“We are the worst nightmare of the enemy,” Lieutenant Colonel Rapi told me while speaking of the Philippine Scout-Rangers when I met him at Special Operations Command at Fort Magsaysay. To find out why the Scout-Rangers are so formidable, I had to travel to the Philippines southernmost major island called Tawi-Tawi.
It was early in the morning, and everyone had been partying hard the night prior at the 2nd Marine Brigade activation anniversary party on Tawi-Tawi, but I had come all the way to the Philippines and was going to interview as many soldiers as I could before leaving. After a few rings, General Cirilito “Lito” Sobejana answered. I told him that I was already on my way to begin the ascent up the mountain which looked like that jungle crag that you see in the beginning of Indiana Jones. Over beers the previous night, the former Scout-Ranger officer and I had promised to go to the top the following morning.
“Give me ten minutes, I’ll be right there,” Sobejana answered.
The General met me at the base of the mountain and we began to climb along with a small news crew from local the media who was also there for the activation anniversary. Currently the Sulu Task Force Commander, Sobejana had taken a Navy ship to Tawi-Tawi from Sulu to attend. I got the sense that he was enjoying a few minutes of relative relaxation, despite the squad of Philippine Marines to our front and bringing up the rear. Sobejana had been given a deadline by President Duterte to end Abu Sayyaf once and for all. It was tight to say the least as July was just a few months away. The national security advisor had then padded the timeline in true military fashion, giving Sobejana only until June to complete an impossible task.
As we walk, we talk about another country that we both have in common: Syria. Sobejana was deployed to the Golan Heights as a peacekeeper where he was involved in a number of infamous international incidents that involved ISIS and the FSA including one dust-up which saw the Philippine troops blow off an illegal order from the United Nations. But that’s another story for another time.
It was a humid, sweaty climb to the top but worth it for a beautiful view of the tropical jungle island surrounded by crystal clear aquamarine waters. Tawi-Tawi is the last major island in the chain of islands before reaching Malaysia making it a stop in the underground ratline for smugglers, brigands, and terrorists which are nearly impossible to contain in an archipelago nation consisting of around 7000 islands. Sobejana points out the adjacent island called Simunul, where Islam first landed in the Philippines, pre-dating the introduction of Christianity by several hundred years.
As he points to the island, I again glance at the massive scar which curls around his elbow and forearm. I first noticed it last night at the party when I went to shake his hand. He shook left-handed. I noted that his right arm had been injured and endeavored to get the story behind the General’s war wound which was partly why I asked to interview him the next day.
At another area at the summit of Tawi-Tawi, I noted men and women praying together at the tombs of local sheiks as we passed by. This is forbidden according to strict interpretations of Islam. Sobejana confirmed that Tawi-Tawi practices a more moderate and reasonable form of Islam. Although the island has a small auxiliary support network for Abu Sayyaf terrorists passing through on their way to Sulu, the island’s main issue is kidnapping rather than acts of terror. The Philippine Marine Corps stationed on the island keeps those criminal elements from getting out of hand.
Back at the base of the mountain, the General invited me back to his hotel to conduct the interview and have some lunch. The Scout-Rangers are an all-volunteer force, so I asked why he decided to sign up for the unit as a newly commissioned lieutenant after graduating from the Philippine Military Academy.
“Well, I really wanted action,” he replied. “I wanted the greatest challenge and I heard that Ranger training is really tough.”
Lieutenant Sobejana got what he wanted in the strenuous six-month Ranger Course. The Scout-Ranger course accepts students from across the Philippine Armed Forces, not just future Scout-Rangers. The course consists of three phases, the individual phase, team phase, and then the maneuver and test mission phase. In Special Operations circles in the Philippines you sometimes hear reference to the “test mission.” This is a live combat operation conducted as a final exam. Soldiers must engage the enemy in combat in order to graduate their course and join the Scout-Rangers, Special Forces, Force Recon, or the Police Special Action Force. The United States has not had anything like this since Recondo School during the Vietnam War.
The test mission consists of a month and a half deployment to a combat zone. If you don’t have a firefight within that timeframe, than the test mission is extended until you do. In the past, test missions pitted the Scout-Rangers against communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels. These days, the test mission deploys them against Islamist terrorists in Basilan, Sulu, and Central Mindinao.
Sobejana described his test mission as taking place in Luzon against the NPA where his Scout-Ranger Class had seven encounters with the NPA. “It is a good test for our Ranger students, exposing them to the real scenario on the ground,” the Task Force Sulu Commander said, who also served as the commandant of the Scout-Ranger course in 2008 and 2009.
“And you immediately validate your tactics?” I asked.
“Exactly, it is part of the validation process.”
The Scout-Rangers are the Philippine’s oldest Special Operations unit having been initially formed in 1950 to combat the Hukbalahap rebellion. They were modeled off two famous units, the Alamo Scouts and the US Army Rangers. The unit was then disbanded in 1957 after the Huks were no longer seen as a threat, only to be reactivated again in 1971. This pattern continued for decades, standing up the unit to combat threats and then disbanding them when the threat was pacified. On another occasion, the Scout-Rangers were disbanded because of their participation in the 1989 coup, but following the trend were then reformed in 1991. Currently, there are four Scout-Ranger Battalions each with three rifle companies, plus the Ranger Course itself.
“We infiltrate,” Sobejana says. “We send out small units to do reconnaissance and if we see enemy presence we go back to our main body and then conduct an assault.” The Scout-Rangers are known for moving light, in teams of seven men. Two teams of seven can come together to form a platoon. This keeps their patrols agile and easy to maneuver in the jungle battlegrounds found in the Philippines. However, in Basilan and Sulu they do operate in the field as battalions given the scope of the enemy threat. Conducting battalion movement to contact operations in the jungle with the battalion command element setting up their operations center in combat is something that American forces have not done in quite a long time, but this is the type of war that the Scout-Rangers continue to fight.
The Scout-Rangers are known to be expert jungle fighters who can rapidly deploy. An entire Scout-Ranger company can fit on a C-130 aircraft with their rucksacks and one truck. They wear no body armor or helmets on patrol. For this reason, Philippine military planners often see the Scout-Rangers as the go to force for Direct Action deep in the jungles. Other units, like the Light Reaction Regiment are highly trained, but contrary to their name, they are actually heavier than the Scout-Rangers as they are outfitted for counter-terrorism missions.
In the early 1990’s the Abu Sayyaf Group emerged in the Philippines due to a confluence of circumstances, not the least of which was some Mujaheddin from Afghanistan returning home to the Philippines in the late 1980’s. The local populace in the Southern Philippines is led by the Datu’s who have a vested interest in maintaining their control over the population and maximizing their stranglehold on power in the region. For the Philippine government to come in and modernize Mindanao jeopardized their power base. Without development, the impoverished local people would never fully support the government, resulting in circumstances that led to insurgency. With financial backing from Saudi Islamist groups, Abu Sayyaf was born.
In 1995 then Captain Sobejana was a company commander in the Scout-Rangers. Janjalani was the original leader of Abu Sayyaf who had served with the Muj in Afghanistan in the 80’s before returning to start Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Sobejana received an intelligence report that Janjalani was near his Scout-Ranger’s patrol base. Taking two seven-man teams, he infiltrated two kilometers towards the suspected Abu Sayyaf camp, and got in close without being detected.
From just ten meters away, the Scout-Rangers opened fire on about twenty terrorists. The assault line fired into the camp for ten minutes or so without return fire, the enemy caught completely by surprise and engaged at close range. “I shouted cease fire,” Sobejana described. “My next order would have been to search for documents of intelligence value but before giving that command we heard indirect fires coming from behind.” Abu Sayyaf counter-attacked, with a much larger element. “We were in a double envelopment from both sides…we were only sixteen. I saw armed men maneuvering around us. I tried to engage the left flank, focus on the left flank and we again inflicted casualties on them and were eventually able to occupy their position.”
Two Scout-Rangers had been shot and killed in the firefight, but Sobejana had successfully broken out of a double envelopment by a numerically superior force. At such a tactical disadvantage, few military units would have survived the encounter. While then assaulting the left flank, two other Scout-Rangers were injured and later beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf terrorists.
The firefight raged on for hours, Captain Sobejana was shot for the first time two hours into the engagement. The rest of Sobejana’s company attempted to reinforce them but they were unable to reach them as they ran into ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) blocking positions. “It was the time when ASG was at its highest strength, I assess that only were there 180 during this engagement,” out of perhaps 300 overall ASG fighters. The other Scout-Rangers did prevent any more ASG fighters from joining in as they pinned down other enemy positions.
“Whoever does the best maneuver wins the war,” Sobejana said, realizing that his force and the enemy force were each attempting to outmaneuver the other. Eventually, the Scout-Rangers were able to find a defendable position. “Half of my men were killed, seven out of sixteen and the rest of us who survived were wounded,” he recalled.
“My rifle was hit three times. I only stopped firing when my charging handle was damaged,” after firing 13 30-round magazines of ammunition. At that point he picked up a rifle from one of his men who had been killed. From their position, the Scout-Rangers were then bombarded by 60mm mortars, Sobejana attempting to protect one of his men from shrapnel by diving on top of him. “I was not spared from the mortar rounds, I was wounded again,” he said.
However, as the Scout-Rangers and the terrorists came within ten meters of one another, the ASG was afraid to fire mortars just as the Philippine Air Force was afraid to provide air support due to the risk of friendly fire. After five hours of constant combat, the ASG fighters began to withdraw, apparently having had their full.
The Scout-Rangers attempted to call in helicopters to evacuate them, but the pilots received heavy ground fire when attempting to land. Eventually, an armored troop carrier broke through and rescued the Scout-Rangers. Sobejana was no longer able to stand. His final position had been in an abandoned ASG bunker alongside five of his fallen comrades. He was evacuated to Zamboanga where he had two operations before being sent to Manila, then to Hawaii, and finally to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Janjalani was also wounded during the firefight but was not killed until years later.
It took two years for Sobejana to recover from his injuries. “I tried really hard to regain my strength because I wanted to rejoin the battlefield,” he explained during our interview. After a brief administrative position, Sabejana became the commandant of the Ranger School before taking command of 3rd Scout-Ranger Battalion. For his actions in combat, Sabejana was awarded the Medal of Valor, the highest award in the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Today, the Scout-Rangers continue to take the fight to the enemy, including at least six major threat groups which exist on the Philippine archipelago. Sitting down with Lieutenant Colonel Rapi outside SOCOM headquarters, he described a similar career track as Sobejana, graduating from the Philippine Military Academy and then volunteering to be a Scout-Ranger because he wanted to be one of the best.
“We were wondering why they make us run all the time?” Rapi said with a laugh when I asked him to describe his airborne training. It sounded like a mirror image of American Airborne School with a lot of running back and forth all day long. At the conclusion of the six-week course, the Scout-Rangers conduct five qualifying jumps. Most Philippine Special Operations soldiers are airborne qualified but when asked, none were aware of any actual airborne infiltrations into combat. This raises questions as to the validity of maintaining an expensive airborne capability when the most elite units in the Philippines cannot afford to maintain their night vision devices which they use on a daily basis.
Rapi went on to describe one operation he participated in as a Platoon Leader in 2008 near Catobato in Mindinao. Rapi and fifteen of his men encountered the enemy around noon, coming under fire from machine guns, but unable to maneuver. The MILF rebels were dug in and the two forces were separated by a dyke. After two hours, Rapi was still searching for a way to close the distance with the enemy and assault their positions. “It was a challenge to me to finish this fight,” he reflected. The Scout-Rangers crawled forward, searching for an infiltration lane. Finally, they found a way across the dyke and assaulted the twenty or so rebels utilizing the bounding overwatch technique in which two teams of Scout-Rangers alternate between rushing forward while the other lays down suppressive fire. Frustratingly, the enemy had largely abandoned their positions and fled once they saw the Scout-Rangers approaching.
At Special Operations Command, Rapi is helping to further develop the force, including creating institutionalized support to help their soldiers cope with Post-Traumatic Stress, an issue which as largely been neglected up until now. They are also taking steps to help ensure that Special Operations are used as Special Operations troops rather than deployed as a regular Infantry which has been an issue in the past.
Since the 1950’s the Scout-Rangers have been on the front lines, making a profound contribution to the Philippine counter-insurgency efforts. Yet Rapi is realistic about what the military’s elite forces can accomplish on their own. “We cannot win through arms only,” the Scout-Ranger told me, emphasizing that political solutions must be found. “We observe that these insurgents are no longer motivated by their ideology but that this is something they do as their livelihood,” he says, pointing out as Sobejana had to me days earlier that the insurgents have left their ideology behind a long time ago. Today, terrorism in the Philippines is not about communism or Islamism but is a money-making venture that includes kidnapping for ransom.
Back on the island of Sulu, General Sobejana is no doubt contemplating this problem as his deadline to finish off Abu Sayaf once and for all ticks down.