Rappler Talk: The Marwan manhunt and its impact on the peace process


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Rappler Talk: The Marwan manhunt and its impact on the peace process
Was Marwan really the dangerous terrorist he was made out to be?

MANILA, Philippines – Rappler talked to Sidney Jones, head of think tank group Institute for Policy Analysis Of Conflict (IPAC).

In a report titled “Killing Marwan in Mindanao” released Thursday, March 5, IPAC chronicles the long, overdrawn hunt for Malaysian-born terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, or Marwan, tagged as bomb-making expert. Marwan was one of the most wanted terrorists in the Southeast Asian region until members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) pinpointed his hiding place in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, and gunned him down. 

Neutralizing Marwan was a costly ordeal. 44 members of the PNP-SAF,18 rebels, and 5 civilians died in the skirmish in the heartlands of Muslim Mindanao. The aftermath cost not only lives, but also endangered a peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that took decades of negotiations.

Was hunting down Marwan worth it?

In a report, IPAC says Marwan is not the high-level terrorist counter-insurgency forces make him out to be. He was a senior member of the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, but never its leader. (READ: Marwan not ‘world-class’ terrorist, says report)

The think tank quotes Marwan’s former Indonesian associate who worked with him from 2003 to 2009. He says Marwan is “a little snake who has been blown up into a dragon.” The source says Marwan had the contacts and sources for funding equipment and supplies, but he was no bomb-making expert.

Marwan, the report says, was never even part of jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI.)

Watch our interview with Jones here. – Rappler.com

Click here for audio-only version:


Here is a transcript of the interview:

Maria Ressa: Hello and welcome, I’m Maria Ressa in Manila. This is Rappler Talk. Joining us from Jakarta is Sidney Jones, she is head of IPAC institute for policy analysis and she has been watching terror networks in southeast Asia for many years. Sidney, thank you so much for joining us.

Sidney Jones: Happy to be here.

Maria Ressa: You just came out with a fantastic report last night, what were the significant findings of Marwan and the impact on the peace process?

Sidney Jones: We were looking at who Marwan was because we had seen just a lot of inaccurate information coming out after his killing. And we wanted to find out who he was and then try to think about the priorities of dealing with terrorism when you also have a peace process underway.

The main findings in terms of who Marwan was, was first, he was never a member of Jemaah Islamiyah, he was never a senior JI operative, he never took part in the Bali bombs because among other things he was already in Mindanao by August 2001. He was a member but not the head of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia or KMM and he was head of the Salangor branch which was indeed radicalized by the Malaysian members of JI or the Malaysia-based members of JI. So he had a very close relationship, he wasn’t the master bomb-maker world-class terrorist that some reports made him out to be, and the nicest quote in some ways from one of the Indonesians who worked with him was, “this was a little snake who was blown up to be a big dragon.”

Maria Ressa: And the information that you received is… how did you get the information?

Sidney Jones: We interviewed Indonesians who didn’t want their names used, but who were with Marwan in Mindanao.

Maria Ressa: What does this mean, how did it become so distorted? You have the FBI, the Department of Justice, the rewards for justice program calls him a senior JI leader, a KMM leader, why did it get so distorted?

Sidney Jones: He was a senior KMM leader he just wasn’t the head of the organization. I think it got distorted for a number of different reasons. I think one of them was, Dulmatin and Umar Patek who were senior JI leaders who did take part in the Bali bombs were in the same group with Marwan in the Philippines and so he may have been so much associated with them that their characteristics rubbed off on him. Secondly, there was a senior JI operative from Malaysia named Zulkifli who worked very closely with Hambali, who was the only Indonesian Guantanamo notorious for his liason role with Al-Qaeda and there may have been confusion with that Zulkfifli. And then finally, I think there’s a process by which after every strike to target Marwan that failed, and people thought he was dead and then he turned out to be still alive, that added to the stature and added to the idea that this man was some kind of extraordinary figure who managed to elude death time after time after time when in fact, he just was never a leader, and never was the master technician.

Maria Ressa: And your report makes it clear that this seems like a waste and also a danger, a threat to the peace process right now. Why has he then been the target of special forces operations for the last two years or so?

Sidney Jones: I think again it’s partly because of his association with the other foreign jihadis. So as one by one, first, Dulmatin went home and got killed by the Indonesian police, then Umar Patek got out of the Philippines without anybody’s knowing it, got to actually Pakistan to the same town where Osama Bin Laden was finally found and one by one all of these other people were either arrested or managed to get out of the Philippines and Marwan was the name that everybody knew, who was left together with the Singaporean who’s also not such a big character named Muawiyah or Manobo who’s still is in the Philippines to the best of our knowledge and there are a couple of others still there but I think it’s because he was part of that group, and because the idea that the Philippines still had foreign terrorists on its soil, I think that’s what in part kept these targets going.

Maria Ressa: There’s the death of 44 police special operatives triggered a senate investigation. In that senate investigation it seemed like many lawmakers were making the case that the case MILF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, maintains ties with terrorists, that it is a terrorist organization. Is that correct in your research?

Sidney Jones: I don’t think it is correct, because I think what we saw repeatedly was that Marwan and people around him were actually very worried about staying with the MILF because he believed they would be betrayed by the MILF. So we had 2005 when the MILF leadership expelled them, as a way of taking a positive step for the peace process. Then repeatedly there were individuals who were harboring or providing refuge, in some cases from the MILF, but not with the permission or the approval of senior members of the MILF leadership who made it absolutely clear that foreign terrorists were not welcome. There is a question of how much of the leaders could have tried harder to find out where he was or whether there were members of the MILF who were providing refuge. But I think the overall message was clear that these individuals, Marwan himself, did not want to be with the MILF because he was afraid that if he was with them, he would be turned in.

Maria Ressa: Interesting. How would you gauge the impact on the peace process now both the dead of the operatives as well as the senate process and the report that’s coming out?

Sidney Jones: First of all, just let me say it’s unbelievable tragedy for the 44 men who were killed for the 18 MILF who were also killed for the 5 civilians who were killed and for the peace process that you could have a process that was almost 20 years in the making. Now the question just at the time that it was reaching their final hurdle, and I think it raises the question of when you have terrorism and a peace process, you have counter-terrorism operations and the peace process that are going to intersect, how do you ensure that the one does not undermine the other and you do want to have terrorism dealt with in the Philippines, but even more you want to have this conflict which has been going on for so long resolved. And I think the only way to do that is to work through the mechanisms that already exist and that mechanism for the MILF and government happens to be the ADHOC joint action group. Was it strong enough, maybe not. Could it be strengthened, yes. Is that important to do now, yes. But I think that in hindsight a lot of different things could have happened but I think through the AHJAG would have been one way to go forward. And if the reason that they did not go through AHJAG or did not contact AHJAG until after the operation was well underway, was that they were afraid information on Marwan’s whereabouts would leak, then I think you have to think through, what would have happened if he had gotten away one more time? Was it still not important that he got the timing of all of this and the fact that we were coming to a critical point where we could get over the hump and finally get an agreement through the Philippines congress. So, I think coordination is critical.

Maria Ressa: This is probably the worst crisis now faced by President Aquino at the tail end of his administration, and right at the crucial moment when he has to use his political capital to get the Bangsamoro Law passed in congress. How does it look from Jakarta in terms of where the president is now and what can happen next? How would you assess this?

Sidney Jones: It’s difficult to make assessments from outside the Philippines. We’ve followed the process as closely as we can. We’ve watched with almost unbelieving enthusiasm that the process could get this far. And we’ve given the president a huge amount of credit and also members of OPAC and others involved in the peace process including the MILF leadership for being willing to make the compromises that have gotten them this far in the process. So it would be a double or triple or quadruple tragedy if this were to set back a process which is already being watched closely as an example of how you can finally resolve conflict in this part of the world.

Maria Ressa: Were you surprised by the calls for war from some of the legislators and the public at this late stage?

Sidney Jones: You can understand how emotional this becomes and you can understand how the videos that were circulating have just appalled people, the word brutality being, is used over and over again but I think that it requires extraordinary leadership now to calm those feelings which are natural and just convince people that in fact the best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen again is to actually get the agreement signed. If you were thinking through what the most important step that you could take to end terrorism or at least make it manageable in the southern Philippines, it would be to have a legitimate government elected through the process that the peace agreement envisions.

Maria Ressa: What would happen if this law fails to pass?

I don’t know, I think that’s a question that people in the Philippines would have to answer. I think most of the people have talked to don’t want to even envisage that possibility.

Maria Ressa: You’ve watched the threat way before Al-Qaeda came in and then Jemaah Islamiyah sprouted, the bombings in Bali and how the network worked in southeast Asia. How would you define the threat today?

Sidney Jones: Well I think everyone in the region is worried about the Islamic State and the ISIS as its also called and the number of southeast Asians who are going to fight in Syria and Iraq or going to take part in what they see as a great Islamic experiment with their families and their children. We just learned of another group that has gone into Syria and there were two infants in the group, husband wife and two infants. And there are whole families that are leaving from Malaysia, from Indonesia, we don’t think yet there’s any significant presence from the Philippines, but that could happen and I think that’s what’s on the mind of virtually everybody watching terrorism now. And it’s not just, can they get to Syria which is clear they can, it’s what happens when the people who were there return and most of them don’t have any intention of coming back but some of them will. And we don’t know what will happen if this situation on the ground changes in Syria and Iraq as well, but that’s what’s consuming everyone concerned about terrorism.

Maria Ressa: The other thing that’s fascinating about Syria right now, ISIS, is that it is actually doing this recruitment on, in the virtual world, on social media. Could you tell us, what that looks like and how they’re gathering the youth and getting them involved in ISIS?

Sidney Jones: There are various strategies. Clearly ISIS makes very active use of Twitter, in all languages of the world virtually. It has issued recruitment videos which appear on YouTube which are easily downloaded, links to those appear on radical websites. But probably one of the most effective uses has been Facebook and Google plus where people who are serving with ISIS can show their friends through a variety of handphones or over the internet and so on, exactly what their living conditions are so some of them, the photos that are sent back almost look like tourist photos. There was one video that was posted by a Malaysian which showed him and some Arab colleagues in a fishing boat on the Euphrates, showing how clear the water was and they had their guns with them but it was almost a travelogue for going to Iraq.

Maria Ressa: Why have governments done such a poor job of trying to deal with this private organization on social media?

Sidney Jones: Before I answer that I think it’s also interesting to note the difference between Indonesia and Malaysia on this. Because in Indonesia, unfortunately, it’s still quite easy to be able to hold meetings of radical groups and extremists and so on so you don’t need the social media for finding fellow supporters of ISIS, the way you do in Malaysia where control is much stricter. In the role of social media in Indonesia is more to reinforce people who have already been attracted through their participation in radical religious discussion groups and so on. It’s still the case that radicalization just through the internet is very rare in Malaysia they’re fighting each other through the internet.

Maria Ressa: What are governments doing about it?

Sidney Jones: There are efforts to try and control sites but you know quite well that you can shut down the site and a nearer site appears the next day. There are efforts to try to encourage people to respond over social media just on their own challenging some of the statements and teachings of ISIS that appear on social media. And that in some ways is effective, it’s more effective if there’s no link to government when citizens on their own write back and engage some of their friends in debates and that’s happening quite a lot. We’ve seen a lot of that on Twitter, on Facebook. I think governments are trying to prevent people from going to Syria. One of the dangers however, is that people who are frustrated that being prevented from going are often the people who are most inclined to use violence at home.

Maria Ressa: In the Philippines, what is the appeal? Do you see any radicalization happening on social media?

Sidney Jones: I don’t follow the Philippine social media as closely you probably can answer that better than I can. I think that we’ve seen a number of different groups hold oath-taking ceremonies, pledging their support to ISIS, that doesn’t seem to translate into travel from the Philippines to the Middle East. But there’s always a problem which we’ve seen before in the Philippines of migrant workers from the gulf or from elsewhere in the Middle East and I think that’s a concern of other governments in the region as well. One other issue is we’ve seen a number of Indonesian and Malaysian students who were studying in the Middle Eastern Pakistan being recruited to go into ISIS from their student groups abroad. So one of the things to think about is where some of the Filipino students in the Middle East may be studying and what kind of recruiting mechanisms exist there.

Maria Ressa: Let me bring you back to Marwan and to kind of tracing this evolution of this threat because Filipino officials, security officials have said, continue to call the foreigners in the southern Philippines Jemaah Islamiyah. A Malaysian named Fitri, who was brought in, who was recruited by Marwan, became another senior Jemaah Islamiyah leader, how do we observers make sense of this? How did it, in your mind, how do you see the threat evolving from Jemaah Islamiyah to the foreigners who were there to a man like Marwan? As the police and military have gauged out the top and middle right leadership and then you have like these, people like Marwan there now who are now considered the top. How do we begin to take this problem?

Sidney Jones: I think it was always a mistake to lump everybody together as Jemaah Islamiyah, and it was particularly unfortunate because in 2007, Jemaah Islamiyah stopped using violence of any kind in Indonesia, they had stayed on for a while using violence and regular attacks in Poso, Central Sulawesi, but the Bali bombs of 2002 the first, Bali bombs were actually the last time the JI as an institution supported bombing of civilians or indiscriminate bombings. We had a splintered group of JI, led by Noordin Top, that then continued to do bombings until he was killed in 2009. But that was separate from the main Jemaah Islamiyah and it becomes important to distinguish the JI people who had a structural set up in the Philippines, an actual branch administrative structure, the last person to be arrested there was a guy named Taufik Rifke from the people who were once JI members and then fled to the Philippines because they were fleeing arrest by Malaysian, Indonesian, or Singaporean authorities. Those people for the most part, didn’t join with the other JI people and were more inclined to associate eventually with the Abu Sayyaf and became more dangerous than the JI people so it was very important to keep the structural and the non-structural separate. Not to mention other groups from Sulawesi from a faction led by Dar al-Islam and from a group called Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia who were all non-JI also more likely to join Abu Sayyaf but also people who had links that went through Sabah, basically went through Tawau in Sabah and then across into Zamboanga and were also involved in arms trading. The reason it’s important to distinguish who’s who is because it makes a difference in chain of command, and if jI was telling people after 2007 not to get involved in violence, then to call people to continue to call people JI suggests that somehow they are they’re either not reporting to their chain of command or that they’re, they have characteristics that need to be disassociated. It’s just better to actually be as accurate as you can in determining what organization people belong to, what the goals of that organization are and what their intentions now ISIS in the Middle East are.

Maria Ressa: But given that it seemed to have also gone more bottom up, what happened to the more violent guys who went with Abu Bakar Bashir? I guess the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, is this something –

Sidney Jones: No because that’s interesting as well. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir basically broke all ties with JI in 2008 when he founded JAT, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid and that was always a mixed organization there were people in that that only wanted Islamic law, weren’t interested in violence. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir did want violence and there was a wing, a military wing, a clandestined military wing that was set up under JAT. But most of the members were not involved in that and not linked in that. And it was after Ba-asyir who’s in prison now, decided to align himself with ISIS the JAT split. So the majority of JAT members have now left the organization and are members of a new organization called JAS, which is only focusing on advocacy of Islamic law and have very clearly distanced themselves from Ba’asyir and from ISIS.

Maria Ressa: Fascinating. What about, let’s come back to the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf, one of the leaders Isnilon Hapilon as well as the head of the BIFF, both had videos on YouTube pledging allegiance to ISIS, how seriously should the Philippines take this?

Sidney Jones: I think it should take it seriously and this brings us back to AHJAG in the ADHOC Joint Action Group because terrorism is not going to go away in the Philippines and it’s going to be centered probably in areas that are in or near areas with MILF majority. So you will have splintered groups like this, you will have the ASG and will see parts of Sulu probably joining the new Bangsamoro sub-state. So we got to face the possibility that there will continue to be extremists that the leadership of the new sub-state will have to deal with. And the only way to do that is by having a good coordination mechanism that spells out very clearly what the steps are, toward ensuring that these rogue elements as they were called in around 2005 aren’t allowed to function.

Maria Ressa: This is my last detailed question on Marwan, earlier on it seemed that Philippine police found his card in the house of Fathur Rohman al-Gozhi who was a senior JI leader. He seemed to be helping gathering these 21 tons of ammonium nitrate that was supposed to be for the Singapore plot against the embassies and Western offices. Was he part, you said he was never part of JI but yet his cousin had 4 tons of ammonium nitrate in Malaysia that he and his brother was talking about getting that from them then he himself seemed to be helping Fathur Rohman al-Gozhi, how do you make sense of that?

Sidney Jones: There was a very close working relationship between the Salangor branch of KMM and some of the Malaysia based JI operatives in the period around 2000 and 2001 just before the crackdown began in Malaysia. I don’t know specifically about the hiding of the ammonium nitrate but it’s clear that it was the JI members that were urging the more radical of the KMM members, of whom Marwan was one, to undertake violent acts in Malaysia so it’s perfectly possible that it was through that working relationship that he helped hide the ammonium nitrate.

Maria Ressa: Fantastic. Sidney, your last thoughts on this. This is, it’s a very detailed report going over the years of Marwan in the Philippines, really the most detailed we’ve seen so far and then your caution about the seventeen year, this, peace process, your last thoughts?

I just want so much for this peace agreement to succeed and I hope that one result of all these inquiries will be a workable way to develop a mechanism that can help coordinate any counter-terrorism policies with any peace negotiations going forward because ultimately it’s the peace that’s most important.

Maria Ressa: Thank you so much we have been speaking with Sidney Jones, the head of IPAC in Jakarta, Indonesia there’s a great report that came out just yesterday it is on the site, please take a look at it, read through, it’s got the most details about Marwan that’s ever been published.

Thanks so much Sidney.

– Rappler.com

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