US aided SAF raiders only
The United States provided real-time intelligence to the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) counterterrorism operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, a year ago but the assistance focused on the commando group carrying DNA from the slain target of the operation, leaving a larger group of troopers to be massacred by Moro rebels.
Former SAF Director Getulio Napeñas spoke about the US involvement in “Oplan Exodus,” the covert SAF operation to get Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, in closed-door sessions of the Senate investigation of the Mamasapano clash in February last year.
The committee report on the Mamasapano investigation confirmed the US involvement, but did not disclose the American failure to help the 55th Special Action Company (SAC), the blocking force that was pinned down by Moro rebels on a cornfield after the mission backfired.
The Inquirer obtained a copy of the transcript of the minutes of the joint committee investigation’s closed-door sessions on Feb. 12, 16, 17, 23 and 24, 2015. Sixteen senators approved the release of the transcript on Wednesday, after a hearing called on the request of Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile.
During the executive sessions, Napeñas testified that the Americans from Joint Task Force Philippines monitored the movements of the 84th SAC, the strike force that killed Marwan in a raid on the terrorist’s hut in Pidsandawan village, Mamasapano, early on Jan. 25, 2015.
The commandos cut off the right index finger of Marwan for DNA testing after shooting him dead and shot their way out of the village.
Napeñas said the Americans monitored the 84th SAC using an “intelligence surveillance reconnaissance aircraft”—a drone—that provided real-time information on the location of the commandos, enabling Philippine troops to find and rescue them.
But the Americans provided no such help to locate the 55th SAC, which frantically called for reinforcement by radio and cell phones as it battled guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and gunmen from the village.
Unfamiliar with Mamasapano, the 55th SAC could not relay its location to the command post in Shariff Aguak and was wiped out in a gun battle that lasted almost the whole day.
Forty-four SAF commandos—35 from the 55th SAC and nine from the 84th SAC—were killed in the clash. Only one member of the 55th SAC escaped.
Seventeen MILF rebels and three civilians were also killed in the clash.
The deaths of the 44 commandos became the worst political crisis of President Aquino, bringing down his ratings to their lowest since he came to office in 2010.
It also set back the peace process between the government and the MILF, with Congress delaying passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that would complete a peace agreement signed in 2014.
Napeñas told the senators that the Americans monitored the 84th SAC from the start of the operation at 4:30 a.m. up to the rescue of its members at 11 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2015.
The commandos were found and led out of Mamasapano by the 61st Division Reconnaissance Company of the Philippine Army led by two fresh graduates of the Philippine Military Academy, Lts. Gabriel C. Bannoya Jr. and Jeymark Y. Mateo, Napeñas said.
“It was focused on the 84th,” Napeñas said, referring to the drone.
“The location of the 55th was forwarded through radio, the grid coordinate, and this was plotted on a big map to determine their location,” Napeñas replied when asked by Sen. Ralph Recto if the drone was also deployed to locate the pinned-down SAC.
When Sen. Nancy Binay asked him why he did not ask the Americans to deploy the drone to find the 55th SAC, Napeñas spoke about cameras far apart but could not explain them.
“I don’t know exactly how,” he said.
The minutes of the closed-door sessions indicated that the senators agreed that the Americans did not care about the 55th SAC and were concerned only with the 84th, which carried Marwan’s severed finger.
Napeñas identified one of the Americans at the SAF command post as Al Latz.
He said the 84th SAC, also called Seaborne, was trained by the Americans. He said Latz once described the 84th SAC as “the best in the SAF.”
The United States offered $5 million for the capture of Marwan, who was linked to the two nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002 that killed 202 people, among them Americans.
US role legal
At the hearing on Wednesday, Enrile said the government must explain why it allowed the Americans to be involved in the operation to get Marwan, which was a law enforcement matter.
Some senators, however, said on Friday that they believed the US role was legal.
Sen. Sonny Angara said what the Constitution forbids is the presence of foreign troops and foreign military bases in the absence of a treaty.
“Technical assistance and training from the US, as revealed during the last hearing, seem to be within legal boundaries,” Angara said in a text message to the Inquirer.
He said aspects of the US participation in the Mamasapano operation that could affect national security should not be disclosed.
Sen. Vicente Sotto III said he was satisfied “to a certain extent” with the explanation of the US role in the SAF mission.
But he, too, said some aspects of the US role should not be disclosed.
“There are some intel matters that should not be made public,” he said.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, interviewed on GMA-7’s “News to Go” program on Friday, confirmed that the United States provided assistance to the Philippines for the operation to get Marwan.
Goldberg said the US assistance came under the United States and the Philippines’ “legal framework.” He did not elaborate.
In his testimony at the Senate on Wednesday, Napeñas said the Philippines and the United States cooperated in the fight against terrorism.
The SAF is the PNP’s counterterrorism unit and the United States cooperated with the SAF because terrorism is the top priority of the US Special Operations Command, Napeñas said.
He said the United States also provided humanitarian assistance to the SAF operation through medical evacuation after the clash and conducted DNA testing to confirm the identity of Marwan.
Goldberg declined to confirm whether the United States deployed a drone for the SAF operation. With a report from Leila B. Salaverria