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Editorial

Americans bearing drones

/ 12:10 AM February 16, 2015

Was the American government involved in the police raid on Mamasapano, Maguindanao? The US Embassy insists American participation was limited to one after-the-fact operation. “At the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, US service members serving in JSOTF-P (Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines) responded to assist in the evacuation of dead and wounded after the firefight in Maguindanao,” its statement read.

But, on reflection, this simple assertion amounts to a sweeping, noncredible, denial.

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When President Aquino first faced the nation to speak about the raid that killed Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, but also left 44 Special

Action Force troopers dead, he said the Philippine National Police had gathered “actionable intelligence” on the whereabouts of Marwan and his Filipino protégé,

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Basit Usman. The phrase has been repeated many times since, during the testimony of various police officers in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

No one will dispute that what the President and the police officials meant by “actionable” was the specific pinpointing of Marwan’s and Usman’s exact location. It was precisely because the intelligence gathered was so particular, and so vulnerable to leaks, that 392 SAF troopers were dispatched to Mamasapano without coordinating with either the Armed Forces of the Philippines or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (as ceasefire protocols required).

It is possible, as has already been discussed in some specialist forums, that the information first came from someone close enough to Marwan’s inner circle. But was this information, first received last November, enough to send the PNP’s elite into harm’s way in late January, if it had not been confirmed, and reconfirmed, through other means?

Through US drones, for instance. A fact-finding mission last week heard from some residents of four districts in Mamasapano that they had seen drones hovering over their areas for several days before the raid. The night before the SAF launched its most ambitious initiative ever, the drones were characterized by residents as “exceptionally noisy and busy.”

The Philippine military probably has two or three drones in its inventory; the SAF, if officials’ declarations are correct, has none. But the US military, which has maintained a continuing if flexible presence in Mindanao for some 10 years, maintains the world’s largest fleet of drones, of all kinds. In 2012, the centrist Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, reported that a US drone strike had targeted Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah leaders in Jolo, Sulu, and killed 15 persons. “The US drone strike … marked the first time the weapon has been used in Southeast Asia. The drone has so far been used against Muslim groups and the Tausug are the latest on the list.”

Given all this, the question about the use of US military drones cannot simply be set aside, or ignored.

The fact that the index finger of Marwan’s that had been cut off for DNA processing was immediately turned over to US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in General Santos City by one of the SAF troopers is also telling. Of the star-rank PNP officials, only the SAF commander at the time may have seen the all-important proof of success, when the surviving troopers had returned to the tactical command post. Why didn’t the potential DNA source work its way through the PNP?

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To be sure, American fingerprints were already on the operation even before it launched. If the intelligence did first come from an informant, that informant’s surest road to safety and a new life lies in the reward money offered by both the Philippine and the US governments. The controversial Rewards for Justice program of the US State Department is especially generous: Marwan carried a $5-million “bounty” on his head. It is only natural to consider the size of the reward as incentive.

In truth, however, the Americanization of the conflict in Mindanao began well before Mamasapano, and continues in ways many of us are not even aware of. Proof lies in the very assumptions that our esteemed legislators, in the august halls of our Congress, bring to their interrogation—we mean their line of inquiry—when they pose arrogant questions based on the us-versus-them, people-versus-terrorist framework. That kind of black-or-white thinking, if they have already forgotten, was popularized by George W. Bush after 9/11.

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TAGS: Mamasapano, nation, national security, news, US drones, us embassy, Zulkifli bin Hir
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