Following my late night attendance of General Sabban‘s birthday party in Zamboanga, I met the general the following morning at the airport to catch a plane to Tawi-Tawi. I was pretty exhausted, but Sabban looked none of the worse for wear. I had been invited down to Tawi-Tawi for the activation anniversary of 2nd Marine Brigade. While there, I would also have the opportunity to interview many Philippine Marine Corps veterans. While waiting in the terminal, Sabban told me that he just got word that Force Recon had eliminated an Abu Sayyaf high value target in Sulu. They had baited the terrorist in with a honeytrap. Although retired and working as a security manager for a bank, Sabban still keeps his ear to the ground.
It was a short flight, and with the General, we walked across the tarmac and were met by several uniformed Marines who would drive us to our hotel in Hilux pickup trucks.
What I first noticed about Tawi-Tawi was that it was beautiful in a rural undeveloped sense. Houses are up on stilts, many roads are unpaved, and the island itself is mountainous and jungle covered. We’re about as far south in the Philippines as you can get, the last major island before Malaysia which is about 25 miles further south by boat. The island’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, although they are generally moderate. A few days later I observed Muslim men and women praying together, something that does not happen in more orthodox interpretations of Islam. I was also able to visit a church belonging to the minority Christian population just outside the city center. As we drive, I also spot wooden ships being built the old-fashioned way, framed out on land. I don’t think I had ever see something like that outside of a diorama at a museum, but here it was, indigenous ship building alive and well.
We get to the hotel at an amazing oceanside location and I soon come to discover that I will be escorted by Marines everywhere I go. My friends are afraid that I might be kidnapped. Personally, it seems a bit like overkill as Tawi-Tawi is not particularly dangerous, but my hosts feel responsible for my well-being. At least I know I am in good hands. Soon I’m sitting outside in front of the aqua-marine sea, interviewing General Sabban and his crew. We talked a lot about the Marine Corps, Abu Sayyaf, and counter-insurgency. I find the Marines to be well read and articulate. One asks me if I’ve read 100 Victories by Linda Robinson, and tells me he is currently reading General Petreaus’ book. General Sabban reflects back to Black Jack Pershing in his approach to counter-insurgency. The first time Pershing went in with an iron fist and found that this approach didn’t work. The second time, he won the hearts and minds of the populace while cracking down on insurgents, which provides a carrot and stick incentive system.
Our morning coffee was interrupted by a young boy screaming at the top of his lungs. At first, we thought it was just kids being kids, but the screams became more and more high-pitched as the boy yelled from the shore, “DADDY! DADDY!” Two other children were being carried out to sea by the current. Standing up to see what the commotion was, an adult jumped into the water and pulled one of the kids back to safety. The second child had already been swept out a hundred meters or so. The Philippine Marines I was with began whistling and waving to get the attention of a passing fisherman in a small boat. Eventually, the fisherman realized what was going on, spotted the child, and pulled him up onto his boat before delivering him back to his parents on the beach. What a hell of a morning, I think most of us would rather get shot at by Abu Sayyaf than watch a couple kids drown.
With the drama over, I finished my interview with the Marines and decided to see what other kind of trouble I could get into. I was made an offer to be taken into town which I took right away. Several Marines escorted me into the city center to walk around the market. Seeing the lumber yards, people selling fish, Marines sitting down having lunch, and civilians going about their business on Tawi-Tawi was an interesting experience. I did notice one other person in the market who stuck out like a dick growing out of a forehead. He was a white guy wearing a collared shirt, lots of tattoos on his arms. Definitely military. He scooted away from me as I got close and walked to the other side of the street. Later, I realized that he was one of the MARSOC guys on the island who liaison with the Philippine Marines.
I don’t want to exaggerate the threat level on Tawi-Tawi. The people were friendly and open. However, it is also important not to sweep the threats under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist. The Marines told me that Abu Sayyaf does not operate openly on the island, but they do have auxiliaries on the island who act as support agents, offering them safe houses when they are passing through. Tawi-Tawi isn’t where the action is, rather it is an intermediary stop-off point in the terrorist-arms trafficking-criminal nexus. Former 1st Special Forces Group officer Lino Miani writes about it in his book The Sulu Arms Market:
Using a combination of modern speedboats and motorized perahus, an armada of ant traders transports the arms from Sandakan to any one of several hubs in the Sulus before continuing on to Mindanao. Intermediate stops in Berhala and Taganak near Sandakan; Sitangkai Island; Bongao and Balambangan in Tawi-Tawi; Jolo and Maimbung in Sulu; and numerous ports in Basilan are more than just convenient rest and refueling stops for smugglers, they are also miniature arms markets themselves.
Later that day, I had lunch with General Sabban and also met with two American Marines who work as defense attaches. The two U.S. Marines suggest that I check out the observation station at the top of the mountain on Tawi-Tawi as it is impressive how the Philippine Armed Forces have set up a persistent surveillance and communications system from the high ground which than directs littoral vessels to interdict smugglers. Not a bad idea.
That night was the activation anniversary for 2nd Marine Brigade which is stationed on the island. Retired Marine General De Leone gave a great speech about how awesome the Philippine Marines are and then to my surprise, sat down and began playing the guitar alongside the band! It was a great night of fun with active and retired Marines, San Miguel beer, and lots of Hawaiian t-shirts. There was also a presentation on all the terrorists that the 2nd Brigade Marines had captured or killed on Tawi-Tawi. Mostly killed.
The next morning I had to wake up early to climb the mountain with the Sulu Task Force commander, General Sobejana.
At a certain point I broke off from the main group to check out the observation post at the very top of the mountain. There was a small crew of soldiers up there, and to say they live an austere life is putting it mildly. The biggest problem they have is that they have to lug everything they need to survive up the side of the mountain on foot. This includes water, and each man needs several gallons of water a day between drinking, eating, and cleaning themselves. From their vantage point, they have a communications room that they can use to coordinate with 10 floating assets below and intercept smugglers. It is a low tech solution that works. The soldiers on duty work one month on, one month off.
Before I knew it, my trip to Tawi-Tawi was already over. I felt like I had accomplished on a lot on the island for having only been there for maybe 36 hours though. This is definitely I place I would like to return to. I can say that I saw some of the clearest ocean water I had ever seen there, so the SCUBA diving must be fantastic. For such an amazing experience, I owe a big thank you to General Sabban and the Philippine Marines. Until next time gents!
(All images courtesy of the author)