ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines –Government security forces have mounted intelligence tracking to locate the possible sites where Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members buried their leaders believed to have been killed in the airstrike Thursday in Sulu province, the military said yesterday.
Western Mindanao Command spokesman Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang said troops did not recover any remains of the slain bandits, including two JI leaders, Zulkipli bin Abdul Hir alias Marwan and Muhamda Ali alias Muawiya, and Abu Sayyaf leader Gumbahali Jumdail alias Dr. Abu Pula, a founding leader of the terror group.
“The main effort right now is on intelligence to track down the location of the gravesites where the surviving members buried their leaders,” Cabangbang said.
Marwan was a US-educated Malaysian engineer and a top leader of JI. He also formed a terrorist group in Malaysia, the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia.
Marwan coordinated closely with the Abu Sayyaf as its top trainer in bomb making, and he was a close associate of Umar Patek, a JI leader arrested in Abbottabad in Pakistan, a few months before the raid on top terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Marwan was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list with a $5-million bounty on his head.
Jumdail, on the other hand, was believed to be responsible for multiple kidnappings, beheadings, and atrocious violence around Mindanao.
Ali, meanwhile, was a Singaporean senior leader of JI involved in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.
Police security forces investigating the airstrike site only recovered some belongings of the slain bandit leaders.
Investigators also retrieved blood samples at the site as specimens for investigation, Sulu police director Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said.
“There were many samples recovered in the blast site, like backpacks, mangled personal belongings with bloodstains which could be used as specimens in our investigation,” he said.
Freyra said police forces reached the area in Barangay Duyan Kabau, Parang town at around 9 a.m., barely hours after the deadly airstrike but there was no one alive at the site.
He said the militants could have taken the time to retrieve their casualties and buried them hastily somewhere else.
“But looking at the mangled site, the devastation has inflicted casualties because bloodstains were everywhere,” Freyra said.
He said they have received reports that the remains were hastily buried. This prompted him to designate a tracker team.
Freyra also ordered security intensified in populated areas in Sulu, on the possibility of a retaliatory attack from the Abu Sayyaf and JI.
He said security in vital installations and public convergence areas in Jolo, the capital town of Sulu, has been doubled in anticipation of a retaliatory attack.
Not yet over
With the US helping the Philippine military in the air attack against the militants, a US think tank urged Pentagon not to cut the allocation for the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) program as long as the country wants US involvement in counterterrorism training of its military.
Robert Warshaw, research assistant at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, said the operation that led to the death of Southeast Asia’s most-wanted Malaysian terrorist in Mindanao is a big victory for the Philippine military and its American trainers.
He said the JSOTF-P costs around $50 million per year, noting that it is “a drop in the bucket when looking at its cost-benefit ratio.”
“As Washington continues to cut spending, the Pentagon should not slice a penny from this program - not so long as the Philippine government wants us involved. The US training force has proven to be one of the true success stories in the global war against terrorists,” Warshaw said.
The US and the Philippines are expanding defense cooperation believed aimed toward securing Philippine territorial sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
As the Philippine military quells domestic insurgencies and eradicates terrorist cells in its territory, Warshaw said it will increasingly be able to turn its attention toward territorial defense.
“The US should continue to do everything in its power, pursuant with the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, its Visiting Forces Agreement, and the Constitution of the Philippines to assist our treaty ally in this endeavor,” Warshaw said.
In 2002, the US military deployed JSOTF-P, a 600-strong, non-combat counterinsurgency team of specialists.
Composed of US Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs, the unit’s primary mission has been to train and develop the Philippine military’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities.
Warshaw said the result of the JSOTF-P deployment is that the US-backed Philippine military has turned the tide in the war against the Abu Sayyaf, largely decimating its leadership in 2007 and restricting the terrorist group to small-scale attacks.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines said the US military provided critical intelligence support that led to the mission’s success as noncombatants.
“Operations like this demonstrate that it continues to be money well spent. It’s a recipe for success that has proven extremely effective time and again, as in the case of the hugely successful US and Australian-funded Detachment 88 counterterrorist force in Indonesia,” Warshaw added.
He said the killing of the top terrorists on Thursday does not conclude the anti-terror campaign in the region.
“Yet the job is not finished. Terrorism may be down in Southeast Asia, but it is certainly not out. Just as the death of Osama bin Laden did not end the threat from al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf and JI still remain extremely dangerous, even without their top leaders,” Warshaw said.
“Despite their largely regional focus, Southeast Asia’s terrorist cells can still threaten US interests and American lives if given the space to operate,” he said. - With Pia Lee-Brago - By Roel Pareño