Part 1 of 3
MANILA, Philippines – Many are asking how Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorists, has evaded arrest in the Philippines since 2003.
The answer is simple: he burrowed into the fabric of Philippine society in often lawless areas that one US special forces officer called “impenetrable.” In this 3-part series, Rappler looks at the man better known as Marwan through the eyes of 2 Filipinos who “became family” and worked closely with him on his terrorist plots: Aljebir Adzhar and Ren-Ren Dongon. Part 3 looks at Marwan's regional and global ties to terrorism.
The information comes from classified intelligence documents obtained over a decade of research from nearly half a dozen nations and verified by at least two independent sources.
A US-educated engineer, Marwan comes from a family of jihadists: his brother was arrested in the United States in 2007 while another brother was arrested in Indonesia in 2001.
Marwan is wanted in Malaysia for the killing of a Christian member of Parliament in 2000, the only successful al-Qaeda linked attack in Malaysia. Marwan was also a leader of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia or KMM, which carried out those attacks.
A senior leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, once al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia, Marwan fled to the Philippines in 2003, according to the US, to evade a regional crackdown and is one of the last surviving members of his group. One by one, his compatriots were tracked down and neutralized by authorities: Azahari Husin, the expert Malaysian bomb maker who allegedly trained Marwan; Dulmatin, who fled to the Philippines around the same time as Marwan, killed by Indonesian authorities when he returned home; and Umar Patek, who left the Philippines and was captured in Abbottabad, Pakistan (shortly before Osama bin Laden was killed in the same city) before being extradited to prison in Indonesia.
Marwan managed to evade the first-ever US smart bomb attack in the Philippines against him in 2012 in Sulu. That operation did kill his long-time host, Abu Sayyaf leader Umbra Jumdail Gumbahali, better known as Doc Abu.
He also evaded a second secret special operations attempt in July 2012, after he fled to the marshy swamplands in Butig, Lanao del Sur, near the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Camp Bushra.
Another operation had been planned as early as September 2014 – perhaps the reason why suspended Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Alan Purisima remained on top in the January 25 Mamasapano attack that killed 44 elite cops. Planned under his watch, these operations are extremely sensitive. (Authorities claimed the January 25 operation killed Marwan but they are awaiting confirmation through DNA tests.)
Many are asking why the Armed Forces of the Philippines or AFP wasn’t notified earlier.
“Anyone who actually has that question fundamentally doesn’t understand the inability of the AFP and the PNP to protect sensitive information,” a former US Special Forces officer told me a day after news of the 44 dead operatives came out. “If they notify anybody, that operation is done. It’ll leak out, and Marwan will be gone,” said the American familiar with the territory.
Anyone familiar with special forces operations knows of the often dangerous rivalry between the Philippine military and the police – a rivalry that has killed those caught in the middle and foiled numerous operations. This is part of the reason these operations are kept on a tight need-to-know basis.
Multiply that by the organizational rivalries of their US counterparts – the CIA working with Filipino special forces operatives and the FBI working with law enforcement. Then add conflicting vested interests of local and national Filipino politicians, and you begin to get a sense of the complex brew on the side of the authorities.
Now add the societal landscape they need to navigate: an area where law and order is weak at best – full of clan rivalries, private armed groups and overlapping family ties in the middle of a splintering Muslim insurgency, with a significant group pushing for peace and a minority spoiling for war.
Over the last 20 years, numerous Filipino and US officials have told me there is no choice but peace because the reality is that the Philippine military and police cannot win a war.
Now you can begin to appreciate how difficult the situation is.
3 women and an in-law
Marwan’s first weapon wasn’t his ideology nor the bombs he made. It was his women: at least 3 Filipino wives who cemented him into the landscape.
Although he never admitted it when he was interrogated by authorities in December 2010, his police interrogators suspected Aljebir Adzhar, alias Embel, was one of Marwan’s brothers-in-law.
Embel's father was a trusted aide of Abu Sayyaf leader Doc Abu: he and his men often stayed at Embel’s family home in Parang, Sulu, where Embel said Doc Abu “had mass support.” Over time, Embel and his brother began helping Doc Abu, first by running errands as young boys then graduating to scouting government troop movements to alert the Abu Sayyaf. This is the extended social network that made it so dangerous for the police and military to enter communities unarmed.
Embel talked about how Doc Abu gave him P70,000 to buy a brand new black Honda motorcycle with yellow stripes. That was what he used to do the weekly shopping for Marwan, who gave him P1,500 a week to buy a sack of rice, coffee and bread at Love Life Bakery in Jolo. Embel said Marwan would give him extra money to buy chicken siopao, which Marwan loved.
Embel was also the conduit for Marwan’s conjugal visits, which began with Embel picking up Marwan’s wife from the Jolo market. Then 17 years old, Jaida is a Yakan from Basilan. Embel said she normally wore slacks and a shirt with long, black sleeves and carried two suitcases. She also “covered her face.”
Embel would bring her to the house of the barangay captain, where he stayed behind. Then she would walk another 30 minutes alone to the house of Embel's family, where Marwan would meet her. She would normally stay with Marwan there for about a month unless a military operation happens, in which case she’d go back to the barangay captain’s house.
His family didn’t just support the Abu Sayyaf. Embel’s sister, Kasma, is married to a member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. Over the years, though, internal fighting has often spilled out into streets in Zamboanga, most recently in 2013. Embel said his sister and her family lived in the MNLF camp in Indanan, Sulu.
At least two of the men trained by Marwan during this time were from Cotabato and “had a strong alliance with the MILF (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 2014) in central Mindanao.”
Finally, there is collusion between those who hunt and the hunted.
In 2009, Embel said he became close to Italian Eugenio Vagni, one of 3 members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf under Albader Parad. Embel told authorities he and his brother helped feed Parad and his men, whom Embel claimed received a ransom of P60 million for the release of their hostages, although ICRC denied it paid ransom.
That ransom, according to Embel, was negotiated and given to the Abu Sayyaf by Parad's relative, then Vice Governor Lady Ann Sahidula, who later ran for – and won – a seat in Congress.
Here's where it turns into quicksand: Embel said the kidnapping was masterminded by a jail guard whose father is a regional police intelligence officer. Part of the ransom, Embel said, was given to members of the police.
Now you begin to see how the lines blur, and why there are often many shades of truth in this land.
In part 2, we’ll take a closer look at the February 2012 US smart bomb attack through the eyes of another of Marwan’s brother-in-law, Ren-Ren Dongon, whose family’s interwoven marriages cemented alliances between the Abu Sayyaf, the Rajah Solaiman Movement and Jemaah Islamiyah. – 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.