In the dead of night, close to 400 Filipino police commandos comprising the country’s Special Action Force (SAF) moved into position. Their target: Malaysian national Zulkifli bin Hir, aka “Marwan.” A hardcore member of Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Marwan was believed killed in 2012 by what was most likely a drone strike coordinated with U.S. forces. After the strike, SAF combed the area, finding body parts strewn across the jungle, but could not confirm Marwan as being among the dead. It was several years before it was discovered that the JI terrorist was alive and well. Acting on intelligence from local assets, the Philippine National Police Special Action Force executed “Oplan Wolverine” at 3 am on the 25th of January.

Sources inform SOFREP that the SAF assault force entered and cleared a series of three huts where Marwan was supposed to be bedding down for the night. Receiving gunfire, it has been reported that the assaulters summarily eliminated Marwan. The SAF men then took photographs of the body for evidence and considered cutting off his hand to bring back as well until their commanding officer ordered them to bag up the corpse and take it with them.

Meanwhile, at a nearby location, a SAF blocking force got hit hard by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) with whom Marwan had worked. The SAF element was located there to help isolate the objective area, but soon become encircled in a cornfield, their backs to a river, which prevented a tactical withdrawal. The SAF was then engaged in a 13-hour-long firefight with BIFF, losing 44 police officers in the process. In order to maintain the operational security around Oplan Wolverine, the Filipino military was not informed of the mission until it was already underway. Under fire, isolated, and alone, there would be no reinforcements sent to aid the SAF officers.

Also not informed of the police operation to take out Marwan was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  Although it is unclear who first fired on who, MILF terrorists also jumped into the fray during the 13-hour firefight, jeopardizing ongoing peace negotiations between them and the Filipino government, facilitated by the United States.

U.S. Special Forces involvement

Oplan Wolverine targeted Marwan in Maguindanao, a province of Mindinao in the southern Philippines. SOFREP has covered this troubled region in the past, including the Massacre of Maguindanao, which resulted in the largest mass slaying of journalists in world history. In response to the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism in the Philippines, 1st Special Forces Group took an active approach in mentoring Filipino forces and directing them against enemy forces.

The U.S. Army’s First Special Forces Group (Airborne) (1st SFG(A)) was present and active in the Philippines prior to the events of 9/11. In fact, from March to July 2001, elements of 1st Battalion, 1st SFG(A) had been conducting an advisory assistance mission with the AFP and were helping them in developing plans to target terrorist organizations, specifically the ASG. These assistance efforts continued in earnest following the May 21, 2001 ASG kidnapping of more than a dozen wealthy Filipinos and three American citizens, including a missionary couple, from a resort on the Island of Palawan. The ASG transported the hostages to their jungle stronghold on the island of Basilan and held them for ransom. In the aftermath of 9/11, these events led SOCPAC, USPACOM, the State Department, and ultimately the Bush administration to seize an opportunity to expand the GWOT and to more aggressively target the ASG by establishing Operation ENDURING FREEDOM-PHILIPPINES (OEF-P), which officially commenced in early 2002. (Farris)

Within OEF-P was the Joint Special Operations Task Force–Phillipines (JSOTF-P), spearheaded by 1st Special Forces Group, whose job was “Foreign Internal Defense (FID) with the Republic of the Philippines Security Forces in order to defeat JI and ASG High Value Individuals and neutralize enemy safe havens.” (Farris) Therefore the task force was established, at least in part, to help the Filipino government capture and kill high-value targets like Marwan.

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SAF

Established in 1983, the SAF received extensive training, starting around 2002, from U.S. military advisors. Unique among law enforcement units, the SAF’s mission is unconventional warfare within the Philippines. For a country plagued by various terrorist organizations, it made sense for the Republic of the Philippines to establish a domestic unconventional warfare unit within their law enforcement. This would be a unit that could not only action targets, but as law enforcement officers they could also aid in the criminal prosecution of suspects. The Filipino Special Action Force was trained by 12-man Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) teams from 1st Special Forces Group, and the SAF snipers received training from 1st Group’s C/1/1 Commanders In-Extremis Force (CIF).

Officially, 1st Special Forces Group members only conducted training and never participated in combat operations, but anecdotal evidence leads one to believe otherwise. Like their 7th Special Forces Group counterparts in Colombia, sometimes earning the respect of your host-nation counterparts means sharing in some of the risks, not just pitching Powerpoint presentations and scribbling on a dry-erase board.

Terrorist quagmire 

In 2008, a number of commanders within the MILF were upset by ongoing peace negotiations between their organization and the Filipino government. When negotiations began to break down, disenfranchised MILF commanders splintered off and formed BIFF. The most notable BIFF commander is, of course, Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato, who  SOFREP profiled back in 2012:

Due to Kato’s charisma and growing popularity with in the MILF community and in the moro civilian population, the BIFF was later changed to BIFM (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement). Estimated strengths from 200 to 3000 regulars and 2,000 heavily armed elites. Commanders of the 105th and 106th have combined forces with Kato’s group. Also the following commanders have pledged their loyalty to Kato: Abu Nawas, Shamir Salamat, Karialong, Bravo, Pangalian and Talyo.

Marwan (who had a six-million dollar bounty on his head from the FBI) was working closely with BIFF, and ostensibly with Kato’s blessing. Targeted along with Marwan by the SAF operation was Abdul Basit Usman, a local bomb maker working for BIFF. The splintering and factioning of Islamic terrorist organizations highlights the slippery slope which the Filipino and U.S. government have had to negotiate in securing peace in the southern Philippines. While the Filipino government is negotiating with the MILF, there are no peace negotiations with the BIFF, but both groups occupy Maguindanao, including the objective area for Oplan Wolverine.

Dead or alive?

As one of the FBI’s most wanted, Marwan has built and supplied bombs for several terrorist organizations in the region. Besides the Filipino government’s determination to capture Marwan, the January 25th raid was probably pushed along at least in part because of a car bomb which detonated outside a disco in Zamboanga City two days prior.

Post-mission SSE photo taken by SAF, allegedly showing the Marwan's body.
Post-mission SSE photo taken by SAF, allegedly showing Marwan’s body.

Both the Filipino press and SOFREP’s sources report that Marwan was killed during the course of Oplan Wolverine, but there is cause to be skeptical. It was widely reported that he was killed during the 2012 drone strike, only to have the Filipino government make an embarrassing admission two years later that he was probably still alive.

SAF Commanding Officer Napeñas has already been relieved from his post due to his failure to inform his own commander, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, of the mission until it was already underway. Expressing grief for the 44 police officers he lost on Oplan Wolverine, Napeñas told the press, “I cannot explain how I feel. I love those boys. I cannot take my men’s welfare lightly.”