Wednesday, January 21, 2015

'IT'S VERY SERIOUS, IT HAS GROWN' | PH accuses China of expanding reclamation in West Philippine Sea

From InterAksyon (Jan 21): 'IT'S VERY SERIOUS, IT HAS GROWN' | PH accuses China of expanding reclamation in West Philippine Sea

Philippine officials accused China on Wednesday of expanding reclamation work in disputed waters of the South China Sea, as the United States again called for restraint in the territorial conflict.

Philippine and US officials spoke as the longstanding allies ended a two-day strategic dialogue in Manila, reaffirming defence and economic cooperation.

"The Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) continue to be a serious concern, arising from reports of greater development in reclamation," Philippine defence undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino told reporters.

Batino refused to elaborate on the progress of the reclamation, saying only: "It's very serious. It has grown."

Philippine foreign undersecretary Evan Garcia described the Chinese reclamation work as "massive" and a violation of an agreement among South China Sea claimants not to build new structures until a binding code of conduct is in place.

"It is not helpful in finding a way forward. It is not an example of what everyone would understand as self-restraint," Garcia said.

The Philippines last year accused China of blasting sand and rocks to reclaim areas around reefs in the sea. Facilities under construction reportedly include an airstrip.

The United States has "laid out a persuasive case for restraint" in the South China Sea, said assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel, calling the territorial disputes an "ongoing concern".

"We believe bigger nations can't bully the small," he said.

"We have a huge interest in stable, healthy, constructive bilateral relations with China," Russel said, but the US was also concerned about "behaviour that raises tensions, behaviour that raises questions about China’s intentions".

US assistant defence secretary David Shear said Washington strongly supports Philippine efforts to modernise its military, which is one of the weakest in the region.

He said the US had provided $300 million in military-related assistance since 2001 and would provide another $40 million in 2015.

China's claim to much of the South China Sea conflicts with claims by the Philippines as well as those of Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The Philippines last March, filed a formal plea to the United Nations challenging China's claims.

Surigao Norte declares 10-day ceasefire to pave way for cops’ release by NPA

From MindaNews (Jan 21): Surigao Norte declares 10-day ceasefire to pave way for cops’ release by NPA

The provincial government of Surigao del Norte, through its Provincial Crisis Management Committee, has sought a 10-day extension of the ceasefire between communist rebels and government troops.

This is to pave way for the negotiations for the safe release of the three abducted police personnel in the province.

Atty. Premolito Plaza, the provincial administrator, has issued a press statement on Monday saying that they have continuously exerted efforts for the immediate and safe release of the three Philippine National Police personnel in Surigao del Norte who are still held captive by the New People’s Army (NPA) for over two months now.

The Provincial Crisis Management Committee, in a resolution, recommended a 10-day extension of the ceasefire at the local level, particularly in the areas of Claver, Gigaquit, Bacuag and Alegria.

“The Provincial Crisis Management Committee (PCMC) has been continuously doing concerted efforts for the immediate release of the abducted police personnel,” he said in a press statement released the other day.

PO1 Jonry M. Amper was taken in Malimono town last Nov. 12 while PO3 Democrito Polvorosa Jr. and PO1 Marichel Unclara Contemplo were seized in Alegria town last Nov. 16.

The ceasefire during the holidays announced by Malacañang has already expired at the midnight of January 19.

The captive cops were supposed to be freed by the custodial forces of the NPA before Christmas but the NPA backed out because military presence in the hinterlands continued despite the pronouncement of Suspension of Military Operations, according to Jorge “Ka Oris” Madlos, spokesperson of CPP-NPA-NDF-Mindanao,

The communist rebels also asked the government for another ceasefire from January 6 to 19 to pave way for the release but Madlos claimed military presence persisted over Gigaquit, thus the release was cancelled.

The communists have yet issue their response on the 10-day extension.

Senior Supt. Julito Diray, police provincial director, said he hopes this would result in the release of the kidnapped PNP personnel.

“That’s the consensus of all committees and we have to support it,” Diray said in a text message.

Lt. Col. Arsenio Sadural, commanding officer of 30th Infantry Battalion based in Bad-as, Placer town, said he supported the PCMC’s resolution.

He said he signed the PCMC resolution as a member, but it is subject to the decision of his commanders.

Families and relatives of the captive cops have been longing to see their loved ones.

“It’s been more than two months now. I hope the military would pull out their troops this time,” Mary Jane Longos, sister-in-law of PO1 Democrito Polvorosa, said of the NPA’s demand for the military to clear the way.

Longos said she can’t bear the suffering of her sister and the policeman’s parents.

Top defense, military brass visit troops in Sulu, Zamboanga City

From the Mindanao Examiner BlogSpot site (Jan 21): Top defense, military brass visit troops in Sulu, Zamboanga City

Defense chief Voltaire Gazmin and Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero at the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City. (Photo courtesy of Western Mindanao Command) 

Top Philippine defense and military officials arrived Wednesday in the southern port city of Zamboanga after inspecting troops in Sulu province where security forces are battling the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Defense chief Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces’ chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang and other officials went straight to the headquarters of the Western Mindanao Command where commanders led by Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero briefed them on the current operations against the Abu Sayyaf and other threat groups.

“A briefing on the Internal Peace and Security Operations was presented by Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero, commander of WESTMINCOM, wherein Secretary Gazmin lauded the intensified support to law enforcement operations undertaken by the Command as its ground units continue to make progress against the Abu Sayyaf Group, resulting to a reduced rate of kidnapping activities in the area,” said Marine Captain Maria Rowena Muyuela, a spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command.

She said Catapang also ordered the Western Mindanao Command to further intensify security efforts in Zamboanga City and nearby provinces through the strict implementation of checkpoints and community watch activities in collaboration with the local governments and the police.

The visiting officials came from the headquarters of the 501st Infantry Brigade and the 2nd Marine Brigade in Sulu where local commanders also briefed them on the current campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, blamed by authorities as behind the spate of terror attacks in the southern region.

The visit also coincided with fierce fighting in Basilan province that killed and wounded at least a dozen rebels, according to Muyuela.

NPA explosives seized by soldiers in Albay; NPA man surrenders

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan 21): NPA explosives seized by soldiers in Albay; NPA man surrenders

DAET, Camarines Norte–Four improvised explosive devices (IED) and a firearm believed left behind by suspected New People’s Army rebels were found by government troops near an abandoned coconut kiln in a barangay (village) in Legazpi City on Wednesday morning.

The IED devices were found along with a 9 mm pistol, a 15-meter electrical wire and anti-government documents “of high intelligence value” in Barangay Cagbacong, Legazpi City, at 8:25 a.m., said Lieutenant Albert Bellingan, spokesman of the 2nd Infantry Battalion (2IB) based in Ligao City, Albay.

Bellingan said the explosives were found next to a kiln used for copra-making by farmers.

Captain Mardjorie Panesa, public information officer of 9th Infantry Division, said the soldiers went to the area following reports from residents that suspected rebels were using the kiln, which was located in a wooded area of the village.

Meanwhile, a former NPA member surrendered to the 2IB at 8 a.m., also on Wednesday, said Major Angelo Guzman, spokesman of the Southern Luzon Command (Solcom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Guzman said Lieutenant Colonel Perfecto Peñaredondo, commander of 2IB, identified the former rebel as Gilbert Paloma aka “Ka Vic/Ric,” who operated in Albay.

Camarines Norte declared 'Conflict Manageable and Ready for Further Development'

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Camarines Norte declared 'Conflict Manageable and Ready for Further Development'

With peace now returning to the countryside, the Southern Luzon Command is pleased to announce that Camarines Norte is now "Conflict Manageable and Ready For Further Development".

This status was further cemented when both the Southern Luzon Command and Provincial Government of Camarines Norte signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) attesting to such at the Capitol Compound in Daet in a activity dubbed as "Peoples' Convergence towards Peace and Development," Wednesday.

The MOU was signed by Camarines Norte Gov. Edgardo A. Tallado, Southern Luzon Command head Major Gen. Ricardo Visaya, 9th Infantry Division head Major Gen. Yerson E. Depayos, Department of Labor and Employment Regional Director Nathaniel Lacambra and Supt. Moises P. Pagaduan of PNP Camarines Norte.

According to Lt. Col. Medel Aguilar, 49th Infantry Battalion commander, the signing of the MOU signals the "shifting of effort" from clearing of barangays from insurgent affectation supported by socio-economic development to a reverse role.

The ceremony emphasizes the implementation of more socio-economic and development projects that the civil government will implement with the support and protection of the military.

The Southern Luzon Command through the 902 Infantry Infantry Brigade under Col. Amador Tabuga will maintain an active support role to the PNP in all cleared areas as may be determined by the Camarines Norte PNP and in areas where threats from other armed groups are imminent; it maintains the lead role in areas where there are still insurgents’ activities and recovery efforts.

Meanwhile, Visaya said that there will be no moving out or pulling-out of Army units from Camarines Norte.

He added that the Southern Luzon Command will maintain its current forces to assist the Province and the PNP in insuring that any resurgence of insurgency activities will be prevented.

“We will pursue with vigor the declaration of programmed areas for 'Conflict Manageable and Ready for Further Development," Visaya said.

“We will communicate our goals to the various stakeholders and vigorously engage the local government units to take the lead for the welfare and well-being of their constituents,” he said.

With the increased operational tempo of the campaign this 2015, Visaya hopes other provinces to follow the declarations of Catanduanes and Camarines Norte this year.

On Nov. 25, 2014, the Island Province of Catanduanes was given the same status.

Suspected NPA rebels captured in Iloilo

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Suspected NPA rebels captured in Iloilo
Two alleged members of the New People's Army (NPA) fell into the hands of policemen from the Guimbal Police Station Tuesday night in a police roadblock , Sr. Police Inspector Nolan Pedante said.

Sofronio Talaban, Sr, 60 years old and Anthony John Tejan, 34, were riding in tandem a motorcycle as they approached the checkpoint and tried an evasive maneuver, but determined police officers held them down.

Seized from the two were a homemade shotgun, a magazine containing 9 bullets, a 45 cal.handgun and two loaded magazines.

The suspected rebels have already spent the night in the Guimbal police detention cell awaiting charges.

Meanwhile, police checkpoints are already in place at strategic points around Iloilo City in view of the strict implementation of the gun ban beginning January 17 until January 22 to ensure the peaceful celebration of the Dinagyang Festival on January 23-25.

Iloilo City Police Office (ICPO) Spokesman Gilbert Gorero warned residents and visitors not to carry their firearms during the gun ban to avoid running afoul of the law.

Army in Negros, Panay told be more vigilant as SOMO ends

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Army in Negros, Panay told be more vigilant as SOMO ends

Soldiers of the Philippine Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (ID) are directed to be more vigilant as the government concluded the month-long suspension of offensive military operations (SOMO) on January 19.

The conduct of combat operations will continue in the 3rd ID area of responsibility.

“Our main goal here is to maintain peace and order especially in the hinterland barangays,” said Maj. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero, commander of 3rd ID, in a press statement.

He added: “But eventually, we want our brothers and sisters from the New People's Army to lay down their arms and be with us in our peace efforts.”

Guerrero added that Army troops should remain focused on its mandate to serve and secure the people of Western Visayas.

“We should be steadfast in pursuing our respective mission with other stakeholders in the community,” he said.

Guerrero also noted that NPA rebels who wish to abandon the armed struggle can avail of government assistance through the Comprehensive Local Integration Program (CLIP).

Under CLIP, a rebel who surrenders to the government with their firearms will be given a P15,000 financial support, livelihood assistance of P50,000, and remuneration for surrendered firearm depending on the caliber whether high powered or low powered.

Livelihood training and support will also be provided to the rebels and their families.

Troops capture 2 ASG camps in Basilan; 1 bandit killed, 3 others wounded in fresh clashes

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Troops capture 2 ASG camps in Basilan; 1 bandit killed, 3 others wounded in fresh clashes

Government forces have captured two camps of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) as fresh clashes ensued that resulted in the death of an ASG member and injured four others in Basilan province, military officials said Wednesday.

Rear Admiral Reynaldo Yoma, Task Force Zambasulta commander, said the clash broke out around 11 a.m. Tuesday while the troops were on law enforcement operations at Sitio Penas, Barangay Pamatsaken, Sumisip, Basilan province.

Yoma said the Abu Sayyaf brigands fled towards north direction following a 15-minute firefight that injured one of the brigands, Yusof Sandatan, based on information gathered by the troops.

Yoma said the bandits numbering around 25 people were led by Juhaibel Alamsirul alas Abu Kik, a Basilan-based sub-leader of the ASG.

Yoma said that around 12:55 p.m., the troops conducted counter-sniper operation when they came under enemy sniper fires as they “inched their way in clearing the enemy position” in Baiwas-Pamatsaken area.

He said that another firefight ensued around 1:38 p.m. in at Sitio Crossing, Barangay Baiwas, Sumisip, as the troops continued to clear the area.

He said the number of the Abu Sayyaf members swelled to 50 as the group of Abu Kik was reinforced by the group of another ASG sub-leader identified as Radzmil Janatul alias Abu Khubayb.

He said the firefight lasted for about two hours “with the troops effectively conducting fire and maneuver and the employment of close-air support” that forced the Abu Sayyaf brigands to flee towards west direction.

He said the brigands suffered one death and three others wounded. The troops suffered zero casualties in the separate clashes.

He said the two ASG camps the troops have captured in Barangay Baiwas, Sumisip can accommodate more or less 100 people.

Col. Rolando Joselito Bautista, commander of the Basilan-based Army’s 104th Infantry Brigade, said the troops have also recovered an improvised explosive device (IED) at the old school building in Barangay Baiwas, Sumisip.

Bautista said the Abu Sayyaf brigands that figured Tuesday in the series of firefight with the troops were responsible for the death of six soldiers, including a junior officer, on November 2, 2014 in Barangay Libug, Sumisip.

The troops who belong to the Army’s 64th Infantry Battalion were providing security to the concreting of the Basilan circumferential road when the bandits ambushed them.

Yoma said the law enforcement operations aimed to defeat the lawless elements particularly the ASG will continue in coordination with the police and local government officials in Basilan province.

Explosives, firearms seized in Army raid in Legazpi

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Explosives, firearms seized in Army raid in Legazpi
LEGAZPI CITY- Army soldiers recovered on Wednesday improvised explosives, a 15-meter electrical wire, a 9mm handgun and assorted anti-government documents left behind by suspected New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in the hinterland of Barangay Cagbacong here, a Philippine Army (PA) officer said.
Army Col. Raul Farnacio, commander of the 901st Infantry Brigade here, said the soldiers were on a response mission after residents tipped off the Army about the presence of NPA rebels extorting money and food from the villagers.

The team of Army soldiers, led by 1Lt. Joel Pedregoza, while on combat operation, swooped down a coconut kiln (coprahan) in the village and recovered the explosive devices, wires, hand gun, hammock and anti-government materials left by the fleeing rebels when they sensed that government troopers were arriving.

Army Captain Marjorie Panes, public information officer of the 9th Infantry Division, said in a text message that the rebels belong to the Larangan 1, Komiteng Probinsya, operating in Albay.

Barangay Cagbacong, a remote village here, is about 45 minutes' ride from this city.

The village is a rebel-influenced area and it is a mobility corridor from Albay to Sorsogon province.

Meanwhile, Gilbert Paloma, alias Ka Vic/Ric, a former NPA rebel operating in Albay, surrendered to Lt.Col. Perfecto Penaredondo, commander of the 22nd Infantry Battalion based in the province.

401st Brigade, Philippine Army has a new commander

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): 401st Brigade, Philippine Army has a new commander

The 401st “Team Unity” Brigade of the Philippine Army has a new commander after a turnover of command of the said brigade was conducted Wednesday afternoon.

Major Christian Uy, the 4th Infantry “Diamond” Division, Philippine Army spokesman, said that the change of command rites was presided over by Major General Oscar T. Lactao, commanding general of the 4ID, PA.

Replacing outgoing 401st Brigade chief BGen. Gregory Cayetano, Uy said, is Col. Alexander Macario, whom Cayetano called as “his equally efficient and effective teammate.”

In an interview with the outgoing 401st Brigade chief last Monday, he said Col. Macario can do more and introduce some new improvements in the brigade.

Cayetano during the Monday interview also mentioned that he will be moving up to the Army general headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo to assume his post as assistant chief for Education and Training of the Armed Forces (G-8).

BGen. Cayetano was the guest of honor and speaker during the PNP’s Monday flag-raising rites.

The Army’s 401st Brigade operates on the two provinces of Agusan and Surigao del Sur.

Army to exhume bodies of 1980s NPA liquidation victims

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Army to exhume bodies of 1980s NPA liquidation victims

The Philippine Army will formally exhume on Friday the remains of victims liquidated by the New People’s Army (NPA) in San Vicente village, MacArthur, Leyte.

Lt. Col. Allan Jose Taguba, commander of the Philippine Army’s 78th Infantry Battalion, said in a statement that at least two bodies have been recovered from the mass grave site recently discovered by the military through the help of local residents.

Local officials identified the bodies as those of Necostrates Novio from Lanawan village in MacArthur town and Lolito Custodio from Mag-aso village in La Paz town.

The Army believed that several victims of summary killing were buried in San Vicente village, and need formal exhumation in the presence of local government officials, police scene of the crime operatives, Commission on Human Rights, and religious sector.

To raise public awareness on past atrocities of NPA, the Army held a series of film showing in MacArthur town. The video showed the Inopacan Massacre where several rebels suspected as government supporters were killed by the NPA.

“This led the residents of Barangay San Vicente to reveal that purging by the NPA also transpired in the areas of MacArthur, Leyte as part of their Oplan Venereal Disease in the 1980s. The residents later pinpointed where the victims were executed and buried,” Taguba said.

US Navy hospital ship to visit Capiz

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): US Navy hospital ship to visit Capiz

Many residents in Capiz as well as other provinces in Western Visayas would benefit from the expected visit of a hospital ship of the United States Navy sometime in July this year.

Through the Pacific Partnership 2015, the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship of the US Navy, will be conducting a two-week humanitarian mission in Capiz.

According to Captain Captain John Carlson, head of the US Navy’s civil military operations, part of services to be made available are medical mission including on disaster risk reduction, community outreach and engineering.

Reports said to be offered in the medical mission are free operations to patients.

According to Dr. Kevin Cassey, the mission will conduct several surgical operations to be performed by a specialist doctor right on board the USNS Mercy which is equipped with and modern facilities.

Aside from community outreach, the visiting US Navy ship will also help train personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to further strengthen its capability on disaster risk reduction and engineering.

Moro fronts urged to dialogue, unite in Bangsamoro Law

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Moro fronts urged to dialogue, unite in Bangsamoro Law

Lawmakers on Tuesday urged Moro fronts to dialogue, compromise, and forge unity on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law that is being reviewed by Congress for passage early this year.

Representatives from different groups of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) served as resource persons during the 35th public hearing conducted by the House of Representatives' Ad Hoc Committee on the BBL on January 20 at the Batasan complex. Leaders of the Federation of Sultanates were also present as well as Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) President Amina Rasul.

Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon asked resource persons from the two Moro fronts on the possibility of “reconciling their differences (on the BBL).”

Biazon reiterated the need for compromise among the diverse Muslim communities, Christian settlers, and Indigenous Peoples in the proposed Bangsamoro territory, as the Congress will pass only one law.

Ad Hoc Committee chair Rufus Rodriguez, Representative of the second district of Cagayan de Oro City, mentioned that there is the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum (BCF) under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The BCF serves as the mechanism for the MNLF and MILF to “coordinate their movements toward achieving the aspiration of the Bangsamoro people towards just and lasting peace, and peaceful resolution of their problems.”

Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong underscored that “reconciliation (in opinions or interests) is a challenge to all of us.” He meant that even Muslims and Bangsamoro lawmakers in the House of Representatives should also be part of the effort to forge unity among the Bangsamoro groups “to come up with a solid position so the Ad Hoc Committee will not face hardships in passing the BBL.”

Loong, the chair of the Committee of Muslim Affairs, suggested that he will invite the Moro fronts for a discussion on issues on the Bangsamoro bill. Citing optimism that Bangsamoro groups can sit down together, he asked time for the discussion to happen so that the Moro fronts can “come to common ground.”

South Cotabato 2nd District Rep. Ferdinand Hernandez shared his optimism that it is possible for Moro fronts to unite. “I think all factions here are open to threshing out differences and coming up with one position on the BBL.”‎

He emphasized that the Ad Hoc Committee made numerous public consultations “because we want to come up with a BBL that is acceptable and doable. We are putting a lot of efforts on this because we want this to succeed.”

Bangsamoro gov’t inclusive, open for participation

Meanwhile, Bukidnon Governor Jose Zubiri, who was present during the hearing earlier encouraged that “all sectors of Muslims come together and support one Bangsamoro.”

Government of the Philippines (GPH) Peace Panel Chair Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer echoed the call of Zubiri for “our brothers and sisters of the Bangsamoro to sit down and discuss how they can further their unity and also the kind of arrangement that they may obtain among themselves so that all together, we will be moving forward towards the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.”

Coronel-Ferrer stressed that that intention of the BBL “is to create a democratic institution that will enable that kind of broad popular participation and representation from the different segments of the populace that will fall under the future Bangsamoro autonomous government.”

She urged participation in the elections for the future Bangsamoro government “through the political parties that are being opened up for formation and participation in the Bangsamoro parliament.” The government chief negotiator noted that the Bangsamoro Parliament itself will be made up of a much bigger set of representation through the party-list system.

Moro fronts’ views on BBL

The MNLF group under the leadership of Datu Abul Khayr Alonto, during the public hearing, expressed full support to the signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and the passage of the BBL. Alonto earlier signed a communique with MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim on January 5 at Camp Darapanan, that says both Moro fronts agree to "continue working together to foster strong Unity, Solidarity and Brotherhood as one Bangsamoro people.”

On the other hand, the MNLF group under the leadership of Muslimin Sema, clarified that they “are not against CAB and BBL in the furtherance of peace in our homeland.” However, they see the CAB as a partial fulfilment of both the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and 1996 Final Peace Agreement.

Sema, nevertheless, ended with a positive note that “We will not set aside all that we have gained in the years of peacemaking. We can work on current legislative process to preserve the gains of FPA, if the CAB is converged and linked to two previous agreements.” He said that both MNLF and MILF accepted autonomy to address the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination. However, it “should be comprehensive autonomy.”

On his part, MILF Peace Panel Chair and Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) Chair Mohagher Iqbal said that the MILF and MNLF are actually in talking terms. “We have met with MNLF several times. We are reaching out to everybody. We are doing it in most practical way and I think we are proceeding and succeeding.”

Military units pursuing rebel band who torched heavy equipment in South Cotabato

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Military units pursuing rebel band who torched heavy equipment in South Cotabato

Army units are now conducting pursuing operations against the New People's Army (NPA) band who torched a bulldozer parked at the SUMIFRU Packing Plan at Sitio Spring, Barangay Poblacion, T'Boli town, South Cotabato Tuesday night.

The incident took place at 8:37 p.m., 102nd Infantry Brigade public affairs office Capt. Rey Balibagoso said.

He added that two unidentified rebels, armed with high-powered firearms, made their way inside the facility and torched the bulldozer, owned by the Jargon Construction Company.

The NPAs quickly made their escape while responding employees of the plant extinguished the blaze.

Balibagoso said that they are looking into the extortion angle as the owners of the gutted tractor has been getting demand letters from the NPAs.

Turkey-led decommissioning body of GPH-MILF, eyes Army base as guns' storage

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): Turkey-led decommissioning body of GPH-MILF, eyes Army base as guns' storage

A Philippine military brigade headquarters in Maguindanao, once the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is being eyed to be the storage facility of firearms the MILF will decommission as part of the Mindanao peace process.

Colonel Ariel dela Vega, the military's 603rd Infantry Brigade, said the brigade compound is ready to host the firearms to be turned over by the MILF to an independent body.

“It’s the best option since the place has historical relevance for the MILF, that until now it is a sentimental place, the home of former leader and founder Salamat Hashim is still preserved in thickly forested site inside the camp,” Dela Vega told the visiting members of the Independent Decommissioning Body of the GPH and MILF.

If plan pushes through, the storage facility will be jointly guarded by the Joint Security Peace Team (JSPT), to be composed of 1,400 men (700 police and soldiers and 700 MILF combatants).

MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said the IDP is yet to decide with finality whether the Army camp will be the official storage facility for firearms laid down by the MILF combatants.

The 603rd Army Brigade headquarters in Barira, Maguindanao used to be the Camp Abubakar, the main MILF camp before it fell to government hands following the 2000 all-out war. It is now known as “Camp Iranun.”

On Tuesday, Turkey Ambassador to the Philippines Haydar Berk, chair of the IDB, led his team to a site inspection inside the Army camp and received briefing about the camp profile by Colonel Dela Vega.

Berk was accompanied by his vice-chairman General Jan Erik Wilhelmsen of Norway, fellow Norwegians and Brunei delegates and GPH and MILF panel members.

During the briefing, Dela Vega told the IDB team that Camp Iranun was ideal and conducive for the decommissioning team and GPH and MILF because it is accessible to both sides.

Camp Iranun compound was also eyed as training venue for the composite JSPT.

The IDP is also eyeing two other areas. These are the regional headquarters of PNP in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the old Maguindanao provincial capitol in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.

The formation of JSPT is still underway. Its main tasks, aside from securing the arms storage facility, is to ensure law and order prevail in the area and its surroundings and to ensure it is safe from Armed Lawless Group, clan wars or “rido,” illegal drug operations and election violence.

The possible scenario would be the MILF firearms will be kept in container van and will be secured IDP representatives and JSPT. “Should both sides dedice, the firearms will be destroyed,” Dela Vega said.

Dela Vega said the Army is still waiting technical people to assess and determine what are other requirements needed in the establishment of a storage facility.

Under the Normalization process, the IDP will conduct inventory, verification and validation of Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) members, its arms and weapons.

It is tasked to develop and implement a schedule of decommissioning, plan, design using techniques and technologies for weapons collection or retrieval, transport and storage in accordance with the agreement of the parties and report on the progress of its work to the GPH-MILF panels.

The decommissioning body is expected to receive about 75 assorted firearms from the MILF in the first week of February.

PHL, US officials hail “successful” strategic dialogue in Manila

From the Philippine News Agency (Jan 21): PHL, US officials hail “successful” strategic dialogue in Manila

The Philippines and United States on Wednesday hailed as “successful” its two-day strategic bilateral dialogue as both allies renewed its commitment to further bolster cooperation in various areas, particularly on trade, defense and security.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Evan Garcia said the 5th Philippines-US Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) in Manila reaffirmed the depth of the two nations’ partnership and its commitment to ensure that their alliance “remains responsive and flexible in addressing the realities of the 21st century.”

“The Philippines and the U.S. have a traditional friendship that is longstanding. We are strong allies,” Garcia said in his opening remarks.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Daniel Russel said this year’s dialogue once again underscored the enduring strength of the alliance between Manila and Washington.

“We see through the BSD important opportunities to make it stronger,” Russel said.

“The Philippines is an old friend and important partner and a great ally,” Russsel added, noting that the meeting is a very important vehicle for bolstering the two countries’ communication and coordination.

In his opening statement, Russel likewise reiterated President Barack Obama’s “rock solid commitment” to the Philippines and to Washington’s 54-year old Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila which obligates the US to come to the country’s defense in the event of an external armed attack.

Amid on ongoing territorial dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, Russel stressed that the dialogue is not aimed against any country.

“I would say very clearly that our alliance is not aimed against a third country,” he said. “Our alliance serve the cause of peace and stability.”

Garcia said the discussion between Philippine and US officials covered all aspects of its bilateral relations.

On the economic side, Garcia said they pledged to continue their joint endeavors to ensure that the momentum of Philippine economic development is maintained through various programs that would enhance its capabilities to pursue the kind of inclusive growth that it envisions.

There was also full exchange on defense and security, as well as regional developments, where both sides reviewed how to improve interoperability and exchanges between their respective defense establishments.

The Philippines and the US, Garcia noted, examined regional and international issues, such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The two sides, he said, reaffirmed “continuing concern over destabilizing activities that are contrary to Declaration on the Conduct of Party in the South China Sea, as well as international law.”

Other areas of discussion, Garcia said, include people to people exchange, cooperation against transnational crime, climate change and cybercrime.

“I would say the 5th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue has set the ground for continuing momentum to our bilateral partnership to be able to achieve the respective national priorities that we have as well the objectives of our alliance in maintaining the peace and stability of our region,” he said.

Military suspects BIFF behind recent bomb blasts in Mindanao

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan 20): Military suspects BIFF behind recent bomb blasts in Mindanao


Members of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). INQUIRER FILE PHOTO
The military suspects the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to be the culprit behind the recent bombings in Central Mindanao.

“Although they have denied any links we are trying to ascertain if these denials are true. So far we have not received any categorical information to say otherwise,” Armed Forces spokesperson Colonel Restituto Padilla told reporters on Tuesday.

Padilla said the bombs used could be traced to the BIFF, but the investigation is still ongoing.

“Some of the data coming out are showing signs … there are certain elements within the BIFF using the same kind of techniques,” he said.

Last Sunday, a bomb attack toppled a transmission tower of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) in Pikit in North Cotabato.

This caused a blackout in the provinces of North Cotabato and Maguindanao including Cotabato City.

Five days earlier, an improvised explosive device also damaged an NGCP tower in Pagalungan town in Maguindanao.

The BIFF, a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which has sealed a peace deal with the government, has repeatedly denied the links with the explosions.

Asked whether the bombings have something to do with the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), Padilla said: “The BIFF actually is against the passing of the BBL. They do not want an end to the peace talks with the Bangsamoro and the MILF. It might be the reason they are sowing trouble in Central Mindanao.”

Hillary Clinton uses Philippines as example in gender-inclusive peace process

From the Philippine Star (Jan 20): Hillary Clinton uses Philippines as example in gender-inclusive peace process

Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded the Philippines for the involvement of women in its peace process. AP/Elise Amendola, File

During a speech at Georgetown University, former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended the Philippines for its gender-inclusive peace process.

According to a report, Clinton mentioned the participation of women in the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which resulted to the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.

“Consider what has happened recently in the Philippines. Hope for peace was all but gone when two strong women, Teresita Quintos Deles and Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, took over the negotiations. They made inclusivity their mantra. And thanks greatly to their efforts, finally a peace was brokered in a historic deal," Clinton said.

The signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro ended one of the longest internal conflicts in Southeast Asia.

Coronel-Ferrer is the first woman in the world to sign a major peace agreement, also under a woman peace process office chief- Deles.

Deles and Coronel-Ferrer are joined by two more women in the negotiating team - National Commission on Muslim Filipinos Secretary Yasmin Busran-Lao and National Security Council Undersecretary and Technical Working Group on Normalization chair Zenonida Brosas.

“Women leaders, it has been found, are good at building coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and speaking up for other marginalized groups… It’s important to underscore this overriding fact: Women are not just victims of conflict. They are agents of peace and agents of change," Clinton added.
Clinton talked about the Philippine peace process in front of women peace leaders from various countries at the Georgetown's Institute of Women, Peace and Security.

The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law is currently under deliberation at the Senate and House of Representatives.

MNLF faction tells Congress: Preserve gains of previous peace pacts in crafting BBL

From GMA News (Jan 20): MNLF faction tells Congress: Preserve gains of previous peace pacts in crafting BBL

The leader of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has cautioned the government against disregarding the previous peace agreements signed by Moro groups with the Philippine government in its desire to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
Muslimin Sema, chair of one of four MNLF factions, appealed to lawmakers on Tuesday to “strike a balance between the crafting a good law … and preserv[ing] the gains of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and 1996 Final Peace Agreement.”
“Make the whole peace process work equally for the MNLF and MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) by integrating the gains we achieved from the agreements we have with the government of the Philippines,” Sema said at the hearing of the House ad hoc panel on the BBL.
In contrast to the fervent support expressed by the Alonto faction for the Bangsamoro bill, Sema had no categorical statement on the measure.
He noted, however, that the proposed BBL’s current form “is a recipe for the disintegration” of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
“The way the BBL is written, we are bound to lose what we have gained in the last four decades  of our people’s struggle,” Sema said.
Amendment, not repeal
In keeping with the gains of the 1976 and 1996 peace agreements, Sema said the Organic Act that created the ARMM should only be amended instead of being repealed by the BBL.
He added that the government should also no longer hold a plebiscite to determine the scope of the envisioned Bangsamoro political entity because the ARMM is already part of the Bangsamoro homeland of 13 provinces and nine cities stipulated in the Tripoli Agreement of 1976.
“The people in the ARMM have already signified their affirmation of their autonomy in two occasions,” Sema said.
Cognizant of Sema’s concerns, Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong, a former MNLF commander, said Congress must look into the abolition of the ARMM following the passage of the BBL. 
“The word 'abolishing' must be looked into. If you abolish ARMM, it's tantamount to rejecting the gains of 1976 & 1996 peace accords,” he said.
The 1976 Tripoli Agreement, signed by the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos and the MNLF led by Nur Misuari, sought to establish autonomy in 13 provinces in the southern and western Philippines: Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, and Palawan.
Final public hearings
However, a 1977 plebiscite resulted in the retention of the political subdivisions of Western and Central Mindanao that Marcos had earlier created.
ARMM was officially created in 1989 with the passage of the Organic Act or RA 6734. At present, it is composed of the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.
In 1996, the administration of President Fidel Ramos signed the final peace agreement with the MNLF on the “full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976."
The ad hoc House panel tackling the BBL is set to wrap up public hearings on the measure on Tuesday. The committee will conduct executive sessions to review provisions of the bill and the results of public consultations before approving the committee report on Feb. 9. 
Committee chair Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez targets the Bangsamoro bill's approval on third reading in the House of Representatives by the end of February.

ARMM pouring P600M into town, site of troop killings

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan 21): ARMM pouring P600M into town, site of troop killings

AL-BARKA, Basilan—The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is pouring P600 million into this town, where more than 250 government soldiers have died in attacks by and encounters with Abu Sayyaf bandits.

ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman said Al-Barka, the town most associated with banditry in Basilan province, was the recipient of a P600-million investment that would include road projects, ports, water systems and livelihood grants.

A huge chunk of the budget will go to road-concreting projects amounting to P400 million.

“We will ensure that all roads are connected,” Hataman said.

This means, he said, roads will now connect Al-Barka to the towns of Tipo-Tipo and Lamitan and the main highways leading to the village of Cambug, where top leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are keeping camps.

The rest of the funds will be spent on the construction of ports, water systems and livelihood programs, Hataman said.

Hadja Suada Asnawi, wife of Dan Asnawi, commander of the 114th Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces of the MILF in Basilan, said what the MILF communities needed were “working structures for health, water and education.”

“Our children have to travel down to Lamitan for education. Our people have to go far to fetch water in Tipo-Tipo, and we don’t have health facilities,” she said.

Hadija Hassan, a resident of Ginanta village, said they also needed jobs and livelihood projects.

“Once everyone is with steady income, they will never join the Abu Sayyaf group,” Hassan said.

“But how can we find work here? Who will invest here if bandits keep harassing the people?” he added.

Hataman said it was the first time that Al-Barka was getting this much funds.

Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez, deputy commander of the Western Mindanao Command and head of the military’s coordination committee on the cessation of hostilities, said the government had suffered setbacks in Al-Barka.

“Since 1997 to the end of 2012, there were more than 256 soldiers killed and 560 wounded,” he said, referring to casualties suffered by the government in fighting the Abu Sayyaf.

Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said the construction of highways linking Al-Barka to other towns was the “concrete path to peace and better lives for the people.”

Guerrero, a former brigade commander based in Basilan, admitted that “we have seen that the violent path is not a solution, military solution is not a solution, so we must exploit the opportunity of a peaceful option.

Soldiers, Abu Sayyaf bandits fight in Sumisip, Basilan

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan 20): Soldiers, Abu Sayyaf bandits fight in Sumisip, Basilan
Government troops and Abu Sayyaf clashed on Tuesday morning in Sumisip, Basilan.

Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command, said the fighting started at 11 a.m. in Sitio Penas in Barangay (village) Pamatsaken.

“Our troops were conducting law enforcement operations when they clashed with 25 bandits,” Muyuela said of the firefight that lasted 15 minutes. She said the bandits were led by Juhaibel Alamsirul alias Abu Kik.

The military could not say if the bandits suffered casualties.

But Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman said he was “told there were casualties on the part of the ASG but it (the report) is still subject for validation.”

Hataman said prior to the clash, other armed groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, two rebel fronts in peace processes with the Philippine government, were advised to remain in their respective areas to “avoid a mis-encounter.”

Factions of Moro rebel group dispute benefits of proposed parliamentary gov’t for Bangsamoro

From Business World (Jan 20): Factions of Moro rebel group dispute benefits of proposed parliamentary gov’t for Bangsamoro

LEADERS of several factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) acknowledged the need to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), but questioned if the planned parliamentary government would do good for Mindanao.
Coming forward to represent a subgroup of the MNLF, faction leader Datu Abul Khayr D. Alonto yesterday pushed for a federal government in lieu of the planned Bangsamoro parliament, saying the former is the better option to secure autonomy for the region.
“I believe it is the political will of change that can come to this country. This centralized form of government, it’s not working. It’s a failure,” Mr. Alonto said in an interview on the sidelines of a committee hearing at the House of Representatives on Tuesday. “In terms of development also, it will be more equitable... That will be more suited to the needs and the requirements of this country.”

Mr. Alonto added to say that he is supportive of a move for Charter change to accommodate federalism for Mindanao, and in the long run, for the entire Philippines.

“If there are any constitutional infirmities in the BBL, then let us raise and address them now, so that our nation can be made aware that the time to amend the Constitution has come,” he told lawmakers.

For her part, government peace panel chief Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, can only say: “Let us pass BBL first and talk about federalism afterwards.”

Datu Muslimin G. Sema, head of another MNLF faction, likewise doubted the viability of a parliament for the Bangsamoro.
“The Philippine state adopted the presidential parliamentary form of government under the 1973 Philippine Constitution and under the Martial Law Regime, and it is safe to assume that it did not work,” Mr. Sema said.

There is no need to repeal existing laws involving peace agreements earlier forged with the MNLF with government to give way for the Bangsamoro, Mr. Sema added, as the new law should be crafted as an “enhancement” of earlier efforts.

He is referring to the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement earlier entered into by the government with the MNLF, which he said is not being implemented to this day.

Nevertheless, the two factions said they are still supporting the passage of a “stronger” BBL. The MNLF’s Nur Misuari faction and the rebel group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, meanwhile, skipped Tuesday’s hearing.
The hearing is the 35th in a series of House panel deliberations and public consultations since the BBL was filed before Congress in September as House Bill 4994.

On Wednesday, the last public hearing will be held at the House with heads of local government units in Mindanao.

Executive sessions will be held by the 75-member ad hoc panel from Jan. 26-28 and Feb. 2-4 to finalize provisions of the bill. Committee approval is set on Feb. 9 to give time for plenary discussions and final reading approval of the House by Feb. 25, Rep. Rufus B. Rodriguez (Cagayan de Oro, 2nd district) said.

Meanwhile, as the House draws the BBL deliberations to a close, the Senate is scrambling to finish its own discussions on the proposed law, eyeing to have it finished by the third month of the year.

On Monday, Senate President Franklin M. Drilon said that the Senate could finish the deliberations by the second week of March as what was initially planned last year.

“We’ll work on it double time, we’ll work on it extra hard [so that we can meet] our self-imposed deadline on the first quarter of this year,” Mr. Drilon told reporters.

Mr. Drilon also said that they are seeking the counsel of the framers of the 1987 Constitution to weigh in on the constitutionality of the draft law.

“It is our belief that the framers of the 1987 Constitution are in the best position to assess the constitutionality of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and determine its conformity to the vision, spirit and core principles of the Constitution they had penned nearly three decades ago,” he said in a statement released separately.

The 1986 Constitutional Commission members include legal luminaries such as former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, former Justice Adolfo Azcuna, former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Christian Monsod, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, and former Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento.

In Malacañang, Communications Secretary Herminio B. Coloma, Jr. said the earlier delay in the proposed law’s approval will not affect the government’s timetable of putting in place a new political entity in Mindanao by 2016 as it remains a Palace priority.

Nanatili naman tayong on-track doon sa schedule na inaasam natin na pagpasa ng Bangsamoro Basic Law. Nasa huling yugto na ng mga konsultasyon at pagsasa-ayos nung ihahain sa Kongreso. (We remain on schedule regarding the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. We are on the last chapter of consultations,)” he said in a radio interview Tuesday aired over state-run DZRB.

US Special Forces Are Operating in More Countries Than You Can Imagine

Posted to the progressive publication The Nation (Jan 20): US Special Forces Are Operating in More Countries Than You Can Imagine

What do you know about the special forces carrying out a secret war in more than half the nations on the planet?

US Special Forces in Sudan

A US Special Forces trainer supervises a military assault drill in Sudan in 2013. (Reuters/Andreea Campeanu)

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In the dead of night, they swept in aboard V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Landing in a remote region of one of the most volatile countries on the planet, they raided a village and soon found themselves in a life-or-death firefight. It was the second time in two weeks that elite U.S. Navy SEALs had attempted to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers. And it was the second time they failed.

On December 6, 2014, approximately 36 of America’s top commandos, heavily armed, operating with intelligence from satellites, drones, and high-tech eavesdropping, outfitted with night vision goggles, and backed up by elite Yemeni troops, went toe-to-toe with about six militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When it was over, Somers was dead, along with Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher due to be set free the next day. Eight civilians were also killed by the commandos, according to local reports. Most of the militants escaped.

That blood-soaked episode was, depending on your vantage point, an ignominious end to a year that saw U.S. Special Operations forces deployed at near record levels, or an inauspicious beginning to a new year already on track to reach similar heights, if not exceed them.

During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries—roughly 70% of the nations on the planet—according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life—just 66 days into fiscal 2015—America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.

Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans. Unlike the December debacle in Yemen, the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny. In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, official White House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
The Golden Age
“The command is at its absolute zenith. And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.” Those were the words of Army General Joseph Votel III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, as he assumed command of SOCOM last August.
His rhetoric may have been high-flown, but it wasn’t hyperbole. Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, including their numbers, their budget, their clout in Washington, and their place in the country’s popular imagination. The command has, for example, more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today, including a jump of roughly 8,000 during the three-year tenure of recently retired SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven.

Those numbers, impressive as they are, don’t give a full sense of the nature of the expansion and growing global reach of America’s most elite forces in these years. For that, a rundown of the acronym-ridden structure of the ever-expanding Special Operations Command is in order. The list may be mind-numbing, but there is no other way to fully grasp its scope.

The lion’s share of SOCOM’s troops are Rangers, Green Berets, and other soldiers from the Army, followed by Air Force air commandos, SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen and support personnel from the Navy, as well as a smaller contingent of Marines. But you only get a sense of the expansiveness of the command when you consider the full range of “sub-unified commands” that these special ops troops are divided among: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the globe-trotting Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC—a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by McRaven and then Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army's Delta Force, that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.

And don’t think that’s the end of it, either. As a result of McRaven’s push to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners,” Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019. The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among others.
Shadow Ops

Special Operations Command’s global reach extends further still, with smaller, more agile elements operating in the shadows from bases in the United States to remote parts of Southeast Asia, from Middle Eastern outposts to austere African camps. Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. Take, for instance, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) which, at its peak, had roughly 600 U.S. personnel supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf. After more than a decade spent battling that group, its numbers have been diminished, but it continues to be active, while violence in the region remains virtually unaltered.

A phase-out of the task force was actually announced in June 2014. “JSOTF-P will deactivate and the named operation OEF-P [Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines] will conclude in Fiscal Year 2015,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee the next month. “A smaller number of U.S. military personnel operating as part of a PACOM [U.S. Pacific Command] Augmentation Team will continue to improve the abilities of the PSF [Philippine Special Forces] to conduct their CT [counterterrorism] missions...” Months later, however, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines remained up and running. “JSOTF-P is still active although the number of personnel assigned has been reduced,” Army spokesperson Kari McEwen told reporter Joseph Trevithick of War Is Boring.

Another unit, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Bragg, remained in the shadows for years before its first official mention by the Pentagon in early 2014. Its role, according to SOCOM’s Bockholt, is to “train and equip U.S. service members preparing for deployment to Afghanistan to support Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.” That latter force, in turn, spent more than a decade conducting covert or “black” ops “to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of” the Afghan government. This meant night raids and kill/capture missions—often in concert with elite Afghan forces—that led to the deaths of unknown numbers of combatants and civilians. In response to popular outrage against the raids, Afghan President Hamid Karzai largely banned them in 2013.

U.S. Special Operations forces were to move into a support role in 2014, letting elite Afghan troops take charge. “We're trying to let them run the show," Colonel Patrick Roberson of the Afghanistan task force told USA Today. But according to LaDonna Davis, a spokesperson with the task force, America’s special operators were still leading missions last year. The force refuses to say how many missions were led by Americans or even how many operations its commandos were involved in, though Afghan special operations forces reportedly carried out as many as 150 missions each month in 2014. “I will not be able to discuss the specific number of operations that have taken place,” Major Loren Bymer of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan told TomDispatch. “However, Afghans currently lead 96% of special operations and we continue to train, advise, and assist our partners to ensure their success.”

And lest you think that that’s where the special forces organizational chart ends, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan has five Special Operations Advisory Groups “focused on mentoring and advising our ASSF [Afghan Special Security Force] partners,” according to Votel. “In order to ensure our ASSF partners continue to take the fight to our enemies, U.S. SOF must be able to continue to do some advising at the tactical level post-2014 with select units in select locations,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Indeed, last November, Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani quietly lifted the night raid ban, opening the door once again to missions with U.S. advisors in 2015.

There will, however, be fewer U.S. special ops troops available for tactical missions. According to then Rear-, now Vice-Admiral Sean Pybus, SOCOM’s Deputy Commander, about half the SEAL platoons deployed in Afghanistan were, by the end of last month, to be withdrawn and redeployed to support “the pivot in Asia, or work the Mediterranean, or the Gulf of Guinea, or into the Persian Gulf.” Still, Colonel Christopher Riga, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, whose troops served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan near Kandahar last year, vowed to soldier on. “There’s a lot of fighting that is still going on in Afghanistan that is going to continue,” he said at an awards ceremony late last year. “We’re still going to continue to kill the enemy, until we are told to leave.”

Add to those task forces the Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements, small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” SOCOM declined to confirm the existence of SOC FWDs, even though there has been ample official evidence on the subject and so it would not provide a count of how many teams are currently deployed across the world. But those that are known are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa.

Africa has, in fact, become a prime locale for shadowy covert missions by America’s special operators. "This particular unit has done impressive things. Whether it's across Europe or Africa taking on a variety of contingencies, you are all contributing in a very significant way," SOCOM’s commander, General Votel, told members of the 352nd Special Operations Group at their base in England last fall.

The Air Commandos are hardly alone in their exploits on that continent. Over the last years, for example, SEALs carried out a successful hostage rescue mission in Somalia and a kidnap raid there that went awry. In Libya, Delta Force commandos successfully captured an al-Qaeda militant in an early morning raid, while SEALs commandeered an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen. Additionally, SEALs conducted a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which its members were wounded when the aircraft in which they were flying was hit by small arms fire. Meanwhile, an elite quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10) has been engaged with “strategic countries” such as Uganda, Somalia, and Nigeria.

A clandestine Special Ops training effort in Libya imploded when militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided its camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment, hundreds of weapons—including Glock pistols, and M4 rifles—as well as night vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment. As a result, the mission was scuttled and the camp was abandoned. It was then reportedly taken over by a militia.

In February of last year, elite troops traveled to Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise that brought together the forces of the host nation, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Burkina Faso. Several months later, an officer from Burkina Faso, who received counterterrorism training in the U.S. under the auspices of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University in 2012, seized power in a coup. Special Ops forces, however, remained undaunted. Late last year, for example, under the auspices of SOC FWD West Africa, members of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, partnered with elite Moroccan troops for training at a base outside of Marrakech.
A World of Opportunities

Deployments to African nations have, however, been just a part of the rapid growth of the Special Operations Command’s overseas reach. In the waning days of the Bush presidency, under then-SOCOM chief Admiral Eric Olson, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world. By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post. In 2011, SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120 by the end of the year. With Admiral William McRaven in charge in 2013, then-Major Robert Bockholt told TomDispatch that the number had jumped to 134. Under the command of McRaven and Votel in 2014, according to Bockholt, the total slipped ever-so-slightly to 133. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted, however, that under McRaven’s command—which lasted from August 2011 to August 2014—special ops forces deployed to more than 150 different countries. “In fact, SOCOM and the entire U.S. military are more engaged internationally than ever before—in more places and with a wider variety of missions,” he said in an August 2014 speech.

He wasn’t kidding. Just over two months into fiscal 2015, the number of countries with Special Ops deployments has already clocked in at 105, according to Bockholt.

SOCOM refused to comment on the nature of its missions or the benefits of operating in so many nations. The command would not even name a single country where U.S. special operations forces deployed in the last three years. A glance at just some of the operations, exercises, and activities that have come to light, however, paints a picture of a globetrotting command in constant churn with alliances in every corner of the planet.

In January and February, for example, members of the 7th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conducted a month-long Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) with forces from Trinidad and Tobago, while troops from the 353rd Special Operations Group joined members of the Royal Thai Air Force for Exercise Teak Torch in Udon Thani, Thailand. In February and March, Green Berets from the 20th Special Forces Group trained with elite troops in the Dominican Republic as part of a JCET.

In March, members of Marine Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Unit 1 took part in maneuvers aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens as part of Multi-Sail 2014, an annual exercise designed to support “security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” That same month, elite soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines took part in a training exercise code-named Fused Response with members of the Belizean military. “Exercises like this build rapport and bonds between U.S. forces and Belize,” said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Heber Toro of Special Operations Command South afterward.

In April, soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group joined with Honduran airborne troops for jump training—parachuting over that country’s Soto Cano Air Base. Soldiers from that same unit, serving with the Afghanistan task force, also carried out shadowy ops in the southern part of that country in the spring of 2014. In June, members of the 19th Special Forces Group carried out a JCET in Albania, while operators from Delta Force took part in the mission that secured the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. That same month, Delta Force commandos helped kidnap Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected “ringleader” in the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, while Green Berets deployed to Iraq as advisors in the fight against the Islamic State.

In June and July, 26 members of the 522nd Special Operations Squadron carried out a 28,000-mile, four-week, five-continent mission which took them to Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Japan, among other nations, to escort three “single-engine [Air Force Special Operations Command] aircraft to a destination in the Pacific Area of Responsibility.” In July, U.S. Special Operations forces traveled to Tolemaida, Colombia, to compete against elite troops from 16 other nations—in events like sniper stalking, shooting, and an obstacle course race—at the annual Fuerzas Comando competition.

In August, soldiers from the 20th Special Forces Group conducted a JCET with elite units from Suriname. “We’ve made a lot of progress together in a month. If we ever have to operate together in the future, we know we’ve made partners and friends we can depend upon,” said a senior noncommissioned officer from that unit. In Iraq that month, Green Berets conducted a reconnaissance mission on Mount Sinjar as part an effort to protect ethnic Yazidis from Islamic State militants, while Delta Force commandos raided an oil refinery in northern Syria in a bid to save American journalist James Foley and other hostages held by the same group. That mission was a bust and Foley was brutally executed shortly thereafter.

In September, about 1,200 U.S. special operators and support personnel joined with elite troops from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia for Jackal Stone, a training exercise that focused on everything from close quarters combat and sniper tactics to small boat operations and hostage rescue missions. In September and October, Rangers from the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment deployed to South Korea to practice small unit tactics like clearing trenches and knocking out bunkers. During October, Air Force air commandos also conducted simulated hostage rescue missions at the Stanford Training Area near Thetford, England. Meanwhile, in international waters south of Cyprus, Navy SEALs commandeered that tanker full of oil loaded at a rebel-held port in Libya. In November, U.S. commandos conducted a raid in Yemen that freed eight foreign hostages. The next month, SEALs carried out the blood-soaked mission that left two hostages, including Luke Somers, and eight civilians dead. And these, of course, are only some of the missions that managed to make it into the news or in some other way onto the record.

Everywhere They Want to Be

To America’s black ops chiefs, the globe is as unstable as it is interconnected. “I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told last year’s Geolnt, an annual gathering of surveillance-industry executives and military personnel. Their solution to interlocked instability? More missions in more nations—in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries, in fact—during McRaven’s tenure. And the stage appears set for yet more of the same in the years ahead. "We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt. His forces are already well on their way in 2015.

“Our nation has very high expectations of SOF,” he told special operators in England last fall. “They look to us to do the very hard missions in very difficult conditions.” The nature and whereabouts of most of those “hard missions,” however, remain unknown to Americans. And Votel apparently isn’t interested in shedding light on them. “Sorry, but no,” was SOCOM’s response to TomDispatch’s request for an interview with the special ops chief about current and future operations. In fact, the command refused to make any personnel available for a discussion of what it’s doing in America’s name and with taxpayer dollars. It’s not hard to guess why.

Votel now sits atop one of the major success stories of a post-9/11 military that has been mired in winless wars, intervention blowback, rampant criminal activity, repeated leaks of embarrassing secrets, and all manner of shocking scandals. Through a deft combination of bravado and secrecy, well-placed leaks, adroit marketing and public relations efforts, the skillful cultivation of a superman mystique (with a dollop of tortured fragility on the side), and one extremely popular, high-profile, targeted killing, Special Operations forces have become the darlings of American popular culture, while the command has been a consistent winner in Washington’s bare-knuckled budget battles.

This is particularly striking given what’s actually occurred in the field: in Africa, the arming and outfitting of militants and the training of a coup leader; in Iraq, America’s most elite forces were implicated in torture, the destruction of homes, and the killing and wounding of innocents; in Afghanistan, it was a similar story, with repeated reports of civilian deaths; while in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia it’s been more of the same. And this only scratches the surface of special ops miscues.

In 2001, before U.S. black ops forces began their massive, multi-front clandestine war against terrorism, there were 33,000 members of Special Operations Command and about 1,800 members of the elite of the elite, the Joint Special Operations Command. There were then also 23 terrorist groups—from Hamas to the Real Irish Republican Army—as recognized by the State Department, including al-Qaeda, whose membership was estimated at anywhere from 200 to 1,000. That group was primarily based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although small cells had operated in numerous countries including Germany and the United States.

After more than a decade of secret wars, massive surveillance, untold numbers of night raids, detentions, and assassinations, not to mention billionsupon billions of dollars spent, the results speak for themselves. SOCOM has more than doubled in size and the secretive JSOC may be almost as large as SOCOM was in 2001. Since September of that year, 36 new terror groups have sprung up, including multiple al-Qaeda franchises, offshoots, and allies. Today, these groups still operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan—there are now11 recognized al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter nation, five in the former—as well as in Mali and Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen, among other countries. One offshoot was born of the American invasion of Iraq, was nurtured in a U.S. prison camp, and, now known as the Islamic State, controls a wide swath of that country and neighboring Syria, a proto-caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that was only the stuff of jihadi dreams back in 2001. That group, alone, has an estimated strength of around 30,000 and managed to take over a huge swath of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, despite being relentlessly targeted in its infancy by JSOC.

“We need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe,” says Votel. “We all need to be synched up, coordinated, and prepared throughout the command.” Left out of sync are the American people who have consistently been kept in the dark about what America’s special operators are doing and where they’re doing it, not to mention the checkered results of, and blowback from, what they’ve done. But if history is any guide, the black ops blackout will help ensure that this continues to be a “golden age” for U.S. Special Operations Command.