From GMA News (Sep 18): Malik in his element
Editor's note: Since leading over a hundred gunmen in an attack on Zamboanga
City, MNLF commander Habier Malik has remained an invisible figure, directing
his men from unknown quarters but unseen and unheard by the public. He has not
been interviewed since the crisis began, but GMA News reporter Chino Gaston once
did, in a jungle in Sulu in 2005. He recalls a fearsome figure who wore strong
cologne, kissed comrades on both cheeks, and said he was prepared to die for his
I had sought out Commander
Habier Malik in the jungles of Sulu in 2005 to confirm allegations that the MNLF
was aiding the Abu Sayyaf. There was already speculation back then that the MNLF
had struck an alliance with the terrorist group.
The man was a picture of
stern indifference when I shook his large hands and introduced myself as a
journalist from ABC-5 (my former employer). His light brown, almost gray eyes
hovered warily over me, but there was no hint of emotion on his heavily bearded
There was power in the broad shoulders and the squat, stocky frame,
clad in US-made, seven-color fatigues. On his head he wore a black and white
checkered turban. On his feet were desert-tan combat boots.
Up close I
could smell his strong cologne and a mix of cinammon, incense, and perhaps,
He moved like a tank, ponderous in form but deadly. He
did not carry a gun inside his camp, but a short kris hung from his waist.
Behind him, an aide carried what looked like Malik's rifle, an AK-47.
cameraman Ed De Guzman also shook the MNLF commander's hand but his
cracked when he tried to speak. It was easy to feel fear around this
man who personally led
his men into battle, oftentimes against incredible
A week earlier, Malik and his men used two passenger jeepneys and
and burned a Philippine Marine detachment, in what he said
was a reprisal for the death of a three-year-old child who had been killed by
mortar used by the soldiers.
I still remember that first handshake and
Malik's thick, powerful fingers. His grip was strong and short, a quality no
doubt reserved for strangers like me. But he broke into a wide smile when his
eyes shifted to the man who had brought me to his stronghold.
alaikum," Malik greeted the man, embracing him and planting two kisses on either
After a brief exchange of pleasantries in Tausug, my contact
fished out two satellite phone prepaid cards and gave it to Malik and the
other MNLF personality there, the late Julambri Misuari, the nephew of MNLF
chairman Nur Misuari. Next to the imposing visage of Malik, Julambri's status as
then MNLF Island Commander of Jolo was just a title written on a piece of
We were served native coffee and the strangely shaped snakelike
pastries popular in Sulu. Malik sat and listened to my intermediary rattle off
the recent happenings in Jolo. But from time to time he would fix those
penetrating, searching eyes on me.
Behind Malik, a trio of jet-black
80-mm mortars glistened in the sun.
Guarding the mortars was a group of
young men, carrying mostly M-16 rifles. One or two carried AK-47s. One turbaned
warrior was sitting coolly in the shade of the house, his anti-tank rifle
resting against a wall.
Some of the MNLF fighters posed gamely for our
cameras and even made me carry one of their grenade launchers. Most of the men
at the perimeter of the camp were young and eager to know, like most young men,
about movie stars and whether there were lots of pretty girls in the
The inner circle surrounding Malik, however, was a group of dark,
brooding men in their late forties and early fifties. They carried the best guns
in the camp and seemed to hang on to every word that Malik utters. The younger
fighters reminded me of rascally lion cubs, the older MNLF, the older lions,
stained red from the hunt.
Loyalty to Misuari
agreed to be interviewed by me in 2005, a blood-red MNLF flag was stretched
between two trees as background for the MNLF commander.
When asked to
react to government reports that he was tolerating the atrocities of the Abu
Sayyaf bandits, his eyes suddenly filled with rage. He slammed his hands on the
table, upending my microphone and almost giving me and my cameraman a heart
I heard a few rifle rounds being chambered behind me. I did not
dare turn around to see for myself.
It took a few seconds for Malik to
regain his composure. Then in a deep voice, he explained that although he shared
the same blood and ethnicity with the notorious group, he believed in the
teachings of Allah. Rape and kidnapping were haram or unholy.
"But if the
military attack us here, of course we welcome the help of our Muslim brothers
here with us in the mountains," he said in heavily accented, sing-song
I asked him if he ever regretted his loyalty to Nur Misuari,
whose arrest in 2001 prompted followers like Malik to once again take up arms
against the government.
Malik was a member of the board of the Southern
Philippines Council for Peace and Development, the transitional body that
oversaw the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, when he led the
MNLF attack on the Cabatangan complex in Zamboanga City that year.
are prepared to die for Allah and our beliefs. We have been betrayed by
government," he said, his voice calm, even gentle.
Covering the current
Zamboanga crisis, I could not help but wonder whether any of the weapons I saw
in Malik's camp were being used against government troops. I wonder how many of
the fighters I saw there had joined Malik, and were either dead or
I also wondered whether Malik was using the prized AK-47 or
some other gun.