The Mamasapano Incident occurred on 25 January 2015 when the Special Action Force or SAF of the Philippine National Police launched an operation against high-valued terrorist targets that in turn, led to a confrontation with the the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters or BIFF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF.
Also known as the Mamasapano Clash and the Mamasapano Massacre, the incident remains as one of the most controversial issues under the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III due to the supposed unwarranted deaths of 44 members of the SAF.
7 Key Facts About the Mamasapano Incident
1. Operation Codenamed Oplan Exodus
The Philippine National Police or PNP planned the Oplan Exodus as a counterterrorism operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao aimed at capturing Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir or Marwan, as well the Filipino bomb expert Abdul Basit Usman.
Note that the PNP had been planning to neutralize Marwan since 2010. The first operation codenamed Oplan Pitas was launched in December 2010 and followed by Oplan Smartbomb in July 2012. These operations failed to achieve their primary objectives.
The subsequent Oplan Wolverine in December 2012 was aborted while Oplan Cyclops in April 2013 also failed to meet its primary objective. Further operations from June 2013 to December 2014 were also aborted.
Nonetheless, Oplan Exodus was the 10th operation. Despite the tragic deaths of 44 SAF members and the public outcry over the entire incident, the government still generally considers it a successful operation because it resulted in the neutralization Marwan. In terms of the causalities, the entire Mamasapano Clash was a tactical victory for the BIFF and MILF forces.
2. The Malaysian Bomb Expert “Marwan”
Zulkifli Abdhir was a Malaysian terrorist included in the “Most Wanted Terrorists” list of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI. Note that the U.S. government offered a USD 5 million reward for information that could lead to his capture.
Also known as Marwan, he was a bomb expert and was suspected of spearheading a terrorist group called Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, which remains part of the international terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah.
He had been at large since 2000 by the Malaysian government for the murder of a government official. In addition, he was wanted for allegedly supplying bombs to several terrorist groups around the world, as well as for teaching these groups how to create bombs.
Marwan hid in Mindanao under the protection of BIFF. While in hiding, he purportedly trained existing BIFF members and new recruits in the development of explosives, as well as their tactical deployment and detonation.
3. Role of SAF and the Chain of Commands
The Special Action Force is the elite unit of the Philippine National Police trained for counterterrorism operation in urban and rural areas, as well as for commando-type unconventional warfare, search and rescue operations, civil disturbance management, and rapid deployment for support, among others.
In the case of Oplan Exodus, there were nine units of SAF organized under the leadership of then PNP Chief Alan Purisima and SAF Commander Getulio Napeñas. Note that these two police heads were also under the leadership of executive secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and President Aquino.
The SAF units conducted the Oplan Exodus operation beginning in the evening of 24 January to the morning of 25 January. They were two companies that entered the grounds: the 84th Special Action Company or 84th SAC composed of 23 troopers and the 55th Special Action Company or 55th SAC consisting of 36 troopers.
According to reports, the 84th SAC was the assault force tasked to neutralize Marwan. It was designated in Barangay Pidsandawan in the Municipality of Mamasapano. The 55th SAC was the blocking force responsible for providing cover for the 84th SAC as it made its retreat. It was designated in the nearby Barangay Tukanalipao.
Other SAF companies were on standby in the highway nearest to the grounds. These included the 45th Special Action Company, as well as the 3rd Special Action Company and 4th Special Action Company. There were more than 200 SAF troopers on standby.
4. Other Participants and Belligerents
Oplan Exodus was exclusive to the SAF-PNP. It was a high profile and covert operation that involved a shorter chain of command. However, there were allegations about the involvement of the U.S. government, particularly its FBI and a number of ground troops from the U.S. Army.
The U.S. Embassy to the Philippines denied its direct involvement in Oplan Exodus. Still, the U.S. government coordinated with the Philippine government for intelligence support, as well as verification purposes.
During the heated encounter between the SAF and the forces of BIFF and MILF, the Armed Forces of the Philippines conducted a rescue operation to save the remaining SAF troopers.
From the side of Marwan, the participants include the BIFF and MILF, as well as other militant groups linked to Jemaah Islamiyah. There was an allegation that the private army of Datu Bahnarin Ampatuan, a local politician, participated in the clash.
5. The Specifics of the Mamasapano Clash
The SAF had already arrived the Municipality of Mamasapano at around 10 in the evening of 24 January. Around 2 a.m. of 25 January, the 84th SAC had already entered Barangay Pindsandawan. Intelligence obtained by the PNP noted that Marwan was hiding in this barangay.
Around the same time the 84th SAC entered their designated area, the 55th SAC had entered the nearby Barangay Tukanalipao. The blocking force specifically hid in the cornfields to provide cover once the assault force made its retreat.
The 84th SAC reached its target and successfully killed Marwan at around 4:30 a.m. The company took a photo of the slain terrorist and cut off his finger for DNA verification. It eventually retreated to the designated area of the 55th SAC. However, a band of MILF had blocked them.
Fighting ensued between the retreating 84th SAC and the MILF. The 55th SAC was unable to provide cover because it was already caught in its own firefight against forces from the BIFF, MILF, and other armed factions.
The 55th SAC suffered heavy losses because its troopers stood exposed in the open fields while the enemy forces blocked their only exit. The 45th SAC that was on standby tried to enter the battleground, but it retreated when it allegedly encountered heavy fire.
6. Ceasefire, Rescue, and Recovery Operations
SAF Commander Napeñas was already coordinating with the Government of the Philippines – Ad Hoc Joint Action Group or GPH-AHJAG as early as 5:30 a.m. of 25 January to coordinate further with the MILF and implement a ceasefire. A crisis team was already assembled around this time.
Upon hearing the news about the SAF encounter, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, particularly the 6th Infantry Division, 45th Infantry Battalion, the 61st Division Reconnaissance Company, and the 23rd Mechanized Company tried to extend help and retrieve the SAF troopers trapped by enemy forces.
The AFP initially tried to deploy tanks, but the SAF troopers on standby were unable to tell them where to fire. The AFP also noted that the other SAF troopers from other SAF companies on standby also refused to guide them toward where the designated ground areas of the 84th SAC and 55th SAC.
The firefight between the SAF and the enemy forces ensued throughout the day without intervention from peacekeepers or backup from the Philippine government. The crisis team was able to effect a ceasefire after discussing the terms with the MILF. The AFP was able to link up with the remaining SAF troopers at around 5 p.m.
The AFP, through the Reconnaissance Company of the 6th Infantry Division, began its retrieval operation at around 6 p.m. The company was able to extract the trapped 84th SAC troopers near Barangay Pidsandawan by 11:30 p.m. The operation continued in the morning of 26 January.
7. Criticisms Toward the Aquino Administration
44 SAF troopers were killed in the incident. The entire Mamasapano Clash triggered criticisms from various fronts and due to several reasons. For starters, then President Aquino received heavy criticisms, first, for allowing then suspended General Purisima to participate in police operations and second, for his alleged inactions at the heat of the firefighting.
Furthermore, there was also the issue of keeping key police and government officials out of the loop in the planning and execution of Oplan Exodus. Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and then PNP office-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina only found out about the operation on the morning of 25 January itself, particularly when the SAF troopers were already caught in the clash.
Results of the investigations conducted by the PNP Board of Inquiry, formed by Roxas to evaluate the Mamasapano incident, revealed that Aquino knowingly allowed Purisima to participate in the operation while bypassing the established PNP chain of commands.
Another draft report from the Senate of the Philippines also stressed the fact that the incident was a “massacre” and not a “misencounter” as what the Aquino administration had called it. Also, the report concluded that Aquino must bear responsibility “for giving assent to and failing to prevent the unlawful exercise of official functions.”