Death in Mamasapano, Crisis in Manila: the Philippines and the War on Terror

by Connor Woodman

During a six week trip to the Philippines, Connor Woodman witnessed the 'collateral damage' of the 'War on Terror', 14 years after its declaration.

First published: 20 April, 2015 | Category: Terror/War

The Western media appear oblivious, but the 100 million strong nation of the Philippines is currently wracked with political scandal and instability.  Progressive groups have taken to the streets demanding the resignation of the President; whispers of a coup by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have surfaced in the Philippine media; and everyone from civil society groups to religious institutions is debating the events that occurred in late January.  As is often the case in Philippine politics, one can spy flickers of a more powerful force influencing events.  The semi-hidden hand of the island archipelago’s former coloniser, the United States of America, is never far from the centres of power.

Firefight in Mamasapano

Before dawn on 25 January this year, 392 members of the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) elite unit, the Special Action Force (SAF), snuck into a small community in Mamasapano, located in the predominately Muslim region of the southern Philippines.  Their mission was to capture or kill 'Marwan', an alleged operative for Jemaah Islamiyah, a Malaysia- and Indonesia- based 'terrorist' group, along with his associate 'Usman'; the US had bounties of several million dollars on both their heads.  Unfortunately for the SAF policemen, they were entering the territory of two of the largest armed rebel groups in the region, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).  Both have been fighting for independence or autonomy for the array of Islamic ethno-linguistic groups concentrated in the south, known collectively as the ‘Moro’ people.  Despite significant progress on peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF – the larger and far more well-established of the two rebels groups – the latter was apparently not informed that hundreds of highly armed police officers would be storming its territory that morning.  The SAF commander at the time of the operation, Getulio Napeña, later said he did not inform the group since he 'did not trust the MILF'.  Curiously, there was no coordination between the SAF and the military prior to the launching of the operation. 

The results were brutal: an intense firefight raged throughout the day between the SAF and the Moro rebel groups.  By the time trigger fingers were stayed, 44 SAF commandos lay dead, as well as 17 MILF fighters and between three and seven civilians.  According to a local government agency, around 1,500 residents of the surrounding area fled the fighting.[1] I was in Manila on the day the news started to filter through, and followed the vast political fallout as it spread from its epicentre in Mamasapano. 

Political Earthquake

For Mindanao, the southern island home to the Moros, the incident has thrown the peace process into disarray.  According to the Economist, the four and a half decade old conflict has claimed the lives of around 120,000 people and displaced two million; the result of extensive efforts by the Philippine state to uproot an insurgency with deep roots within the disenchanted Muslim population.  Significant progress towards a stronger peace deal has been achieved in recent years, with major agreements between the MILF and Philippine government signed in 2012 and last year.  A proposed ‘Bangsamoro [Moro nation] Basic Law’ (BBL) has been winding its way towards a vote in the Philippine Congress, and is considered by some observers to be at least a step in the right direction.  It will grant a largely autonomous Moro government more control over its considerable natural resources (the region is another example of the correlation between astonishing resource wealth and severe underdevelopment).  The hopes that it will be passed without significant revision have been nearly dashed by the events of 25 January.  Those among the Manila-based elite who never truly supported the proposed law are exploiting the deaths of the SAF commandos in order to paint the MILF as a rogue terrorist organisation.  'There is no way the Bangsamoro legislation [BBL] will pass' were the words of one Filipino political analyst quoted by Reuters.  Integral to this process of sabotage is the ever-present chauvinism against the Muslim community, long a factor in the Catholic-majority state.  Flicking through the pages of an opinion-forming liberal national newspaper whilst I was in Manila, I came across one commentator who recommended that, 'The government should stop the nonsense that the MILF still want to talk peace because Moros get bored not having enemies to fight to the death'.  The AFP has used the clash as an excuse to launch 'all-out offensive operations' against another of the rebel groups involved in the fighting, the BIFF.  The results have been predictable – the Wall Street Journal quotes local government sources for its claim that 'over 93,000 of Muslim Mindanao's long-suffering mainly subsistence farmers have been displaced by the new fighting'.  Suara Bangsamoro, a progressive campaign group based in the Moro areas, has condemned the impact of the offensive operations on local communities. 

Back in Manila, countervailing political forces are pushing to oust President Aquino.  They claim he has ultimate responsibility for the debacle: the breaking of the chain of command (affirmed by the recent release of a Senate inquiry into the incident), the lack of coordination, and the lunacy of sending heavily armed policemen into the territory of equally heavily armed and motivated rebels during a delicate ceasefire.  The political system in the Philippines is opaque nepotistic, corrupt and oligarchic; scrape the lightest fingernail across any political event in the country, and dirt will accumulate underneath.  President Aquino put his political ally, Alan Purisima, in charge of the operation – this despite Purisima having already been suspended last year from his position in charge of the PNP following allegations of corruption.  The litany of political manoeuvring, backtracking and conflicting statements is so extensive that I will leave it to Congressman Walden Bello, who up until the Mamasapano fiasco was a political bedfellow of the President, to summarise:

The President is engaging in a brazen cover-up of his responsibility and that of his trusted aide Purisima… [the President has become] a small-minded bureaucrat trying to erase his fingerprints from a disastrous project.

The aftershocks of the 'War on Terror'

In Mamasapano, face to face with the widows of slain MILF fighters, amidst a community in shock from the death that had suddenly struck it, I was witnessing the aftershocks of a fourteen-year-old 'War on Terror'.  This bogus political project was launched from the centres of imperial power in Washington and London, and cheered on by cowardly journalists and politicians, far from the devastating reality of the 'war'.  These aftershocks continue to reverberate in the distant barangays of Mamasapano because, as most politically aware Filipinos recognise, their country has not left the legacy of imperialism behind it.  The cultural imprint, economic confinement and military domination resulting from 400 years of Spanish and then American rule did not disappear with the granting of formal political independence in 1946.  Although the colonial residue has been resisted and shaken, it remains encrusted on every sphere of Philippine life; and in Mamasapano, as the largest national daily in the country put it, 'American fingerprints' were all over the operation.  Indeed, American special operations forces have been advising – and almost certainly fighting – in Mindanao for over a decade.  The fact finding mission I travelled with heard reports from local residents of drones flying in the area for seven days prior to 25 January; the Philippines is already the only country in South East Asia known to be the victim of a direct US drone attack.  Marwan, one of the alleged 'terrorists' targeted in the operation, was killed and had his finger sliced off and swiftly handed to the FBI for confirmation of his identity.  An anonymous SAF officer told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the US 'funded the operation, including intelligence'. 

The mentality behind the 'War on Terror' continues to guide US policy and has been equally internalised within Philippine politics – to the severe detriment of prospects for peace and development.  The Philippine Daily Inquirer put it best in an editorial recently, slamming Philippine legislators for posing 'arrogant questions based on the us-versus-them, people-versus-terrorist framework.  That kind of black-or-white thinking, if they have already forgotten, was popularized by George W.  Bush after 9/11'.  To witness a modicum of the true human consequences of this barbaric 'war', launched before I even took a passing interest in politics, was quite a disorienting experience.  It gave me a glimpse into a reality from which we in the West are generally kept safe by our media; a media which shows little or no interest in the lives ruined by our government’s foreign policies.

Connor Woodman is a student studying politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Warwick, and politics at Monash University in Melbourne.



[1] Initial Report of the People's Fact-Finding Mission, ‘Life Interrupted: Civilian communities terrorized by commando assault in Mamasapano’, 9-11 February 2015, p.3.

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