Why the fiasco in Basilan

Maria A. Ressa

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How could good men with good intentions go so horribly wrong?

Maria RessaMANILA, Philippines – How could good men with good intentions go so horribly wrong?  You’ve seen my summary of what actually went wrong.  This is my attempt to figure out WHY it did.  Keep in mind that just because the October 18 operation in Basilan was inept (and led to the deaths of 19 soldiers in Al-Barka) doesn’t mean the individual soldiers are inept.

Two officers have been relieved: Lt. Col. Leo Pena, 4th Special Forces Battalion Commander, and Col. Alexander Macario, head of the Special Operations Team-Basilan (SOTF-B).  Speaking with high-ranking officers familiar with the case, one more officer, they say, should have been questioned – if not relieved – as well: Col. Alminkadra Undug, Army Special Forces Regiment Commander based in Zamboanga.  He is Pena’s immediate superior in the Special Forces chain of command and the man whom sources say gave Pena the target intelligence package for the operation.  Col. Undug handled MIG9 (the Military Intelligence Group) in Zamboanga and was implicated in the Hello, Garci scandal.

Col. Macario is outspoken about being bypassed.  When Lt. Col. Pena told him about the operations, troops had already been deployed.  “Wala akong operational lapses,” Macario told me.  Yet, 19 men died so he did what he felt was honorable and volunteered for court martial.  The only man aside from him who had the authority to mobilize the operation is Col. Undug, who allegedly bypassed the area commander.  I could not reach Col. Undug for comment.

This is part of the reason sources say Pena had the courage to “just fyi” Macario, and why Macario allowed the operation to continue.  As Glenda Gloria points out, both Army Chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz and Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin are Special Forces.

There are at least three other underlying complications that may offer additional insights:

    •    A new paradigm in military processes and operations
    •    An unspoken rivalry between the Scout Rangers and the Special Forces
    •    The PMA culture of “Take Life”

Special Operations Task Force-Basilan (SOTF-B) is less than a year old.  When I visited Basilan several months ago, Macario was moving quickly on operations.  He has been effective – leading 22 successful combat operations in 7 months.  

His team is an experiment that may be partly based on a US model.  US operations in the Philippines are carried out by the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P).

Part of the reasoning behind the change was the observation that conventional territorial forces were easily tracked and “made too much noise” which alerted their enemies who were more agile and mobile.

It also, however, meant a new command process that – as October 18 proved – had not been fully tested.
Secondly, some soldiers spoke about a rivalry beneath the surface – between the Scout Rangers and the Special Forces which made up Macario’s team.  The Rangers were chosen to lead the 22 successful operations.  Macario is a Ranger with Special Forces training.  Some SF soldiers said they thought he was partial to the Rangers. He told them: “I don’t want you to die in Basilan.  You are not yet operationally capable.”  

This is the first time the 4th Special Forces Battalion acted as territorial forces, part of the reason why they underestimated both the terrain and their enemy according to a classified investigation report titled “Encounter in Basilan” written on October 20.

Finally, numerous sources spoke about a culture that celebrates courage, a practice they called “take life” – part of officers’ training and culture going back to the Philippine Military Academy.  “Take Life” means having the courage to jump in and take the consequences.  At least two officers cautioned Pena about the dangers of his plan, but he overruled them, allegedly saying “take life.”

I am not a conspiracy theorist; I prefer Occam’s Razor: “the simplest answer is often correct.”  I only offer some possible strands of reasoning which explain why the fiasco in Basilan happened.


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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 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, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.