April 9 was another sad day for our armed services. In a military engagement in Tipo Tipo, Basilan between the kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf and elements of 44th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army, 18 men were killed and about 53 were wounded. About five of the Abu Sayyaf were also reported to have been killed including a Moroccan by the name of Mohammad Khattab and Haipa Hapilon, the son of the current head of the Abu Sayyaf.
As of this writing, it is not altogether clear whether the military encounter was an ambush staged by the Abu Sayyaf or what we call a meeting engagement. The Armed Forces is up to this time keeping a tight lip as to what exactly happened. But interviews with the wounded personnel indicate that the Abu Sayyaf was ready for the Army elements and had the upper hand. For one, it was reported that one of the lead soldiers stepped on an improvised explosive device that immediately killed some of the army operating personnel. It was also reported that the enemy occupied the high ground which meant that they were in a better position to inflict more casualties on our soldiers. The number of dead and wounded from the Army is high; we cannot afford to continue suffering this kind of casualty rate.
It is not only bad for the reputation of the country that the Abu Sayyaf continues to kidnap foreigners at will. It also affects the morale of our troops and therefore diminishes their ability to fight. This engagement was big, involving a large number of the Abu Sayyaf. Almost always, the members of the group are dispersed to avoid large encounters with the military or police. Marauding bands only get together when it’s time to kidnap. They prefer foreigners because they are more willing to pay ransom.
The Abu Sayyaf is the one criminal group that continues to give the country a black eye and a bad reputation. Yet, for one reason or another, we cannot seem to eliminate it. The big question is why. In the almost 25 years of its existence, the notoriety of the Abu Sayyaf has only increased. We are still digesting what really happened in that Tipo Tipo engagement. In the 10 hours of fighting, no helicopters were flown nor artillery fired. These were only used in the follow-up operations. Evacuation of the wounded also took a long time. Control over the fighting elements was difficult and at times confusing.
The Abu Sayyaf is a band that has metamorphosed from a jihadist and militant organization to a kidnap-for-ransom gang. Based on intelligence reports, the band has never numbered more than 400. As to the Tipo Tipo operation itself, there are questions being raised in some quarters including senior officers from the AFP. How is it for instance that the 44th Infantry Battalion planned an operation to surprise the enemy but ended up being the one surprised? Did the MILF or some of its elements inform the Abu Sayyaf when the AFP coordinated with them prior to the operations?
The latter is an intriguing yet a valid question to ask because based from the accounts of the participating soldiers, it would appear that the Abu Sayaf were well prepared. Was it wise for the Army to have coordinated with the MILF? Secretary Voltaire Gazmin in an interview said that coordination cannot be avoided since that is the rule and the AFP must abide by the rules. He was also reported to have said that the Army sacrificed a lot but got the Moroccan bomb-making instructor. This was the same refrain of the PNP in the Mamasapano encounter. They lost 44 but got Zulkifli Abdhir, the Malaysian bomb instructor responsible for many bombing atrocities. Was it worth the sacrifice?
Some quarters are asking for a congressional inquiry. It is premature at this point because operations are still ongoing but a military board should be created at the soonest possible time to look at the planning and execution of the operation. Was the operation an independent stand-alone operation or part of a bigger operation as a result of the Indonesian and reported Malaysian kidnappings, not to mention the earlier kidnapping of Europeans in Davao? Some questions need to be answered—and answered fast.
There is a lot at stake. The Bangsamoro Basic Law, the ISIS connection, the fighting reputation of our armed services, the reliability of the MILF as a peace partner, and others. The question as to whether the MILF gave the Abu Sayyaf advance information as a result of the coordination made by the AFP is a crucial question that needs to be answered by the Board of Inquiry. It would appear that whether you coordinate or not as in Mamasapano, the result is the same—fighting.
As for our armed services, it is about time that this mano-a-mano type of operation is reviewed. Since we have a preponderance of resources like planes, armored personnel carriers, artillery and helicopters, it is time that the government use these resources more instead of relying on our foot soldiers to do the bulk of the fighting.
We cannot simply go on suffering huge casualty rates. During the first year of this administration, about 19 army soldiers were killed by the MILF for not coordinating. Then we had the Mamasapano operation that resulted in the killing of 44 SAF personnel. Now we just lost 18 and about 53 wounded, many seriously. A review of strategies is in order.