SAF survivors tell Aquino: Show conviction
MANILA, Philippines–Show some balls.
A member of the Special Action Force (SAF) team that killed Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” and who helped retrieve the bodies of the 44 police commandos killed in the operation in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, on Jan. 25 said SAF troopers wanted to hear only one thing from President Aquino.
“We’re looking for a strong statement from the Commander in Chief that will side with us, but instead he gives a statement then he takes it back,” the officer told this reporter in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
“He’s very careful with his words, [he doesn’t want to upset] the peace talks,” he said.
The SAF officer, who requested that his name and rank be withheld for security and so that he could talk freely, said the SAF troopers felt “offended” by the President.
He said the troopers were asking themselves, “Did we do a good job? Was it mission accomplished?”
“I just told them we had to prioritize our fallen brothers,” he said.
“I’m just hoping [the President] can give strong words befitting a Commander in Chief, condemning the brutal killing of the 44 troopers instead of giving [a] shallow and safe statement so as not to offend the other party,” he said, referring to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has signed a peace agreement with the government.
Attack on SAF
Guerrillas from the MILF and its splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), attacked the SAF commandos as the troopers withdrew after killing Marwan, who carried a $6-million price on his head.
Forty-four commandos, 18 MILF guerrillas and five civilians were killed in the 12-hour gun battle.
The secondary target of the SAF mission, Marwan’s Filipino deputy Basit Usman, managed to escape. The United States has also offered a $3-million bounty for Usman’s capture.
A day after this reporter’s interview with the SAF officer, the President addressed the nation and lamented the deaths of the SAF commandos. “This tragedy happened during my term, and I will carry this to the end of my days,” he said.
Aquino repeated the message he sent to the MILF after the clash, demanding that the group turn over Usman to the government.
“If he remains in your territory or is protected by one of your members, we expect you to surrender him to the authorities. If not, we expect you to do everything you can to help capture him. And even if this is not possible, do not interfere with our pursuit of Marwan,” he said.
Then he served a warning to the MILF: “We will get Usman, whatever you decide, regardless of who provides a safe haven for him, regardless of where he may be hiding. Let no one doubt: We are partners in pursuing peace and justice. To those who have lost their way, who would still stand in our way, remember this: You are fighting the State, and we will run you over.”
In a follow-up interview, the SAF officer dismissed the President’s belated show of resolve.
“Why only now?” the officer said. “He should have said that at the start.”
‘Balls’ and conviction
The officer said he admired Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, the Philippine National Police officer in charge, for having the “balls” to make “strong statements,” unlike the President.
Espina and the PNP overseer, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, were not informed about the Mamasapano operation by the SAF commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, who was relieved pending investigation of the debacle.
The SAF troopers, the officer said, expect tough talk from the Commander in Chief. “That’s what the troops are looking for. Statements with conviction and balls,” he said.
In his briefings for journalists, Espina slammed the MILF and the BIFF for the “overkill” and for stealing the personal effects of the slain commandos.
Espina demanded that the Moro rebels return the equipment, mobile phones and armor of the slain troopers to the authorities and to the commandos’ families.
“If you have the biggest responsibility and you don’t have the balls to fulfill that responsibility, better leave your post. Your people are looking up to you. If they see you as a weak leader, how could you expect them to lay down their lives for the government?” said the SAF officer.
Even the families of the slain commandos “cannot feel the sincerity of the President,” he said.
On Jan. 30, after the necrological services for the 44 troopers at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City, Aquino spent 13 hours with the families to condole with them, seemingly making up for his absence when the bodies were brought to Villamor Air Base the day before.
“Some of the relatives commented that his gesture of comforting them was only for compliance, promising them this and that,” the officer said.
The officer said he understood why Espina and Roxas were not informed about the Mamasapano mission, as this was part of the PNP’s “compartmentalization security procedures.”
“When you say compartmentalization, it doesn’t necessarily mean that even though you’re part of the team and the unit you’re included in the operation, you’re entitled to know the details,” he said.
Would there have been fewer casualties had there been coordination?
“I can’t guarantee that,” the officer said. “But if many people knew about the operation, it might have been compromised.”
He said the finger-pointing between the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which had initially been blamed for the failure to send reinforcements, was unfortunate because it weakened the bond between the two services.
The officer said the military could have acted first to get Marwan since Central Mindanao “was their playground.”
He said “Oplan Exodus,” the SAF operation to take down Marwan and Usman, affected the military’s sense of self.
The military, he said, failed to get Marwan because it had been “sleeping with the enemy” for two years.
“If you really want to get Marwan, you don’t appease the MILF because the MILF is coddling Marwan,” he said.
But when asked who was at fault, the SAF officer said: “I cannot say now who’s at fault.”