Mamasapano probe chief once chased Marwan

Bea Cupin
Police Director Benjamin Magalong is no stranger to chasing top terrorists like Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani and Zulkifli bin Hir, alias 'Marwan'
BOI CHIEF. Police Dir Benjamin Magalong has one month to wrap up the PNP's probe into the events that led to the death of 44 elite cops. Rappler file photo

MANILA, Philippines – Police Director Benjamin Magalong is no stranger to the dangers of pursuing high-value targets such as global terrorists and will likely have his experience in mind as he heads an internal probe into a bloody police operation that left 44 elite cops dead.

Almost 10 years ago, Magalong led a Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) company in a mission to neutralize Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani, other personalities from the Jemaah Islamiya, and Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” a bomb-maker long wanted by the United States.

Now the head of the PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit (CIDG), Magalong is in charge of collating at least 420 affidavits and testimonies to paint a better picture of the carnage in Mamasapano on January 25.

After more than a decade of hunting down Marwan, the PNP finally neutralized its target. But it came as a price – at least 68 reportedly dead, including the 44 SAF troopers, at least 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, and 7 civillians.

The clash is also threatening to kill a long-awaited peace deal between the Philippine government and the MILF.

Flashes of Mamasapano

According to a retired military intelligence officer, the operation that Magalong led some time in August or September 2005 in Ganta, Datu Piang, Maguindanao was “similar” to the Mamasapano operation.

Magalong led the SAF company, with the help of operatives from the United States, the source said.

DILG Secretary Mar Roxas leads the welcoming of SAF members who were killed in a clash with Muslim rebels at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City on January 29, 2015. Photo by Dennis Sabangan/EPA

“The coodination between the MILF and the Philippine government was overtaken by the SAF. Even without a go signal, they entered the area,” the source told Rappler.

The MILF, then at the first stages of peace talks with government, seized the equipment of the SAF troopers but these were eventually returned through the International Monitoring Team (IMT), the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, and the military’s 6th infantry division then.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, in 2005, played a huge role in “diffusing” the growing tension between government forces and the MILF.

In a text message to Rappler, Magalong said there were several operations in the Maguindanao area from 2000 to 2006. He was then a senior superintendent (colonel) in the PNP.

In 2005, Magalong also led SAF troopers when members of the Abu Sayaff Group attempted to take over Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan. The camp is where many rebels are currently detailed and is also where one of the SAF’s headquarters is located.

Uncovering the truth

Magalong – whose record in the CIDG, a high-stakes office in the PNP, is thus far spotless – will be joined by two police generals, 4 police colonels, and a junior officer in the Board of Inquiry:

(L-R) Police Director Benjamin Magalong, Police Dir Catalino Rodriguez, and Chief Superintendent John Sosito lead the PNP's Board of Inquiry

Police Director Catalino Rodriguez, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1982 and the current Director of the Directorate for Research and Development. Rodriguez’ previous assignments include being regional director of Northern Mindanao, director of the Directorate for Integrated Police Operations (DIPO) in the Visayas, and provincial director of Misamis Oriental.

Chief Superintendent John Sosito, a graduate of the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA) in 1984, is the Executive Officer of the DIPO in Eastern Mindanao.

Deputy spokesman Senior Superintendent Robert Po, a graduate of PNPA Class of 1985, was once city director of General Santos and worked as the regional chief of the Metro Manila CIDG. Po was also the Manila Police District’s Chief Directorial Staff.

Senior Superintendent Hawthorne Binag, a graduate of the PMA in 1987, was once assigned to the Metro Manila Police Office and is fresh off the PNP’s UN Mission in Liberia.

Senior Superintendent Benigno Durana Jr, a 1988 graduate of the PMA, was a SAF operations officer and was provincial director of Aklan.

Chief Inspector David Joy Duarte, a graduate of PNPA Class of 2005, was an intelligence and logistics officer of the SAF.

Among the affidavits and testimonies the Board will have to wade through include statements from surviving SAF troopers, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and even the PNP’s top officials.

Suspended PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, whose resignation was accepted by the President on Friday, February 6, supposedly “remote controlled” the January 25 operation. He has expressed willingness to cooperate in the probe.

PNP OIC Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, who was kept in the dark until after troopers entered the area, will also be giving his account of the incident, Magalong told reporters on Thursday, February 5. (READ: Crisis before Mamasapano: A tale of 2 PNP chiefs)

The Board has one month to complete its investigation. The probe will establish who is accountable and who needs to be sanctioned for the botched operation. It also seeks to determine what operational lapses were committed that fateful day. – Rappler.com

Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.