Off Cam: Duterte knows the enemy
By: Arlyn Dela Cruz
To defeat the enemy, one must know the enemy.
This is basic in any war and is very essential in ending the on-going crisis in Marawi City right now.
In this present crisis, the enemy is a group that refers to itself collectively as Dahwatil Islamiyyah Wilayatul Mashriq or a unified group under ISIS. It’s not just Maute.
It’s not just Abu Sayyaf or some members of Commander Bravo of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or some members of the BIFF.
It’s now one group, totally and apart from other armed groups in Mindanao, or in Muslim Mindanao to be precise.
It is easy to understand why the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police in previous months resorted to toning down the extent of threat and the actual presence of ISIS in Marawi or in other parts of Mindanao because doing so would legitimize the group’s own claim of unification and strength in the country.
But in the Moscow press-conference where the announcement of the declaration of Martial Law was made, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, “Maute-ISIS—iisa na yan?” (“Maute-ISIS, they are one and the same”) responding to the question on what group is really behind the occupation of Marawi City.
President Rodrigo Duterte too in his arrival speech after cutting short his trip in Moscow, made it clear that ISIS is the enemy that government troops are facing in Marawi City.
In his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Duterte said, “I seek help. I have a problem with ISIS in my country”. I was there at Kremlin and I captured those words in my camera.
That message was urgent and direct, a head of state to another, acknowledging the identity and nature of the enemy that is now in Philippine soil.
President Duterte knows who the enemy is and what is the capability and mind set of that enemy.
This is important—especially at this stage of the ISIS presence in Marawi or in the Philippines for that matter.
Some decision makers involved in tactical and strategic value of the intelligence information gathered about the local ISIS group the DIAW, may have my miscalculated or misread or did not appreciate fully the value and the consequences of the intelligence information about the establishment of an ISIS in the Philippines, but President Duterte based on his moves and the declaration of martial law not just in Mawari but in entire Mindanao has a firm grasp of what kind of enemy, we are facing right now.
I say we, because the threat of ISIS is not only against governments but in the population as well. It is not President Duterte’s problem alone.
It is ours. Now to go back to the premise—knowing the enemy-let us zero-in on Hapilon and why his leadership of the local ISIS led to the Marawi siege.
The target of the joint military and police operation in the early afternoon of May 23 was Isnilon Hapilon.
The joint forces was supposed to serve the warrant of arrest on Hapilon only to be faced by much resistance that initially overwhelmed the military and the police.
The question on whether the hundreds of armed men who fought against government forces in the initial hours of encounter in the afternoon of May 23 were reinforcement or forces waiting in ambush positions for the joint government troops is something that has to be reassessed and revisited to give a better understanding of what really happened beginning that day.
Hapilon has long been in the list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most-wanted list for terrorists acts and was in fact indicted in absentia for involvement in kidnapping of tourists in Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan last 2001 that included Americans Guillermo Sobero and missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham.
Sobero was killed and beheaded and based on reports, it was Hapilon who beheaded the American.
Hapilon is one of the core members of the Al-Harakatul Al Islamiyyah popularly known as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) as early as 1988.
When the group’s founding Emir Ustadz Abdurajack Abubakar Janjalani established their first base named Camp Al-Madinah in Upper Kapayawan in Isabela, Basilan in the early ‘90s, most of the members are from the Yakan tribe, Isnilon’s relatives.
I know this because I was the first journalist to set put in an ASG Camp and it was in late April of 1993, on my first assignment in Basilan, that I came face to face with the core leaders of the group headed by Abdurajack Abubakar Janjalani, Isnilon included.
A year earlier, my first assignment down south was in Sulu where I would meet top commanders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) of Nur Misuari.
It is worth mentioning that the exclusive coverage and story I aired on ABC-5, now TV-5 with the Abdurajack, the ASG at their first camp in Basilan was made possible through my contact with the MNLF, the late Abraham “Abet” Iribani.
Hapilon at that time was a silent but already a gave the impression of someone just as powerful as their Emir, Abdurajack Janjlani.
I would later find out that it was because most of the sub-commanders, the likes of Kalaw and Commander Virgin Killer look up to Hapilon first before they conceded to Abdurajack Janlalani’s leadership as Emir.
When the Philippine Marines attacked Camp Al-Madinah in May of the same year to free their hostages, Spanish priest Father Bernardo Blanco and then four-year old Anthony “Ton-Ton” Biel, it was Hapilon’s men together with then Wahab Akhbar, former ASG commander who later became governor and congressman, that directly battled it out with the Marine Recon Force while the larger group shielded their Emir and the rest to safety out of Basilan and to the island province of Sulu where other key commanders of the ASG like Radhullan Sahion When the younger brother of Abdurajack, Khadaffy Janjalani took over as Emir after the founding leader’s death in February of 1998, Hapilon also became a prominent presence Khadaffy’s leadership.
In 1995, my cameraman from ABS-CBN, Rudy Yagumyum along with six other journalists from Zamboanga and Manila based photojournalists did a story on construction workers held hostage by the ASG.
The younger members of the ASG, 15 years old to 17 years old were playing around with their guns, acting as they are, teenagers, when their laughter was abruptly interrupted by the arrival of one commander—not Abdurajack Janjalani but Hapilon.
When the younger Janjalani was killed in September of 2006, there was again another vacuum in leadership and while the name of Hapilon emerged as a possible successor, the concession was that, the remaining commanders would lead the ASG as a council referred to as the Majelis Shura.
For a while Sahiron and his men were based in Sulu but went back to his lair, his home province-Basilan.
Hapilon wanted something else. He was not contented with what the ASG was doing as an Islamic Group. As the ASG went on with their kidnapping activities, a major clash in what direction to take by the group brought Hapilon back in his lair, his hometown in Basilan.
It was then when he began looking for another “inspiration” for his aspirations of establishing an “Islamic State”.
ISIS by this time has already made a mark as a terrorist group that is a major threat to any government.
It was at that stage where Hapilon began to entertain the kind of radicalism that is identified with ISIS—territorial grab and direct engagement with those in power through government forces with the intention of grabbing that territory and power and proclaiming dominance and ownership through the black flag.
The ASG during its early years was linked to the Al Qaeda Network of Osama Bin Laden through Mohamad Jamal Khalifa who established the International Islamic Relief Organization that allowed him to move around and established bases in Mindanao—not just in Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi but also in Central Mindanao right into the heart of operations of another armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the MILF.
The ASG also had links with the Taliban in Afghanistan through Abdurajack Janlani. It was during Khadaffy’s time that the ASG connected and worked alongside personalities identified with Jemaah Islamiyyah like Al Ghozi and Zulkifli Bin Hir also known as Marwan.
Hapilon as one of the key leaders of the ASG has been exposed to the radicalism introduced by Al Qaeda, Taliban, Jemaah Islamiyyah and in very recent years, ISIS.
His first attempts to associate with ISIS connected him with other groups based in Lanao Del Sur—the Ansar Khilafa and the Maute Group.
You can say that the radicalization of Hapilon became complete with his links to ISIS and this link was tightened when other radical groups like Maute merged forces with the ASG.
By the latter part of 2015 was already an emerging key figure of ISIS not just in the Philippines but in South East Asia. By June of 2016, ISIS in Syria released a video Hapilon as the Emir of all their allied groups in South East Asia and by allies, it means radical groups from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Hapilon’s mission-to establish an ISIS caliphate in the region. In March of this year, Australia’s Foreign Minister says they are preparing for the “possibility of Islamic State or ISIS declaring a “caliphate” in the southern Philippines.
Australia, just like the United States have in their hands access to real time intelligence information.
They raised the alarm and told the world what they know. In various radio interviews, Professor Rommel Banlaoi and retired police General Rodolfo “Boogie” Mendoza, both from the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research have been discussing the emergence of Hapilon as ISIS’s Emir in South East Asia.
In most instances, so as not to sound alarmists, the discussions and interviews turn into mere academic discussion on air.
On paper, written as a research and/or intelligence reports, it sounds all too big and daring a plan to be executed by a group based in Lanao Del Sur.
But, the reality that unfolded in Marawi City beginning on May 23 proved that these papers, written and articulated no less than by the Foreign Minister of Australia and President Duterte himself in several instances and occasions, shows the connection between the intelligence information and the actual movement in the field.
This is where the disparity comes in. While President Duterte announces many times that apart from illegal drugs, terrorism in the Philippines through ISIS is his biggest problem as Chief Executive.
Initially and again, with full understanding as to why—the AFP and the PNP has singled out the Maute Group as the lone perpetrator of the Marawi siege.
Any report or confirmation of presence of ISIS, implied or real is alarming and could be interpreted as lapses in intelligence from the point of view and own assessment of those in the security forces.
But President Duterte read the avalanche of intelligence information provided to him by the intelligence community and he knew that government is not dealing with just the Maute Group but various groups of radicals that has evolved into a unified force and molded into the influence of not just one but many international terrorist groups through the years with someone like Hapilon on top, dictating the tempo on the ground.
President Duterte declared martial law as a tool to be able to disable an “invasion” of the country through the ISIS radical interpretation of what Islam is.
To understand the word “invasion” one has to understand the language of the enemy that is ISIS. Would you rather that he misinterpreted and misread the danger signs amplified by other governments in the region like Australia or address it with iron fist that the threat so deserves?
If you know the enemy, you would support the President’s martial law and all the forces on the ground facing an enemy who believes they are doing all these for the glory of God.