From the Business Mirror (May 7): ‘Great leap’ in PHL’s antiterror drive
In Photo: This January 15, 2013, file photo shows armed members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Patikul, Jolo.
With two of the most decorated and best commanders of the military leading the operations on the ground, the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other terrorist groups in Mindanao is making a decisive gain as shown by the recent killings of two of the ASG’s most active, elusive and dreaded leaders.
While the Armed Forces usually measures the results of its campaign on the number of enemy casualties, which is not necessarily the yardstick for the overall success of any operation, the deaths of ASG subleaders Muamar Askali alias Abu Rami and Alhabsy Misaya were a “great leap” in the anti-terrorism campaign.
After all, the two terrorist leaders, who have managed to elude the massive and continuing operations of the military until their deaths, have taken the notoriety of the ASG to new heights by perfecting the bloody and lucrative art of kidnapping and resurrecting it for their group, which, in the process, have enriched the ASG by way of ransom money.
Misaya and Askali were notoriously feared since they have the habit of decapitating their captives once their demand for ransom is not met. Both belonged to the second and third generations, respectively, of leaders of Mindanao’s most notorious group.
Various reports from the military have tagged Misaya and his group as responsible for some of the daring kidnappings that were perpetrated at sea by the ASG, with most of the cases carried out on Mindanao’s border waters with Malaysia and Indonesia, by intercepting and boarding transiting vessels.
Misaya and his followers even traveled to Sabah to take captives, whom they would later move to Sulu where they negotiate for their victims’ freedom by way of ransom money.
The military said that in March last year, Misaya and his group kidnapped 10 Indonesians aboard a tugboat and a barge in the waters of Sulu, while the sailors were bringing in coal to the country from Borneo. A ransom of P50 million was demanded for the release of the foreigners.
The kidnapping, which followed the same pattern of cases against a number of Malaysian sailors, temporarily jostled the country into an energy crisis as Jakarta briefly halted its coal exports to Manila in protest.
The series of kidnappings at sea, for which the government has struggled to find solutions, has prompted the Department of National Defense to seal a joint air and sea patrols agreement with Malaysia and Indonesia.
Before his killing on April 28 at Barangay Silangkan, Indanan, Sulu, by Marine forces, Misaya, a bomb expert and a native of Barangay Bunot in the same town, has logged a number of cases.
Further reports on the terrorist subleader showed he was involved in other high-profile cases, such as the October 2002 Malagutay bombing that killed US serviceman Sgt. Mark Jackson and wounded 23 others that included another US serviceman.
He was also involved in the January 2009 bombing of the Salaam Bridge at Barangay Bato-Bato, Indanan, Sulu, and the March 2011 bombing of the Dennis Coffee Shop at Barangay San Raymundo, Jolo, Sulu, which killed four civilians and wounded 11 others.
On the other hand, Askali and his group were responsible for the beheading of Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel last year and German Jurgen Gustav Kantner in February this year.
The two Canadians were snatched, along with Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and Filipino Marites Flor, from a resort on Samal Island, Davao Oriental, which was the Askali’s group first recorded foray outside Mindanao for its kidnapping activities.
Sekkingstad and Flor were later released after Askali received P50 million in ransom as he had admitted in some reports.
Askali, also the spokesman of the ASG, had also claimed he received P250 million for the freedom of German couple Stefan Viktor Okonek and Henrike Dielen.
On April 11 Askali and three of his men were killed after they sauntered into Bohol, apparently for kidnapping activities, while Asean officials were meeting in the province.
Four other terrorists were also killed in subsequent operations.
While fears heightened that Askali’s foray in Bohol was to initialize the ASG’s presence in the province, military officials, however, maintained he was there purely for kidnapping activities and to cool off from the continuing military operations in Sulu.
The plan for an atrocity by Askali’s group in Bohol while the Asean meeting was ongoing, had it been carried out, could have been reminiscent of the ASG’s act of beheading Malaysian Bernard Then while Apec leaders were meeting in Manila in November 2015.
The killing of Misaya heralded positive developments to the shift in tactics taken by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana by putting the once-sputtering Mindanao antiterrorism campaign in the hands of topnotch ground commanders such as Brig. Gens. Cirilito Sobejana and Custodio Parcon.
Sobejana, head of the Joint Task Force Sulu, and Parcon, who steers the Joint Task Force Tawi-tawi, are battle-hardened soldiers and dyed-in-the-wool commanders. They belonged to the crop of the “finest warriors” in the Armed Forces, being both recipients of the Medal for Valor, the highest award in the military.
The two commanders, who were hunting terrorists in their operational areas “like rats”, were veterans of the early campaign against the ASG in Mindanao, wherein they also got their awards.
Sobejana got his Medal of Valor award for leading his men, then as a company commander of the Army’s First Scout Ranger Regiment, in four hours of firefight against more than 150 ASG bandits in January 1995 in Basilan, which left 30 terrorists dead.
The story on Sobejana’s exploits has it that during the firefight, bullets from the ASG have nearly cut off his right arm, but he held it from falling by biting his right thumb while using his left arm to continuously fire at the enemy as he gave battle orders to his men.
On the other hand, Parcon, then a captain and the commander of the 61st Marine Company, led his men in the assault of Camp Al Madinah, ASG’s fortified camp in Basilan.
With Tawi-tawi now under Parcon, the province has stopped from being used as a launching pad for ASG’s kidnapping activities in Sabah, by continuously neutralizing the remnants of the terrorist group in the island province.
It was under Parcon’s watch that also saw the surrender of more terrorists in the province. Parcon is also a 1994 Ten Outstanding Young Men awardee.
ASG leadership vacuum
While military officials believed that the killings of Misaya and Askali may lead to a leadership vacuum and a demoralization among the ranks of the terrorists, Sobejana also disclosed of the infighting among the existing leaders of the ASG.
The military commander said this was confirmed by ASG sub-leader Udon Hashim and Haidal Kimar, who yielded to him on Monday at Barangay Jinggan, Panglima Estino, Sulu.
Sobejana said Hashim, who operates in Panglima Estino and Pata Island under senior leader Berham Lutian, and closely associated with Misaya, has been involved in the delivery of fake ransom money for the release of three Malaysian kidnap victims.
“On March 26 the groups of Lutian and Jamir Sawadjaan planned to attack the group of Alhabsy Misaya and Udon Hashim, who were then consolidating at Barangay Jinggan, Panglima Estino, due to the fake ransom money for the release of the three Malaysian kidnap victims that was delivered by [the] latter,” said Sobejana.
However, Misaya reportedly appealed to Radulan Sahiron, the emir of the ASG, to mediate for the settlement of fake ransom money. Sahiron called Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan to pacify his nephew Jamir Sawadjaan.
Sobejana said Sahiron, who is past his prime, has also been sending surrender feelers.
Maute on the run
In Lanao del Sur at least 38 members of the Maute Group, including three Indonesians and a Malaysian, were also killed late last month as the military continued its operations against the ISIS-affiliated group.
The three-day operation in the town of Piagapo was also carried out as troops continued to search for Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the ASG and the recognized leader of the ISIS in Southeast Asia.
The military said Hapilon has been ambulatory as a result of the wounds he sustained in an earlier operation by the military, also in the province.