Philippines remembers 44 commandos killed in botched counter-terror raid

Jason Gutierrez and Jeoffrey Maitem
Manila and Cotabato, Philippines
Philippines remembers 44 commandos killed in botched counter-terror raid Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. salutes in the direction of a memorial to 44 members of the police Special Action Force who were killed during a botched counter-terrorist raid in 2015, at a remembrance ceremony at Camp Castañeda in Cavite province, Philippines, Jan. 25, 2024.
HO/Presidential Communications Office

As the Philippines paid tribute Thursday to 44 police commandos who died during a botched anti-terrorism raid nine years ago that nearly sank a peace deal with Muslim rebels, the unit’s ex-commander demanded justice for his fallen men.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. led a ceremony to mark the Day of National Remembrance for the 44 members of the police Special Action Force who were killed in a firefight with southern Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels on Jan. 25, 2015, at a place called Mamasapano

The SAF commandos were returning from a mission after killing their target, Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan), a Malaysian militant and bomb expert who had trained Filipinos in southern Mindanao island, but then they got caught up in gun-battle with MILF members. 

Former SAF Gen. Getulio Napeñas, who headed the national police’s special forces wing at the time of the raid, said Thursday he was glad that the nation was honoring his dead men for their heroism in the mission to track down and kill Marwan. 

But he demanded to know why no one from the former rebel group had been brought to justice over the deaths of the 44 commandos. Many members of the MILF now are local officials in an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines that was established through a 2014 peace agreement between Manila and MILF leaders. 

“Not yet. Was there a case filed against those people who killed the 44? Until now, none yet,” Napeñas told reporters who asked him whether justice had been served for his men.

“I would like to see that cases would be filed against those who killed them, because that’s murder, that’s [a] massacre. Do you think justice has been served when cases are not filed?,” he said.

SAF Maguindanao 02.jpg
Police commandos carry the bodies of Special Action Force personnel killed in a counter-terrorism operation in the town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao del Sur province, southern Philippines on Jan. 25, 2015. [Mark Navales/BenarNews/file photo]

President Marcos spoke during a ceremony at Camp Castañeda in Cavite province, where he and other officials saluted a memorial to the 44. 

“Although fighting machines they were, they were not apostles of permanent war. They were warriors for peace who wanted to see the day when swords were pounded into plowshares,” Marcos said in his speech.

“To the loved ones of the heroes, we know that nine years after the fateful day, no words can fully ease the pain that I know you still feel.”

SAF 44

The slain commandos, who are post-humously and collectively remembered as the “SAF 44,” launched the operation in Mamasapano, a town in Maguindanao del Sur province, with then-President Benigno Aquino III being fully aware of the raid. 

Marwan was killed in the top-secret operation, but as the commandos were retreating they ran into fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF, the largest of the Muslim rebel groups in the south, were still negotiating with the central government to finalize the 2014 peace deal, but its leaders were not notified ahead of time about the operation. A clash ensued leading to the commandos’ deaths.

In a congressional inquiry that followed in the aftermath of the clash, apologetic representatives of the rebel group told lawmakers that their members thought they were under attack from an unspecified enemy. 

The rebel group is now in control of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Officials with the regional government did not immediately respond to efforts by BenarNews to contact them for comment.

Aquino was initially indicted for his role in planning the offensive, but was subsequently cleared by the Philippine Supreme Court in September 2017 for any wrongdoing that led to the deaths of the police commandos.

In June 2017, Napeñas as well as Alan Purusima, the national police chief during time of the raid at Mamasapano, were both charged with criminal negligence in connection with the botched operation.

Napeñas was not as lucky. He was removed from office and his retirement pension revoked, though a court later cleared him of charges that he had overstepped his authority in planning and ordering the operation.

While he said he was happy that the current president had paid tribute to his fallen men, he said he was still reeling from their deaths.

“That was painful. We lost a lot of good men in that operation, and they were my brothers, and I treated them like my sons,” he said.

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and other officials salute a memorial to 44 members of the police Special Action Force who were killed during a botched counter-terrorist raid in 2015, at a remembrance ceremony at Camp Castañeda in Cavite province, Philippines, Jan. 25, 2024. [HO/Presidential Communications Office]

Napeñas said he still rated the operation a success because the country had been able to take out one of Southeast Asia’s leading militants, who was suspected of training young Filipino fighters in bomb making.

“The (lessons learned) there is that we should remain dedicated to our job, focus on it. The incident happened. The entire country knows who approved the operation, but eventually we were abandoned, and the 44 died,” he said, without specifically naming Aquino, who died in June 2021.

“The operation was over, and we were in the withdrawal phase when that happened. From morning until 5 p.m. no help arrived,” he said.

Incident ‘nearly torpedoed’ peace process

Sidney Jones, the former director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told BenarNews that the Mamasapano incident could have been avoided if proper procedures were followed.

“It nearly torpedoed the Bangsamoro Peace Process, and if the Marcos government made any moves now, after almost ten years, to prosecute the killers of the SAF, it would seriously destabilize Mindanao,” warned Jones, who has been tracking the MILF as well as the rise of terrorist organizations in the south.

While she agreed that the threat of terrorism in Mindanao has diminished, the Islamic State extremist group continues to be a threat. Marwan was not directly affiliated with IS, but with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda that was blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings.

“The threat of terrorism has declined substantially, but it is worth noting that in its end of year propaganda report, ISIS noted that in 2023, the only two places where the number of ISIS-claimed attacks actually increased from 2022 were the Sahel and in the Philippines,” she said.

Rommel Banlaoi, a counter-terrorism analyst at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said he agreed with observations that relatives of the slain SAF commandos still need to see justice. 

“But if you talk about justice for the families, the support was overwhelming,” he told BenarNews.

Two years after Marwan was killed, hundreds of pro-IS fighters from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere took over the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months in 2017. Some 1,200 people were killed in a battle that ensued between the militants and government forces.

Mark Navales contributed reporting from Cotabato City, southern Philippines.


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