What drones? PH not Afghanistan – US officer

Maria A. Ressa
The former commander of US troops in the Philippines denies a New York Times report that they conducted a drone strike in Mindanao

US pacific commander Admiral Dennis Blair (right in khaki uniform) accompanied by Lieutenant. Colonel David Maxwell (L) troops the line on his arrival at the Philippine Army 103rd Infantry Battalion headquarters in Tabiawan, Basilan island  15 April 2002.  Admiral Blair is in the southern Philippines to visit US special forces troops training Philippine soldiers to destroy the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremistsallegedly llinked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.  AFP  PHOTO / Conrado Maralit

MANILA, Philippines – The former US commander of the Joint-Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), Army Col David Maxwell, fired scathing words in response to a New York Times story accusing US forces under his command of using “a barrage of Hellfire missiles from a Predator” in 2006 to try to kill Indonesian terrorist Umar Patek in the Philippines.

“In all my time in the Philippines in between 2001 and 2007, there has never been a Predator or Reaper deployed, and there have been no Hellfire missiles, let alone ‘a barrage of Hellfire missiles,’” Maxwell told Rappler. “Whomever is making such allegations is either misinformed, misguided or misspeaking. He certainly does not know what he is talking about when it comes to operations in the Philippines.”

The July 6, 2012 New York Times article by Mark Mazzetti, “The Drone Zone,” claims the Philippines is among the countries in the world where the US conducted lethal drone operations – a charge denied by US military officers, Filipino intelligence officials and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Maxwell said that during his command, his men “took no US unilateral direct action operations.” He had one of the longest US commands in the Philippines and was declared a “son of Basilan” in 2002, when the emphasis was on civil-military operations to “drain the swamp” – military language to cut support for the terrorists by winning the public’s trust.

Not Afghanistan or Iraq

“The Philippines is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq, and the Special Operations Forces operating there understand and respect the sovereignty of the Philippines and would not be so short-sighted as to try to use US drones in a way that would undercut the legitimacy of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines,” said Maxwell. (An Indonesian court recently sentenced Patek to 20 years in prison for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings.)

This is not the first time the New York Times used information from US domestic sources who may not be familiar with the Philippines. 

At the end of 2001, a Pentagon source told a Times reporter that US forces would be fighting in a “second front of the war on terror” in the Philippines – not realizing the Philippine Constitution forbids foreign military forces from fighting on Filipino territory.  The report caused a diplomatic fiasco and delayed the arrival of US troops for their training exercises. 

David Maxwell was commanding officer then. “The US SOF operating there understands the strategic necessity of respecting and protecting Philippine sovereignty and legitimacy and know that their role is to advise and assist but to never take the lead,” Maxwell told Rappler.

Since then, there have been several occasions where villagers and human rights officials accused US soldiers of participating in combat operations, but the Pentagon and Filipino authorities have repeatedly denied these charges.

For surveillance

Speaking to Rappler, Filipino intelligence sources and officers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines also deny drones have been used to drop bombs and that US forces acted unilaterally. 

They emphasized that US drones have been used in the past for intelligence and surveillance purposes in joint operations.

There are at least 3 different types of drones operating in the Philippines, but they’re only used for surveillance, the same sources added. President Benigno Aquino III himself has said a drone strike may violate the Constitution. (The New York Times‘ July article said the drones dropped bombs in 2006.)

One of the first instances reported and acknowledged by US officials was in July, 2005 in joint operations against then Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani. US Navy P3 Orion aircraft and UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles also known as drones – were reportedly used in this operation.

In an exclusive in March, 2012, Rappler reported that the first US smart bombs, Precision-Guided Munitions kits or PGMs, arrived in the Philippines on Nov 1, 2010. 

After 8 months of training and an extensive two levels of clearances and parallel approval processes between the Philippines and the US, the bombs were used on Feb 2, 2012 to attack the 2 most senior Jemaah Islamiyah leaders in the Philippines: Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, and Singaporean Mohammed Abdullah Ali, known as Muawiyah.

A US drone – a Scan Eagle UAV – gave a live feed to Filipino and US soldiers of what was happening on the ground at the target camp. Philippine Air Force OV-10 Broncos dropped the bombs in the strike zones. 

The two JI leaders escaped but the Abu Sayyaf leader sheltering them, Dr. Abu and some of his followers, were killed. To this day, however, the Philippine military high command denies that the two JI leaders had escaped.

Maxwell has long been adamant that the Philippines must “achieve success on their own terms on their timeline in accordance with their own capabilities.”

The New York Times report focused on the future of drones for US warfare and said the information about the Philippines came from “three current and former intelligence officials.”

“The future is not the global use of drones but the ability to train, advise and assist our friends, partners and allies as they defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency and terrorism,” said Maxwell. “I would love to have a word with those three current and former intelligence officials. I will speak for the record, but will they?” – Rappler.com

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.