The U.S. Military Just Plunged Philippine Politics into Crisis


Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters in 2008 (Photo: Keith Bacongco / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and

Early in the morning of January 25, commandos belonging to the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police crept into the southern town of Mamasapano — a stronghold of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The elite Seaborne Unit had come for Zulkifli Abdhir, a Malaysian bomb maker better known as “Marwan.”

By the end of the morning, dozens lay dead.

The episode has severely discredited the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, jeopardized decades of progress on peace talks with Moro separatists, and underlined the perils for developing world governments that put themselves at the beck and call of Washington.

The commandos were able to kill Marwan, who’d sat high on the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.” But then all hell broke loose. The insurgents woke up and opened fire on the intruders, forcing the commandos to leave Marwan’s body behind. They had to content themselves with cutting off the corpse’s index finger to turn over to the FBI.

As they retreated, nine of the Seaborne commandoes were killed. They radioed for help, but they were told that the “Quick Reaction Force” charged with covering their withdrawal was already pinned down in a flat cornfield with little cover. Over the next few hours, that separate unit of 36 men was picked off one-by-one by Moro snipers. Only one of the 36 survived, by running for his life and jumping into a nearby river.

All in all, 44 policemen died in the bloody battle. Moro fighters estimated that 18 of their combatants and about four civilians were killed.

A timely rescue effort was not even mounted, since an infantry battalion in the area wasn’t informed till late in the morning that the commandos were under fire. When ceasefire monitors finally reached the cornfield late in the afternoon, long after the battle ended, they found corpses that had been stripped of their weapons and other gear, some exhibiting wounds that indicated they had been shot at point-blank range.

Biggest Casualty: Moro Autonomy

The “Mamasapano Massacre,” as it has come to be called, upended Philippine politics.

The biggest casualty was the Bangsa Moro Basic Law that was in the last stages of being shepherded through the Philippine Congress. Known as the “BBL,” the bill was the product of nearly five years of intensive negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to put an end to almost 50 years of fighting in the southern Philippines. It would have created an autonomous region for the Muslim Moros, a fiercely independent people that have long resisted integration into the broader Filipino polity.

With emotions among the Christian majority running high, congressional approval of the BBL was thrown into doubt, threatening an eventual return to hostilities. Some politicians rode on the incident to stoke the latent anti-Muslim prejudices of the dominant culture — not just to derail prospects for Moro autonomy, but also to advance their own political ambitions.

Under congressional questioning, the facts of the raid were extracted piece by piece — on national television — from high administration officials. Their feelings seemed to run the gamut of guilt, grief, disbelief, and resentment at not being “in the know” about the planned incursion.

The decisive element in the unraveling of the operation, it appears, was the deliberate withholding of information from key people at the top of the police and armed forces hierarchy. Only the president, the Special Action Force commander, and the national police chief, General Alan Purisima, knew about the mission. Though suspended from office on corruption charges, Purisima — a trusted aide of the president — was effectively in charge of the operation, bypassing the acting police chief and the secretary of the interior, who knew nothing of the mission until disaster overtook it.

Emerging in the hearings was the following portrait of the tragedy: The officials who conceived and implemented the operation to nab Marwan chose not to inform the top people in the police and military leadership. They also ignored and subverted the carefully negotiated procedures for territorial access worked out among the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the government, and third-party monitors.

The Liberation Front fighters — along with fighters from a die-hard separatist group, the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters — responded that morning to what they perceived as a large invasion force. Once the battle began, it became very difficult for their leaders to realize the intent of the commando contingent and get their forces to disengage.

It seemed evident, too, that some wounded policemen were finished off execution-style, though it was not clear which group was responsible for these atrocities.

Washington’s Hand

The big puzzle for many was why a government that was in the last stages of negotiating an autonomy agreement to end 50 years of warfare would endanger this goal — said to be a major legacy priority for President Aquino — with a large-scale commando intrusion into Moro territory without informing its negotiating partner.

To an increasing number of people, the answer must have something to do with Washington.

Indeed, Washington’s fingerprints were all over the operation: There was a $5-million bounty placed by the Americans on Marwan’s head. A U.S. military helicopter appeared in the area after the long firefight, allegedly to help evacuate the wounded. Marwan’s finger disappeared after the battle and showed up at an FBI lab in the United States a few days later.

Filipino officials have remained tight-lipped on the question of U.S. participation in the raid, invoking “national security” or choosing to make revelations only in secret executive sessions with the Senate. Thus it has fallen on the media to probe the U.S. role.

Perhaps the most reliable of these probes was conducted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which found that U.S. drones had pinpointed Marwan’s hiding place, guided the commandos to it, and provided the capability for real-time management by the Philippine commanders away from the battlefield. American advisers, the paper claimed, were the ones who had vetoed informing top officials of the police, the armed forces, and the Liberation Front of the planned raid on the grounds that news of the action would be leaked to Marwan.

Finally, the original plan was to have a fused team of Seaborne Unit commandos and the Quick Reaction Force. But that was reportedly rejected by the American advisers, who favored having the Seaborne Unit carry out the raid itself and the Quick Reaction Force provide cover — a plan that proved disastrous. The Seaborne Unit, it emerged, had been trained by “retired” Navy Seals and functioned as the Americans’ special unit within the special forces of the Philippine National Police.

The full extent of U.S. involvement remains to be unearthed, but it’s now clear to many that taking out Marwan was a major priority for Washington — not Manila. As one congressman put it, the Mamasapano tragedy was a case of “the Americans fighting to the last Filipino.”

Into the Bunker

As the details of the American role emerge, the pressure is on President Aquino to admit complicity in a Washington-directed operation, which he has so far refused to do.

Aquino has come under intense fire from nationalist quarters that earlier criticized him for negotiating a military pact that allows the United States to use Philippine bases to implement President Obama’s so-called “Pivot to Asia” strategy to contain China.

Already under attack for putting a suspended police general in charge of the fatal mission and refusing to admit command responsibility for it, the charge of laying down Filipino lives for an American scheme appears to have forced the president further into his bunker, creating the widespread impression of a drift in leadership that, it was feared, coup plotters and other adventurers — of which there is no shortage in the Philippines — could take advantage of.

There is a personal postcript to this. As a sitting member of the Philippine House of Representatives, I withdrew my political support for President Aquino when he refused to accept command responsibility for the operation. Since my party Akbayan remains allied to the administration, I resigned as the congressional representative of the party.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello was, until recently, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines. He is the author of many books and articles on U.S. political, military, and economic relations with Asia. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Telesur English, which graciously gave its permission to reprint it.

  • Nilo del Mundo

    This makes sense

  • Johnny Cruz

    Bello didn’t even discuss the information provided by eyewitnesses on the U.S. drone control facility inside a beach resort in Zamboanga where President Aquino allegedly was in the morning of that fateful day together with suspended PNP Chief Alan Purisima and where the President, while monitoring the bloody turn of events, allegedly commanded army reinforcement and rescue units who were ready to go in to stand down (“Negative, negative … stand down”).

    Bello’s account of the “disappearance” of Marwan’s finger is also sparse for it was reported extensively in the media quoting the SAF commander Napeñas that the specimen was immediately rushed from the PNP/SAF Operations Command Center in the nearby town of Shariff Aguak to General Santos City airport where 2 FBI agents were already waiting to take it back to the U.S.

  • playamoth

    Walang mga bilib sa sarili at nagpagamit na naman sa mga Amerikano na walang kaalaman sa ‘terrain’ at kung anong klase ang uri ng kalaban. Ika nga ng mga militar na pamilyar sa Mamasapano, pawang patibong ang lugar. Ang SAF44 ay isang paala-ala sa ating mga politiko at militar sa peligro ng pakikialam ng mga dayuhan na walang paghahalaga sa buhay ng mga Pilipino.

  • m094098

    Professor Bello, your points, as always, made sense. However, respectfully, saying that “American fingerprints are all over [this] botched operation” is circumstantial at worst; indirect at best.

    First, unless there’s a time and a definite side number of this alleged US helicopter, it cannot be entered as a positive proof of US support. There are plenty of helicopters in this area, many foreign because of it’s proximity to foreign neighbors and the Philippine government’s inability to completely track and detect incursions to its territory. Please know I say those respectfully as facts and not biased criticism.

    Marwan being on the FBI’s most wanted list and the reward are indeed part of US national interests but they are not only public with no intention to deceive or cover up, they are also universal interests in the world-wide struggle against terrorism. The fingerprint showing up at an FBI lab is in support of the Philippine objective to capture/kill Marwan, not the other way around. Marwan captured or dead doesn’t just benefit the US. It benefits all of us.

    The alleged drone in direct support of the operation, if indeed true (in terms of direct orders or at least identified by a trained eye) and belongs to the US (because drone technology is available to many countries) is no secret. Many countries, not just the US, support anti-terrorism operations. This even includes China. Notwithstanding any of that, if it was a US drone, it will only be in support as an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). The US, also as a sovereign nation, will never jeopardize it’s foreign policy by leading or precisely, taking operational and tactical control of a host nation in its sovereign territory. Never, never in today’s political reality. But even in an alternate universe where it did, I doubt it would have the little coordination this operation did have.

    Finally, the US bases or more accurately the agreement to have mutual access (the Philippines is welcome to many US bases to include USNAVCENT in the Middle East) is centered to contain or address the China issue. This is again not singular to US interests but largely the Philippines’ as well, if not more so. Again, respectfully, the Philippine military and naval force is a time-honored and battle hardened force. I know because my father valiantly and honorably served in the Philippine Navy rising to the position of Vice Commander, PN. However, years of inadequate funding is a reality that is only now changing. The Philippines is a tiger with it’s claws still healing and redeveloping; thus needing the leverage of alliance with like-minded or similar goal nations.

    It is a tragedy with what happened—Marwan’s capture or death will probably mean hundreds of lives–even thousand over the years—saved. But it has cost the lives of those brave men too. It might even cost the peace process. However, implicating or stoking hypernationalistic fires against a nation with which the Philippines has similar goals is not only counter productive, it could even weaken Philippine positions on many of its own foreign policy. No nation is at the beck and call of the United States. It’s a false truism that just feels good to say and believe.

    • Gary Sellars

      What a crock of sh!te. The US (again) placed its own interests above those of its so-called allies, and the Philippines gov (as usual) bowed to US authority and allowed them to effectively sabotage the delicate diplomacy that promised to defuse the on-going Moro seperatist problem that has claimed so many lives.

      You are little more than an apologist for the militarists of Pax Americana. To hell with the consequences, America must always get what it wants? The lives of others don’t matter? Is that your view?

      If you are Filipino you’re a quisling, stooge and an embarrassment to your nation.

      • Strider73

        Pax Americana is Latin (sort of) for “American peace,” which has become a contradiction in terms. A more accurate Latin term would be Bella Americana (American war).

    • Thomas

      “It’s a false truism that just feels good to say and believe.”
      MMMMMMMMMMM….. yeah…. Sure…. !!! O.K…. My bad.. !! I should have said ” No nation is at the beck and call of the Almighty Dollar….. (from the Worldwide Hegemon….. Drones, hellicopters, dead Muslims bribes and cover ups… Gee I wonder whoz in charge..??? Could have been…??? Sure ain’t THIS Pope… The list is short… and the U.S. is world champion of “Drones, hellicopters, dead Muslims bribes, stolen body parts and cover ups… Maybe you can think of another suspect 1/50 as likely to be guilty….???Thomas

  • longlance

    A very interesting and informative article. It took the Philippines 100 years to get rid of American military bases. Why give up sovereignty again? Why be a satrapy of the American empire?

    • Strider73

      Money. Clark and Subic Bay pumped billions into the local economy. That is easy to measure. They also sucked money out of the economy through increased costs for infrastructure, crime, moral decline and the like; that, however, is harder to measure.

      The same is true for domestic military bases. Politicians see only the money pumped in and not the money sucked out; hence they go into panic mode at any rumor of a local base being closed.

      • Convergence

        Can you explain that to me, or link me to articles about that ? not attacking you, but curious how that worked out.

  • mppeace

    The not-so-Invisible hand of the USA rogue regime is once again exposed(but there has been no coverage in the US “corporate-bin-Laden” media at all!) How long will it take Third World nations, under constant pressure and/or bribery by Uncle Sam’s disastrous effort to continue its “Full Spectrum Dominance” over the entire Planet, to wake up and smell Washington’s WMDs?

  • Carson Davis

    Let the consipracy theories begin.

  • colin561

    The realpolitik of this may be that U.S. negatively views completion of the BBL. If the BBL did finalize, the U.S. could well face a more unified position against U.S. influence and “pivoting” in the Philippines.

  • Guest

    Uncle should know the fateful and disastrous consequences of meddling and poking nose in others’ affairs.

  • Cris Manro Ojeen

    Uncle Sam should know the fateful and disastrous consequences of meddling and poking nose in others’ affairs.

  • AFV


  • Master Ken

    Everything the US touches, it breaks… funny thing is that there are idiot leaders still willing to follow…

  • Jordan Wong

    Yet another US proxy war. Some things never change. Sadly, this ended the lives of so many young Filipinos who didn’t die for their own country at all, but for some overweight bureaucrat at the Southeast Asia desk at the FBI. In hindsight, they should’ve sent the middle finger.

    • Convergence

      US Proxy war ? there are those, many. But this unofficial war started back in the 1960s long before the US “War on Terror”. The US i am sure had some involvement, but I would not call it a proxy war. Even if the US were never involved at anytime in the past, you would still have MILF, Abu Sayyaf, 15EC, and every small splinter group (Bandits) that claims Moro Liberation today.

  • fym80

    chinese propaganda robots

  • oningsio

    I believe the US and Philippines’ national security interest are not mutually exclusive.
    In fact viewing it from a narrow perspective may very well be the element that contributed to the catastrophic results that is the “Mamasapano massacre”.
    If blame were to be assigned I would be more inclined to lay it to our (Filipino) static view of who we are as a people and the attending resignation that comes with that characteristic: (what does saying “opo” means or claiming to be the only “Christian” country in SEAsia?)
    Unless and until we take control of ourselves (who are we?) and our own destiny (what do we aspire as a people) the Philippines will remain what it is today. A piece of real estate where most if not every living resident is dreaming of abandoning it.

  • leibrook

    Most people wanted someone to blame when a tragic circumstance happened. That is and will always be like that. Given. People in command of this operation must have been counting that, not to mention the deduction process involve when they fail to deliver. But they get Marwan which means they’d hit the target but was hit at the same time. At war, it happens. The objectives and interests behind this operation considering the costs that will never regained were obvious “to eliminate a threat” as far as the front-liners were concerned, they need not know why, it is a call they must take the shot. A choice made for them. Of which entity will take the best advantage and disadvantage, that is the unknown (could be his client, the US, the terrorist..etc) but surely this operation reduced a percentage of threat in our society. Standard procedure was derailed, allegedly resulting the tragedy. Call it the burden of decision-maker.

    Most people wanted the president to own the failure, be apologetic… Nah, he won’t and he should not. If it was his biggest mistake, so be it. Most people’s view is not the priority of a president’s job. Most people are not the president because if most people was in Aquino’s shoes, surely they won’t be able to made even a common ground and agreed what to do and Marwan will continue selling thousands of war tools to all sides of the world.

  • ibantam

    Philippine President Duterdy is a serial-killer who intends to become a communist dictator.

    • zero

      I totally agree. Dutertards don’t seem to get that Duterte openly compares himself to Hitler, wants to kill hundreds of millions and throws childish tantrums whenever his policies are questioned.

      He has encouraged extrajudicial killings by vigilante death squads to go around the country killing anyone breaking any law.

      • ibantam

        …and killing political opponents.