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The Fallen SAF 44 Mamasapano Clash in the Philippines

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President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed Proclamation No. 164 in 2017 designating January 25 as a national day of remembrance for the SAF 44.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed Proclamation No. 164 in 2017 designating January 25 as a national day of remembrance for the SAF 44.

The clash in Mamasapano began with a raid by the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) in Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, Maguindanao, Philippines to apprehend the terrorists, who ended up being the PNP-SAF force's biggest loss when they were attacked by the forces of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Marwan was in the region controlled by the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who was engaged in peace talks, when the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Filipino armed forces conducted Oplan Exodus, a covert operation. As required by the agreement between the Government and the MILF, the SAF started operating without notifying the MILF.

The MILF and SAF never planned to fight each other. Marwan's arrest warrant was about to be delivered by the SAF. Armed conflict ensued as an unintended consequence, resulting in the deaths of 44 SAF members, 18 MILF members, 5 Bangsa Moro Freedom Fighters rebels, 5 civilians, and Marwan himself.

These fatalities have sparked a backlash against the chances of a peace agreement. The 44 commandos have been referred to as fallen heroes by the majority Christian populace of the Philippines. Several civil society organizations have also advised against putting the blame for what occurred solely on the MILF.

The Mission

The incident happened in the early morning hours of January 25, 2015. The mission was called Oplan Exodus, but the local media misidentified it as Oplan Wolverine. Oplan Wolverine refers to three of the previous nine operations aimed at Marwan; Oplan Wolverine 1, 2, and 3 were launched by the PNP-SAF in December 2012, March, and May 2014, respectively.

The incident caused the Philippine Congress to halt the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, effectively jeopardizing the government-MILF peace process. A codenamed Oplan Exodus was designed to apprehend or kill wanted Malaysian terrorists and bomb-maker Zulkifli Abdhir, as well as other Malaysian terrorists or Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders.

Since the target had been neutralized, the mission was declared a success. Because of the gravity of the situation, the government peace panel intervened and requested a cease-fire from the MILF. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) also carried out a rescue operation to save the remaining 29 SAF survivors who had been surrounded by the enemies.

The main target of the operation: Zulkifli, also known as "Marwan."

The main target of the operation: Zulkifli, also known as "Marwan."

Marwan was accused of masterminding a string of bomb attacks in the southern Philippines since 2006. The United States offered a reward of $5 million for his capture. His former organization, Jemaah Islamiyah, has ties to al-Qaeda and a long history of attacks in Indonesia. The Malaysian militant, along with suspected bomb expert Abdul Basit Usman, was killed in a raid on 25 January.

Zulkifli Abdhir also known as "Marwan," was born on 5 January 1966 or 5 October 1966 in Muar, Johor, Malaysia. Zulkifli was known to use both dates as his birth date. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall, 120 pounds, and fluent in Malay, Tagalog, English, and Arabic.

Zulkifli attended a Malaysian boarding school before training as an engineer in the United States. He abruptly left his 10 siblings and three children after his training to join terrorist activities. On the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list in the United States, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. He was the designer of bombs that were delivered to various terrorist organizations.

Zulkifli Abdhir Terrorism Background

  • Zulkifli was wanted on suspicion of supplying bombs to various terrorist groups around the world. He was also suspected of instructing terrorists on how to make bombs. Azahari Husin, a terrorist, taught Zulkifli how to make IEDs.
  • He was involved in the construction of bombs for the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, which led to brief collaborations with Umar Patek before Patek's departure to Pakistan, as well as Khadaffy Janjalani (deceased). On August 1, 2007, Zulkifli was indicted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California for his arrest.
  • Zulkifli, also known as "Marwan," was suspected of leading the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, a South East Asian and Indonesian terrorist organization (KMM). The KMM is/was a component of the international terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and Zulkifli was thought to be a member of its central command. The JI is the primary perpetrator of the devastating Bali bombings in 2002, as well as numerous other attacks in South East Asia in which Zulkifli is suspected of involvement. Abdhir also co-founded the terrorist group Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao.
  • The Malaysian government initially wanted him for the murder of a Christian member of their Parliament in 2000, an attack backed by Al-Qaeda.
  • He continued to engage in militant Islamic activity and terrorist bombings while hiding in Mindanao under the protection of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). According to a military source, Zulkifli was involved in the training of local jihadist volunteers to join The Islamic State, along with other South Eastern Asian militants. This was reported after the BIFF declared its allegiance to helping ISIL's cause. Sources estimate that during his militant activity in Mindanao, he may have trained up to 300 terrorists in explosives use, detonation, and building.
  • On January 26, 2015, news outlets reported that the Jemaah Islamiyah, in collaboration with Zulkifli, planned to build a bomb to be detonated as the papal convoy drove down T.M. On January 18, Kalaw Street in Manila was closed. Another attempt on the Pope's life, according to the source, was planned the day before but was thwarted by changes in the Pope's plans. The Philippine police have denied the veracity of these reports.

The tribute ceremony at SAF Headquarters in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig City. The commemoration was based on President Rodrigo Duterte's Proclamation No. 164, which declared every January 25th as a national day of remembrance for the SAF 44.

The Islamic State also known Abu Sayyaf is a Jihadist militant and pirate organization that adheres to Sunni Islam's Wahhabi doctrine. It is based on and around the islands of Jolo and Basilan in the southwestern Philippines.

The Islamic State also known Abu Sayyaf is a Jihadist militant and pirate organization that adheres to Sunni Islam's Wahhabi doctrine. It is based on and around the islands of Jolo and Basilan in the southwestern Philippines.

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The other target was Ahmad Akmad Usman y Batabo, also known as Abdul Basit Usman, who was a Filipino terrorist and bombmaker who led the Special Operations Group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and had ties to the militant groups Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah.

He was born in 1974 in Labo-Labo, a village in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, in the southern Philippines. He worked as an overseas Filipino in Pakistan before becoming involved in militant activities. While Zulkifli Abdhir, was killed in the raid, Usman escaped and fled into the Liguasan Marsh.

To find and capture him, the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front launched offensives. Abdul Basit Usman led the Special Operations Group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and had ties to the militant groups Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Usman was on the list of the United States' Rewards for Justice Program, which offered a $1 million reward for his capture.

However, after months of manhunting, Usman was killed in an encounter with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on 3 May 2015 in Guindulungan, Maguindanao. One of his bodyguards was suspected of murdering him in order to collect the $1 million bounty on his head. The Armed Forces of the Philippines later retracted that claim, confirming Usman's death at the hands of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The Philippine flag was flown at half-mast at Rizal Park in Manila on January 30, 2015, during the National Day of Mourning following the Mamasapano clash.

The Philippine flag was flown at half-mast at Rizal Park in Manila on January 30, 2015, during the National Day of Mourning following the Mamasapano clash.

The Case

After 44 police commandos were killed in a botched mission to apprehend a Malaysian bomber in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong and their families are still outraged that no one has been charged.

The mayor, who then led the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, led an investigation that found then-President Benigno Aquino III responsible for the Jan. 25, 2015, operation that left 44 members of the PNP's elite Special Action Force (SAF) at the mercy of Moro rebels. Their mission was to apprehend Malaysian bomber Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.

In the operation, at least 18 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and seven civilians were killed. Fourteen of the SAF 44, or "Cordillera Braves," were from the Cordillera and have been dubbed the "Cordillera Braves." PO2 Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor of the Mamasapano encounter, stated that at least 11 members of the combined forces of MILF, BIFF, and private armed groups were taken down by SAF troopers from his Company.

According to a senior military intelligence officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, BIFF leader Ameril Umbra Kato ordered the killing of SAF members by his group and MILF members involved in the incident. A private armed group led by Datu Bahnarin Ampatuan was reportedly among those responsible for the SAF members' deaths.

Bahnarin Ampatuan, the brother of Mamasapano mayor Benzar Ampatuan, is also charged in the Maguindanao massacre case. Bahnarin and Benzar Amputuan ran against each other in the 2010 Mayoral elections. Benzar expressed doubt about his brother's participation, believing that Bahnarin would not associate himself with groups like the BIFF or individuals like Abdul Basit Usman, who attempted to assassinate Benzar's grandfather.

Former president Aquino delivered a televised speech. He stated that the MILF should identify those who were involved in the killing of SAF members, return the guns and personal belongings of the slain SAF members, and allow the government to continue its operation against the terrorists.

In addition, he declared January 30 to be a "National Day of Mourning" and demanded that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law be approved by Congress immediately.

Aquino admitted that there was a "lack of coordination" between government forces and the MILF, that he and suspended police chief Alan Purisima were personally aware of the operations, and that both Roxas and Espina were not informed in advance. Aquino was also unable to explain why these two officials were not aware of the operations.

Previously, a Manila Standard Today article claimed that Purisima not only knew about the operation but also took command of it despite being suspended from duty.

Former President Aquino III appeared in court for Mamasapano clash.The Office of the Ombudsman found probable cause to charge in court with usurpation of authority under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code and Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Former President Aquino III appeared in court for Mamasapano clash.The Office of the Ombudsman found probable cause to charge in court with usurpation of authority under Article 177 of the Revised Penal Code and Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

All of the allegations stem from Aquino's alleged act of allowing then-suspended PNP chief Purisima to participate in the planning and execution of Oplan Exodus, a police operation aimed at neutralizing Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman. Over 60 people were killed in the clash, including 44 PNP-SAF members.

Though cornered and encircled, the SAF troopers made a heroic stance, holding their ground and returning fire bullet-for-bullet until the 44 SAF men were mortally wounded. It was during this fighting that the SAF troopers demonstrated their fighting skills, outnumbered but never outfought.

Many of the terrorists were also killed and dragged by their comrades after the fighting. But what was most disturbing was that the military was not informed about "Operation Exodus" until the last minute, when fighting erupted between the SAF and the terrorists who ambushed the 475-man SAF troopers.

During a congressional hearing on the Mamasapano massacre, It claimed that they informed the military "on time and on target," whatever that means. The military, on the other hand, stated that "time on target" means their artillery is already ready to fire at any time. But there was none in this case.

Had there been prior coordination, the outcome of "Operation Exodus" would have been a victory in the government's war on terror that the country could be proud of. However, a blunder cost the lives of 44 SAF troopers, who are now wailing in their graves for justice.

On the same day that the third anniversary of the atrocity was observed, PO3 Carlos Bocaig, a survivor of the Mamasapano massacre, was murdered in a grenade blast in Abra.

SAF 44 Heroism Deserves Remembrance

The fallen lawmen had to give their lives so that the people could live in freedom and safety in their own homes. SAF 44's tragic loss is a lesson we must never forget. Their lives are priceless. Our fallen SAF 44, like generations of warrior heroes before them, gave everything they had for something greater than themselves.

May the memories of the Gallant 44 serve as constant inspiration to strengthen our faith in God and continue our sworn duty to protect the public from lawless elements, criminal acts, terrorism, and anti-illegal drugs that ruin our children's future.

We have always remembered the bravery of the 44 Special Action Forces (SAF) personnel who were killed in an anti-terrorist operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, seven years ago, saying that their deaths were a strong demonstration that police officers are always ready to carry out their mission despite the odds and difficulties along the way.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Faith Nacario

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