MANILA, Philippines - There are conflicting reports about exactly what time the bombs dropped on Thursday, February 2. Civilian and military intelligence sources differ by an hour: some say it was 2 am; others say it was 3 am.
Those involved in the operation told Rappler that a military asset, an Abu Sayyaf member, planted the homing device that guided the bombs before he walked out of the strike zone.
At that point, the asset told them that senior Abu Sayyaf leader Umbra Jumdail, better known as Dr Abu, was sleeping. The asset said that near Dr Abu were the two most senior leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah or JI in the Philippines: Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, and Singaporean Mohammed Ali, known as Muawiyah.
That’s why the Philippine military is holding steadfast to its claim: when 2 OV-10 Broncos dropped their 227-kg bombs, all 3 were killed along with 12 other terrorists.
About 45 minutes after the bombing, the military asset walked back to the area and reported that all 3 were dead. Dr. Abu was crushed by a fallen tree. Marwan’s body was allegedly cut in half by the impact of the bomb. The asset said Muawiyah was still breathing, but he had a big hole in his neck that was gushing blood.
It was reported globally and hailed as a great victory.
Marwan is a US-trained engineer and also heads Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia or KMM. He comes from a family of jihadists: one brother was arrested in Indonesia; another was arrested in the United States. The US has a $5 million reward for Marwan’s head.
“Marwan is the most important Malaysian terrorist,” said Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research in Singapore and the author of Inside al-Qaeda. “He has worked very closely with Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, the Rajah Solaiman Revolutionary Movement, the Abu Sayyaf and the MNLF factions. He’s on the radar of many organizations.”
Muawiyah participated in the 2009 kidnapping of 3 members of the International Red Cross and is a key Singaporean target - “the only Singaporean active in terrorism,” said Gunaratna. “They are the two most important international terrorists currently operating in Southeast Asia.”
The story doesn’t end there.
On March 13, Malaysia’s chief counterterrorism official, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told the New York Times that Malaysia had not taken Marwan off its “most wanted” list because it believed he was still alive.
Based on intelligence and military sources from at least 3 different countries, Rappler has pieced together what happened on February 2.
Much has been written about drone attacks, but what the Philippine military used were precision-guided munitions or PGM.
The US delivered the PGMs and trained Philippine troops as early as November 2010, according to classified documents obtained by Rappler. While the technology came from the Americans, it was the Filipinos who carried out the attack.
Sources told Rappler that the 2 planes used to deliver the bombs, Philippine Air Force OV10 Broncos, are very noisy and will not fly directly to their target. Instead, the planes circle before dropping their payload.
In the past, the OV10s flew only during the day because bombs used visual line-of-sight targeting.
On February 2, the planes flew in the middle of the night because they carried PGMs which are guided in 2 ways: through GPS or a homing device.
According to investigators who spoke to Rappler on condition of anonymity, when Marwan and Muawiyah heard the planes, they immediately fled the area. Dr Abu was older, slower, and when the bombs dropped, he was still putting his boots on.
That's how Marwan and Muawiyah survived the bomb attack with minor injuries, investigators said.
An Abu Sayyaf member working under the group's most senior leader, Radullan Sahiron, gave the 2 foreigners sanctuary in Patikul, Sulu.
But Sahiron reportedly told his followers that he blamed JI for the death of Dr Abu and his followers and demanded that the JI leaders leave his area of command in Patikul.
On Monday, February 27, according to classified Philippine intelligence documents obtained by Rappler, Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon picked up Marwan and Muawiyah from Tanum, Patikul in Sulu and allegedly took them to an area controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF.
According to intelligence assets, Sahiron was adamant about pushing the JI leaders out of Patikul, saying their presence would only bring more military attacks.
Until today, however, the Philippine military claims Marwan and Muawiyah are dead.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines maintains its position that Marwan was killed in a recent Philippine air strike in Sulu contrary to reports that he survived said operation and is alive," said AFP spokesperson Col Arnulfo Burgos.
“These two men were not in the kill zone,” said Gunaratna. “In the battlefield, such confusion can always take place, but the Philippine military is much more capable than what it was. It’s a question of time until Muawiyah and Marwan will be either captured or killed.” - Rappler.com
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.