By Jayson S. Lamchek
Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU
Believed to be a top Jemaah Islamiyah leader and one of the United States’ most-wanted terrorists – with a $5 million bounty on his head, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir (alias ‘Marwan’), was reportedly killed recently in a sensational police operation in the Philippines. The ‘success’ of the attack came at a heavy cost: some sixty other people died as well, mostly policemen. The police operation and its aftermath illustrate the limited impact that recent commitments to respect human rights while countering terrorism, and to address the root causes of terrorism, have had on actual counter-terrorism practices.
The US-led ‘War on Terror’ and peace talks in Mindanao
Under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines was the first Asian country to officially welcome US President George W Bush’s announcement of a global “War on Terror”. In exchange for material and political rewards for her regime, Arroyo joined the Coalition of the Willing. Since then, American troops have been allowed, under the auspices of ‘military exercises’ (to comply with Philippine constitutional requirements), to engage jointly with Philippine troops in pursuing the numerically tiny and enigmatic Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino group listed by the US as a terrorist organization in the south-western region of Mindanao. Counter-terrorism operations against Abu Sayyaf, as well as mainly Indonesian members of another US-listed terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiyah – alleged to have training and other “links” with the Abu Sayyaf, have complicated Philippine policy towards the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). American troop presence in Mindanao and frequent accusations that the MILF is coddling Abu Sayyaf and JI operatives in its camps in central Mindanao – if not of authoring acts of terrorism itself, have put tremendous pressure on the MILF to observe a ceasefire agreement and to settle its conflict with the Philippine government through political negotiations.
Actively supported by the United States, skilful negotiations between the MILF and the Philippine government have produced quite sophisticated mechanisms that seem to balance competing interests in counter-terrorism, on the one hand, and Moro self-determination and land rights, peace and development, on the other hand. An often hailed mechanism is the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) which mandates cooperation between the parties in pursuing ‘lawless elements’, including terrorists, in MILF-controlled areas. The International Crisis Group says the mechanism is a valuable tool for sharing intelligence and avoiding ‘accidental clashes’ between forces of the MILF and the Philippine government. Furthermore, it helps keep ‘insurgents’ (MILF) and ‘terrorists’ (Abu Sayyaf and JI) apart, the better to manage both: the former, through negotiations and political settlement to address grievances, and the latter, through force. Counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism shouldn’t be confused, the ICG counselled the Philippine and American governments in its 2008 report. The counter-terrorism coordination mechanism has allowed joint US-Philippine forces to continue pursuing US-listed terrorists in areas of Mindanao that the MILF considers its territory, without these incursions being seen as disrupting the peace process, so long as there is ‘coordination’ with the MILF. Demonstrating cooperation in counter-terrorism has also allowed the MILF to avoid being listed by the US as a terrorist organization, and thus to avoid being openly targeted by joint US and Philippine forces. Clashes have nevertheless occurred from time to time, causing delays in negotiations, but disagreements have been patched up. Continued talks resulted in a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro – signed by negotiators in January 2014 and awaiting approval by the Philippine legislature at the time the Marwan killing took place.
The intertwining of the ‘War on Terror’ in Mindanao with the peace process intended to address root causes of a historical conflict reflects broader global developments in which counter-terrorism proponents now appear to accommodate the discourses and agendas of ‘human rights’ and ‘development’. Extreme arguments such as the claim that suspected terrorists may be tortured are out of vogue; even the phrase ‘War on Terror’ is no longer bandied about by the US government, its chief progenitor. Instead, counter-terrorism proponents are more willing to concede that states must ‘counter terrorism while respecting human rights’, which means less indiscriminate war-like measures and more role for rights-respecting or law-compliant ones. Capping years of effort by UN human rights agencies to argue that human rights obligations and counter-terrorism can and should be made compatible, a ‘global counter-terrorism strategy’ was unanimously agreed upon at the UN in 2006. This strategy took respect for human rights as its ‘unifying framework’ and, moreover, it emphasized the need to address the conditions and root causes of the insecurity that breeds terrorists.
The operation against Marwan and its aftermath
Formal mechanisms for balancing counter-terrorism and rights notwithstanding, the latest counterterrorist operation in Mindanao shows that force in practice still trumps rights where counter-terrorism is concerned.
That the objective of the counter-terrorism operation against Marwan was to assassinate him was hardly concealed. Marwan was pursued two years earlier in Jolo island when two Philippine Airforce planes, supported by an unmanned US drone, dropped bombs on the village of Lanao Dakula in Parang town. Philippine authorities announced that Marwan was among at least fifteen fatalities that also included Abu Sayyaf leaders. Marwan’s body was never found, however, and it was later concluded that he had not died in the air raid.
Fast forward to January 25, 2014: the village of Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town in central Mindanao – an area acknowledged as MILF-controlled. Philippine and US authorities were after Marwan again, but this time elements of the Philippine National Police, not the Philippine military, were at the forefront of the operation. The acting chief of police remarked that it was a ‘legitimate’ ‘law-enforcement operation’ with the ostensible objective of serving Marwan and an Abu Sayyaf leader, Basit Usman judicial warrants for their arrest – presumably so that they may face terrorism-related charges before courts of law. But as a contingent of some 400 US-trained Special Action Force (SAF) police were mobilized for the operation, this contention is hardly credible. A Philippine police official said it was planned as a “surgical” ground assault which should have been finished in 30 minutes, similar to that which took down Osama bin Laden in a residential compound outside Islamabad, Pakistan in 2011. In fact, he said, the Philippine operation went terribly wrong, as the ensuing battle with various Moro fighters took 11 hours and killed some sixty people, mostly police operatives. According to this account, when a strike team managed to get inside the hut where Marwan was sleeping, he showed resistance and was killed. To produce proof of his death, the police then took photos of the dead body, and also cut some hair and a finger. The body parts were eventually sent directly to the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation for DNA testing, instead of to the equivalent Philippine agency. Indeed, the single most impressive feat of the otherwise poorly executed ‘surgical’ operation seems to be that it obtained proof of Marwan’s killing.
A Moro human rights organization has revealed the fact that civilians were also killed in the operation. In a version of the events offered by local residents who were interviewed by the fact-finding mission of Suara Bangsamoro, the police fired on a mosque and houses, killing at least seven Moro non-combatants, including a 5-year old girl. While this account does not justify Moro fighters’ behaving ruthlessly towards their adversaries, it goes some distance towards humanizing them and their motivation. As Rosa Cordillera Castillo, an anthropologist who worked close to Mamasapano suggested, “This event should be read within the long history of government forces wantonly entering Muslim villages, searching for men, harassing people, destroying property, and making arrests.”
The importance of the AHJAG coordination mechanism for upholding the appearance that the US-led “War on Terror” in Mindanao is focused on ‘terrorists’ and safe for ‘insurgents’ (and for the peace process) cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately, this is precisely the mechanism that was violated in the Marwan affair. On the part of supporters of the agreed peace mechanisms, the main complaint against the operation is that the Philippine government did not honour its obligation to coordinate the operation against Marwan with the MILF. Instead, the operation clearly prioritized creating and exploiting the element of surprise, keeping the so-called ‘actionable intelligence’ about Marwan’s whereabouts secret not only from the MILF heirarchy but even from top Philippine officials. Who made the momentous decision to launch the operation and for what ultimate ends has yet to be fully uncovered by an impartial investigation. The leading theory – based on allegations by a police official, gives the corrupting influence of US reward money a leading role and argues that informants (allegedly from within the MILF) and select Philippine authorities (alleged to include the President) chose to do it their way. It can only be hoped that a thorough investigation of the Marwan affair will ascertain responsibility for the unnecessary deaths and injuries caused on all sides, and prompt the public to grieve for all victims. But the obstacles thereto appear to be great, not least among them being President Aquino’s unwillingness to accept any responsibility for the disastrous operation.
The bypassing of the AHJAG coordination mechanism in the Marwan affair shows that though the ‘War on Terror’ may now cloak itself in talk of rights and peace especially in Mindanao, force without restraints is still its primary mode of operation.