I sat across from a Light Reaction Regiment operator at a restaurant where we tried in vain to escape some of the humidity. He’s smoking a cigarette while we discuss his unit and their operations. He is a quiet man, quick to tell me that his job is to execute the mission rather than complain about the burden of his responsibilities and just as quick to credit other Special Operations and conventional forces for their contributions to the fight against the many threat groups facing the Philippine Armed Forces. When I ask about a rumor I had heard about his unit conducting a High Value Target strike mission disguised as a wedding procession he smiles a little bit. That’s when I know I’m on the right track.
In a previous interview I had talked to General Danilo Pamonag, the current Philippine SOCOM commander who also commanded the Light Reaction Regiment on two separate occasions. We had talked about how the human and geographical terrain of the Philippines makes for a difficult operational environment for their Special Operations units.
“The biggest challenge we have as special operators is how sneak into the operational area because every time we move out of our camp the civilians would always see us, hear the noise of our vehicles, and blood is thicker than water so they will try to pass on information that there is military going,” Pamonag said. Sometimes those passing on information are enemy agents, other times they are just family members communicating with one another, but either way the cat is out of the bag and word eventually gets to the enemy. “It is the hardest part of our mission, finding our enemy and putting our troops there undetected,” the SOCOM commander elaborated.
When the Light Reaction Regiment deploys by airplane or boat, they are often observed disembarking at the airport or the wharf. Within twenty-four hours, everyone knows that a new Special Operations Force is in town. Operators are airborne qualified, but they are hesitant to infiltrate the target area by parachute because they will also be noticed in the air and then the enemy will close around them. Meanwhile, those troops will have little access to mutually supporting fires from other units or air support. Helicopters over another alternative, but the noise of the rotor blades also tips off hostiles of incoming commandos.
“You have to strike a balance between mass and mobility. That is how we tailor fit the TTPs [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures] we use. We study the enemy first,” the Light Reaction Regiment operator sitting across from me in the restaurant explains. For the purposes of this article we will refer to him as Harold, an alias to protect his identity. In 2014, Harold was deployed to the island of Sulu with the 1st Light Reaction Company. He had recently come back from training in Australia with the Special Air Service Regiment and then almost immediately deployed to Sulu. 1st LRC was preparing to be redeployed back home when an intelligence officer came to them asking if they would like to roll out on one final hit before leaving.
The target was #7 of the their Abu Sayyaf target deck: Sihata Latip. Wanted for kidnapping 21 people in Malaysia in 2000, he went on to conduct a string of kidnappings in the Philippines over subsequent years. As the Philippines got better at countering terrorism, the Abu Sayyaf Group was cut off from overseas international terrorist finance networks, particularly those originating in Saudi Arabia. In order to make up for this loss in income, they engage in kidnapping for ransom as their livelihood.
“Right then and there we decided we were in, payback is a bitch,” Harold said.
Intel had been monitoring a motorcycle gang and discovered that Sihata Latip was running a gambling ring based around motorcycle drag races in Sulu. They estimated that there would be approximately 50 civilians at the next drag race, along with Latip and an Abu Sayyaf bodyguard.
“It took us a week to plan, rehearse, and execute the mission,” Harold said. The Light Reaction Regiment operators knew that this capture/kill mission could not be run in a conventional manner because the target would be tipped off by someone the moment the 1st LRC’s vehicles rolled out of the gate of their base. Instead, they developed a more unconventional tactic utilizing a Trojan horse as an infiltration platform.
“We dressed up like we were going to a Muslim wedding. We rented out a local jeep, dressed it up also. So we decorated it exactly the way it was supposed to look. It would be suspicious if it were a truck full of men so some of us dressed up like females.” The wedding procession also included an LRR operator dressed as an Imam. Their SAW gunner had to carry a bulkier weapon and drums of linked ammunition so he was disguised to look like a pregnant woman.
Finally, on the day that Latip was to be running his gambling ring at the drag race, the LRR men were ready to deploy. The first snag occurred when Harold realized that he SAW gunner had not shaved that day. He wore a open faced head scarf as was the cultural tradition in Sulu and would make for a rather unconvincing woman with a goatee. “You still have your goatee, you motherfucker!” Harold scolded him as they were about to roll outside the wire. The SAW gunner had a moment of inspiration when he saw a female solder on the base walking by with a fan. He asked to borrow it to hold in front of his goatee while they were driving to the target area.
Finally, the two jeep convoy departed. The SAW gunner fanned himself continuously throughout the fifteen kilometer movement, hiding his facial hair. Proving that Murphy’s law was in full effect, one of the two jeeps broke down halfway to the target. On the radio with the intelligence officer, Harold now had to decide if they could complete the mission with 13 operators instead of 24. With only two enemy to deal with on target, Harold decided that his remaining 13 men would be up to the task.
When they arrived at the drag race, the LRR operators identified their High Value Target and quickly approached him. Weapons were drawn out from under wedding clothes and brought into action. “But apparently in the crowd there were a lot of armed dudes, ASG and MILF guys betting on the race,” Harold said. “A supposed mission of capture or kill turned into a big firefight.” Bedlam broke out at the drag race with civilians fleeing in all directions. Latip went for a concealed weapon and one LRR member quickly killed him. Abu Sayyaf and Moro Islamic Liberation Front terrorists were now engaged in a firefight with the 13 LRR operators. One of the operators was shot in the neck and killed. The two bodies were quickly loaded onto the jeep.
“Since we had the body the guys [enemy] were still trying to go after us, shooting us. So it was a hot extract.” Their jeep was shot up and running on flat tires as they quickly got off the X and to a safer area, just as a five tanks belonging to the Marine Corps arrived to back up the LRR’s mission. Years later, an intelligence officer explained to Harold that if not for the Marines launching to protect the LRR, that they all would have been killed. The enemy was quickly massing their forces on the small LRR team.
“I think it opened the door to do more covert missions,” Harold said, stubbing out his cigarette.
In the press, Latip was reported as killed in some hazy military-police operation or by unnamed security forces.
The Light Reaction Regiment simply dipped back into the shadows and awaited their next mission.
[Featured image courtesy of DVIDS. “Philippine Army Maj. Velmor Manaois, Light Reaction Regiment, Special Operations Command, views his altimeter prior to conducting a free fall jump from a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion during Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) 15 at Basa Air Base, Philippines Oct. 7, 2014. PHIBLEX is an annual, bilateral training exercise conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, U.S. Marines and Navy to strengthen interoperability across a range of capabilities to include disaster relief and contingency operations.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. William L. Holdaway/Released)]