander informed his immediate superior of the operation only when it was well underway - and presumably, a recall order was impossible.
10. It was a night/early morning operation (giving the advantage to commandos with night vision gear).
11. The commandos apparently arrived at the area of operations and didn't immediately go into action, but waited at least an hour. Did they walk and wait? Were they flown in?
12. I suppose the force would have been divided into at least three elements: assault, support and cover/blocking. The assault element attacked the target village and -- reportedly -- neutralized one target (Marwan). It took DNA samples, then decided to bring the whole body with it
13. At this point things aren't clear. Did the assault element safely withdraw away from the town, leaving the blocking force to delay pursuit, or was it trapped? One report says it was the covering element that was pinned down in a firefight that lasted nearly 12 hours. What happened to the other platoons?
14. The MILF/BIFF in turn flooded the area with its men: apparently the SAF suffered its greatest casualties when its commandos were ambushed as they were crossing the bridge. An MILF blocking force sealed off the area, snipers hidden in the trees and foliage picked off the commandos and kept them pinned down. Mortars and rocket launchers provided supporting heavy fire
15. The trapped force called for military support but this was initially ignored: the soldiers who received the message had not been informed of the operation and thought the call for help was a prank. By the time action was taken it was either late in the day or there was difficulty identifying the commandos and therefore a real risk of firing on them.
16. The Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities called for a ceasefire early on but this was ignored by the MILF, who also reportedly prevented committee members from reaching the battlefield. Committee members managed to infiltrate anyway and spent hours pleading with both sides. Eventually, late in the day, they convinced the combatants to stop firing and pull back.
17. It was a "massacre" in the sense that the SAF detachment wound up outnumbered, outgunned and pinned down. At some point commandos must have run out of ammunition. Perhaps they tried to break out of the trap individually. There is no word if they tried surrendering.
Both sides have a lot of explaining to do. On the part of the government, who gave authorization for the operation? Were the commanders aware that the operation was a possible provocation and violation of the ceasefire? If the terrorists had to be caught, why didn't the government forces move in with sufficient, fully supported strength? And who were those foreigners -- allegedly Americans -- spotted in the area? It has led to speculation the operation was US-directed. As for the MILF, what were two notorious terrorists doing in its area? Is this an indication of how things will be once it gets its autonomous zone?