Dead or alive? Top terrorist was cops' target

MANILA, Philippines – In 2012, alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli Abdhir, better known as "Marwan," survived the military airstrike that was meant to kill him in Sulu. 

On Sunday, January 25, the elite Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) sought to finally get him in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. 

As earlier reported by Rappler, Marwan was the target of what turned out to be the bloodiest police operation in recent history that killed dozens of the elite cops on Sunday. This was confirmed by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and former SAF commander Police Director Carmelo Valmoria on Monday, January 26

The government – again – believes they got Marwan this time.

"It is a PNP operation of high-value terrorist targets. Nagampanan nila (They accomplished it), according to reports. They were able to neutralize one of them, Marwan," Gazmin told reporters Monday, January 26.

Asked if this report was validated by other sources on the ground, Gazmin said: "We have no confirmation but that was the report we got last night."

Valmoria added: "Siya yung ano talaga yung target ng operation. Based on info, nakuha. Na-neutralize nila si Marwan (He was really the target of the operation. Based on information, they got him. Marwan was neutralized)." Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II only described the targets as "two high-value targets." 

2012 Sulu fiasco

A member of the Jemaah Islamiyah central command and a US-trained engineer, Marwan has a US$5 million bounty on his head and is believed to be residing in Mindanao since 2003. He has reportedly conducted bomb-making training for terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.  

Marwan was indicted by a US court in 2007 for, among other charges, providing material support to terrorists. 

Beyond this, Marwan has been a most elusive prey for the Philippine government.

In February 2012, the Philippine military got burned when it proclaimed that its US-backed bombing operation in Sulu killed Marwan and two other JI terrorists.

Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa, quoting senior intelligence sources, later wrote that Marwan survived the attack and that he was merely "wounded on his right leg." (READ: How 2 JI terrorists survived bomb attack)

Two years after the botched operation, in August 2014, the Philippine military eventually conceded that Marwan escaped the Sulu attack.

Then intelligence service chief Major General Eduardo Año told reporters at the time: "As far as we are concerned, there is a big possibility that Marwan is still alive.... There have been consistent reports of his presence in the Cotabato area. We have sources telling us they met him."

“Marwan is the most important Malaysian terrorist,” Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research in Singapore and the author of Inside al-Qaedatold Ressa in a previous interview.

“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,” Gunaratna added. 

Neutralized?

On Monday, Gazmin said the other target was Filipino Basit Usman, a bomb-maker for the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). There is no report on what happened to him or if he was in the area. 

Based on initial information obtained by Rappler on Sunday, Marwan was "neutralized" at 2:30 am on Sunday "but his body was left behind because of the heavy volume of gunfire."

Mamasapano is a known territory of the MILF, which signed a peace pact with the Aquino government. But it is also where members of the BIFF, a breakaway group of the MILF, live.

The two groups disagree on the peace process, but they remain to be neighbors and many of them are relatives. 

No coordination

The MILF said there was no coordination that happened before the SAF entered the area.

It is the first major encounter between the MILF and government troops since the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro last year. Advocates are hoping that the incident will not affect the talks.

The cops sought for reinforcement but the military did not get involved, based on reports, until it has coordinated with the Coordinating Committee on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and the Adhoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG). These are the bodies that help maintain the ceasefire between the government and the MILF.

The MILF area is also difficult to penetrate. It is s a marshy area that is some 15 kilometers away from the highway.

Gazmin hinted there was some degree coordination between the military and the police at the "tactical level," but he did not elaborate.

"Nag-coordinate naman at the tactical level. Siguro because time is of the essence, nandiyan na yung target, nandyan na yung operation, pero kulang na sa oras. Pinagsabihan pa rin yung Army na nadaanan nila so there was coordination," said Gazmin. (There was some coordination. It could be because time is of the essence, the target was already there, but there was not enough time. But they informed the Army units they met on the way so there was coordination.) 

Gazmin flew to Mindanao on Monday, along with other security officials, to determine what happened in Maguindanao. – with a report from Bea Cupin/Rappler.com