MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – When President Benigno Aquino III promised Filipinos in January that bombmaker Basit Usman would be caught, he said so within the context of what he had just given the Armed Forces of the Philippines: an order to hunt the terrorist down.
Two months later, on May 3, Malacañang announced Usman’s death. The military released a photo of Usman lying on the ground and apparently dead. His body was wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. His right thumb had violet marks, suggesting that his thumbmark was taken.
“Compliance ito sa kautusan ng ating mahal na Pangulo (This in compliance with the orders of the President),” said AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr on Monday, May 4, in a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo.
But Usman wasn’t killed by a government bullet, and security forces were not in the area when the firefight happened in Barangay Muti in Maguindanao’s Guindulungan town.
Details of his death remain sketchy. It’s not clear if one of Usman’s bodyguards in the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) or members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) shot the bullet that killed him.
At 10 am on Sunday, while the rest of the country was waiting to watch the Pacquiao-Mayweather bout, a firefight erupted in Barangay Muti. Citing initial reports, Catapang said it was a supposed argument over the bounty on Usman’s head that prompted it. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation had offered a US1-million reward for his arrest.
The gunshots prompted MILF members nearby to rush to the area and check what was going on.
The question that remains unanswered is this: Was Usman already dead when the MILF members arrived or was it one of them who shot him?
The first narrative regarding the supposed squabble over the bounty was what Catapang told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo on Monday, although he hastened to add that it is still being verified by the Maguindanao-based 6th Infantry Division.
“I am confirming the death of Basit Usman, the terrorist-bomber who is responsible for the countless deaths of civilians in a series of bombings in Mindanao. Reports reaching this headquarters revealed that Usman and 5 of his unidentified cohorts were killed in a shootout allegedly with fellow members of his group in Sitio Takeneken, Bgy Muti, Guindulungan, Maguindanao at about 10:00am yesterday,” Catapang said.
The Army 6th ID later issued a statement affirming it. Spokesperson Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay said the MILF found the dead bodies along with their firearms scattered in the area when they arrived.
The second narrative – that the MILF rebels rushed to the area and most likely killed him – was based on initial police and military situation reports that circulated on Sunday.
A source in the MILF said two versions are also being verified. “The first version says that Usman was killed in a chance encounter with Commander Barok and the second version says that Usman was captured by the MILF and the plan was to present him to the Central Committee but he tried to escape and fought back that is why he was shot. But these are not yet conclusive and we will wait for the final report,” the source said.
Usman’s bodyguard is a military asset
Usman was killed near Camp Afghan, an area designated for MILF fighters so they could stay away from the ongoing military offensive. This explains why no government troops were present during the incident. Catapang said Usman probably thought he was safe there.
The AFP chief said the government offensive that put pressure on the terrorist played a key role in Usman’s death. After two months of military operations, he said Usman grew increasily insecure and began to distrust his own bodyguards.
“If the whole armed forces is running after you, your world gets smaller every day. Usman had to move around every 6 hours. He had to move somewhere else. That was how insecure he was,” Catapang said.
“One way or another the military was able to push him to a smaller area and to a point that he even tried to stay just very near the area of separation for the MILF,” Catapang added.
A military source privy to operations on the ground said one of Usman’s bodyguards had been providing the government information on Usman’s locations. He also supposedly instigated the infighting among Usman’s men. He was among those who was killed on Sunday.
MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said they are still investigating what really happened. “Our initial investigation is not yet conclusive. We have no problem if a military asset killed Usman. For now, what we can verify is that Usman is dead,” he said.
Catapang also acknowledged the MILF’s assistance in providing information on Usman and the other members of the BIFF.
“It is very important to note that aside from helping the government in neutralizing Basit Usman, the MILF provided valuable information that led to the arrest of prominent BIFF leaders such as Mohammad Ali Tambako and Esmael Pagao,” Catapang said.
Usman himself was a former member of the MILF 105th Base Command before he joined the BIFF.
Confluence of events
A military intelligence officer, who recognized the assistance of the MILF, described Usman’s death as a “confluence of events.”
Rido or clan war also played a role, he said, because Usman has killed the relatives of many MILF members, too. This supposedly motivated some of the MILF members to go after Usman.
The intelligence officer also noted the growing impatience of MILF fighters toward military operations that have kept them from their homes. Two months since the military offensive, the source said the MILF rebels already want to go back to their families.
Usman was the other high-value target in the January 25 operation of the police Special Action Force (SAF) that killed Malaysian bombmaker Zulkifli bin hir or “Marwan” but also 44 of the elite cops.
Catapang told Rappler in an earlier phone interview that Usman’s death should help put “closure” to the Mamasapano incident and help in the peace effort.
The MILF is currently implementing a peace agreement with the government. In the aftermath of the Mamasapano tragedy that killed 44 elite cops at the hands of – among others – MILF fighters, the dominant Muslim rebel group is pressured to show its sincerity by helping the government hunt down Usman.
When the military launched in February the all-out offensive against the BIFF – one of the groups responsible for the death of the SAF troops – the MILF fighters also cooperated with government troops by agreeing to leave their homes and relocate to designated “areas of temporary stay” to allow soldiers to operate freely and avoid a misencounter with the MILF.
The BIFF broke away from the MILF over disagreements on the peace talks. In spite of their political differences, many of them are relatives and continue to be neighbors.
The MILF central committee, according to a military source, had issued an order to its members to help the government hunt down Usman. While there’s no question about the sincerity of the MILF leadership, there were doubts if the members would follow the order considering the ties that bind them to their former comrades. – Rappler.com