The Al-Barka Basilan Incident

“Tayo nag-initiate, ng encounter. Tayo nalagasan ng ganoon karami. Automatic ang tanong, pinaghandaan natin ang operation, bakit ganito ang resulta?…ang pagkakamali, nasa tao. Pero ang paulit-ulit na pagkakamali, kasalanan na iyon. Hindi natin pwedeng pabayaan na magkaroon ng pagkakataon na maging paulit-ulit ito. Kung may mali, depekto sa sistema, ayusin na natin ito. Kung sa training, kung saanman. Hanapin kung saan ang sanhi bakit nagkaroon ng disaster. Ayusin ang mga problema.”

That was President Aquino III speaking, during a press conference he gave on Monday afternoon, where he reiterated that there will be no “all-out-war” against the MILF.

He had earlier refused to answer what lessons were learned about the Basilan encounter, simply saying there is “an ongoing investigation” that “will decide lives, careers and perhaps even criminal liabilities of (the) people involved.”

What was he talking about?

The initial findings – THE INVESTIGATION IS STILL GOING ON – as reported in the command conference with the President and the AFP’s top brass last Friday, was that the soldiers who died shouldn’t have been sent there in the first place. They died because they were sent there unprepared and without planning, so much so that they were practically sent there to die. But that’s me talking, generalizing.

Here are the findings, according to a printed report shown to me:

*The use of the students of scuba diving course to conduct combat operations was not authorized by the 1ID, WestMinCom and GHQ.

*No deliberate mission planning was done which could have provided a thorough preparation and action during exigencies. This resulted to the following:

*during the planning and preparation, appreciation of the threat situation and the terrain in the area of operation were not properly considered and analyzed. The area is within the vicinity of MILF concentration. The implications of operating in the area were not considered despite the incidents in the past. Moreover, the CO, 4th SFBN miscalculated the intervention of MILF 114th Base Command.

*the commanders failed to consider the limited capability of 4th SF Battalion Forces and the students. Forces of 4th Scout Ranger Battalion or the 32nd Infantry Battalion could have been used if operation is properly planned or coordinated.

*The U3, WestMinCom was told about the operation only at about 180700H Oct 2011. He was informed about the encounter at about 0900H.

*The lack of proper coordination from higher headquarters delayed the use of air and artillery assets. Aside from the lack of jointness in the planning process, there was no participation of other arms services and the reserve force is very small composed of one SF team only.

*There was no operation order for the operations, hence, some of the planning process and considerations were neglected.

*The use of air and artillery assets was delayed due to poor planning. With the distance of the engagement area, it took sometime before reinforcements to arrive and the time to prepare the reinforcing troops.

“4th SFBN Commander initiated and launched the operation utilizing his own forces and the students of military scuba diving course class 42-11 without the proper authorization from higher headquarters.

“The Commander of SOTF Basilan was only informed of the operation the day before the troops jumped-off from their line of departures. Though, the SOTF Commander informed them of the enemy situation in the area and warned them regarding their inconsistent assessment of the MILF presence and possible engagement with the troops, the operation was still pursued.”

But the problem goes beyond a lack of authorization. As PNoy reportedly said during the command conference, the problem was a breakdown in the chain of command. Commanders are supposed to know what is happening in their areas of responsibility, whether or not the actions were authorized.

Among the recommendations made were to “review the procedures on the utilization of students for operations,” and to “follow basic military decision-making process in order to produce a more effective combat team.”

The stories told by the survivors are not part of the report. I have not heard the stories personally, I was told about these instead, so this is considered hearsay. But even in a court of law hearsay may be admitted, depending on the circumstances and the reasons why the court is being asked to admit them.

One survivor reportedly described how, as early as 5:30 a.m., their officers were asking for reinforcements. The radioman had fallen and the officer could be heard shouting over the radio, asking for reinforcements. The report said that helicopters were sent in as early as 9:30 a.m., but they only picked up the wounded. By the time the reinforcements got to the site, according to the report, it was 4 p.m. The enemy had left. The officers who had asked for reinforcement were dead.

“The 4th SFBN requested close air support and casualty evacuation for the engaged forces. At about 9:30 in the morning, two UH-1H aircraft (504 and 794) escorted by one MG-520 helicopter took off Edwin Andrews Air Force Base, Zamboanga City and proceeded towards Basilan. The helicopters proceeded to Al-Barka, Basilan and were able to pick-up four WIA and brought them to Tabiawan, Basilan arriving at about 10:42 a.m.

“At the same time, a reinforcing SF team under Capt Mallanao from Bato-Bato detachment was engaged and fixed by another blocking enemy force.”

It was already 12 noon when another pair of Hueys inserted Scout Ranger troops into the encounter site. An hour later, two OV-10 Broncos conducted bomb runs “to support the engaged forces.”

“Finally, the reinforcing forces were able to reach the engagement area and conducted clearing operation at about 4 p.m. to recover the other KIA and WIA. At the same time, the enemy had already disengaged.”

Another hearsay story: One of the officers –who died – was heard shouting over the radio: Huwag ninyo naman kaming ganituhin! or Walang ganyanan. Or something to that effect.

“While the casualties were evacuated and troops were inserted by helicopters in the encounter area, Cpt Tupas eventually managed to link-up with the 2nd combat group. He found difficulty in the process as the command and control of the group is no longer effective with the death of its four officers, notably 1Lt Alsiyao who acted as the overall commander of the group.

“It was learned that 1Lt Alsiyao was hit by enemy fires at about 7:30 in the morning and the other officers subsequently becoming casualties.”

I was told that the course director said the students were unprepared, and unarmed. To which the officer who ordered them deployed replied that he would give them guns.

I have no idea if that was true. But the report details what the AFP lost, aside from 19 soldiers: 15 high-powered firearms, one Harris man-pack radio, and three night-vision goggles. I didn’t know students who go on test missions were that well-equipped.

The way the story was managed, and eventually spun and twisted by interest groups, is a different story altogether. Another, longer story that must also wait, is how many people — journalists included — jumped into conclusions without digging for facts. Or used their opinions — which they mistook for facts — to jump into conclusions.

This was just the initial report, presented to the President three days after the incident. Reading the report, it’s easy to pin the blame on the commander of the 4th SFBN, who ordered the deployment. But I’ve been told that it was the system that encouraged and allowed him to do that: hanging one officer would not correct the system, but perpetuate the policy mistakes that allowed the Basilan encounter to happen in the first place.

This might also be why some officers have remained silent, though they could – and should – have spoken out. But that’s a longer story, meant for another day.



29 Responses

  1. If this is true the officers responsible for this lapse literally shoved the soldiers into the lions den. Perhaps it is not fair to target the officers involve and focus should be on the broken system. But if the initial findings are validated while the system maybe broken, the massacre was clearly the result of incompetence and lack of concern for their soldiers safety.

    • I believe this is why PNoy refused to say anything about the ongoing investigation; the initial findings were damning.

      • hi dana! i’m memen lauzon i believe we’ve met long time ago. thanks for this report! what confused me was that immediately after the incident Wesmincom spokesperson Cabangbang claimed in a TV interview that the soldiers were far from MILF’s ATS and that because of prolonged fighting with lawless elements, other armed groups including BIAFs who may have been relatives of the elements being pursued came to the rescue. MILF’s version is there was actual encroachment by the soldiers. i want to know why the AFP commanders who ordered the operations did not coordinate with the AHJAG before pursuing the lawless elements… i guess this will be covered by the investigation. would be good if government will make public the full report. btw, i’m with IID-MPW and now based in davao. thanks again!

      • Hi Memen! Of course I remember you 🙂 Suffice it to say that masalimuot ang sagot sa mga tanong mo and I don’t have all the answers 🙂 They have promised to finish the report in a week’s time (by next week, I hope) and to make it public. I’m rushing something right now, but I’ll try to answer your questions later.

    • I beg your pardon, what lion’s den? This is still part of the Philippine territory, right! If Tondo becomes a haven of thugs and criminals, do you tell the people and the police not to go there? I think it is better you let the police saturate the area to flush out the bad elements so that peace and order is maintained there. In the first place, why is there an MILF camp? Better is an AFP camp run by Filipino Moslem soldiers (I believe there are many, including former rebels integrated into the military), not the MILF

  2. You are correct that hanging one officer will not fix the problem but that is nearly irrelevant. The principle of Command Responsibility is sancrosanct. The problem here though is that the AFP doesn’t apply the principle universally.

    Take for example the NPA’s attaxk on Claver in Surigao del Norte Province. The CO and EXO of the 402nd Brigade (EXO concurrently commanded TF Stinger) were relieved. However, the Division CO is not even rapped on the knuckles. This is especially noteworthy when one realises that the 4ID’s preceding CO, MGen. Mario Chan had been the fool who declared the province “Pacified” in April of 2010. Adding insult to injury he had made this declaration in Placer itself! When his successor took over he failed to properly asses his predecessor’s major decisions. Yet two good Colonels now risk losing their careers over the principle.

    In Basilan the situation is extremely difficult owing to the game President Aquino is playing with the MILF/BIAF though in fairness his predecessor dropped it in his lap (witness the last debacle in Al Barka on July 10th, 2007. The Government allowed a panel composed of MILF and pro-MILF NGO Bantay Ceasefire to determine whether or not the MILF/BIAF was culpable!).

    Sorry, but Erap was right in 2000 except that he stopped with the fall of the MILF/BIAF Headquarters. Two wars later, with a third on the way and the Philippines is now reaping the “benefit.”

  3. Want to add, the reason why Aqunio said nothing after the ComConf was that he wants this to go away post haste. Take alook at his “Philippine Development Plan 2010-2016.” Under the Peace Process he telegraphs it all. The MILF/BIAF is the key to Aquino’s wishlist for Mindanao.

    His semi-erasure of ARMM? His pushing Indonesia to play nice with the MNLF’s four major factions at the Solo City Conference in July? Aquino has laid all his eggs in one basket (when you read his vision for the NDFP/CPP/NPA Peace Process it becomes very, very clear.

    If he was smart he would back off of this track. He just bought off the AFP with P10 Billion this past weekend to avert rumblings of a coup over his rejection of a tactical response to Al Barka. This is why he has said nothing about the Prelim Report from the AFP. When all is said and done the final report will be no different, unfortunately.

    • I’m not sure I’m ready to come to these conclusions without more facts. And though you may be right — the final report might be as expected — the best test of that will be the report itself. They did say it should be ready in a week, and I think seven days’ wait is not that long a wait, considering the issues involved.

  4. how did you come about this information?

    • Hi Aya. As with any other journalist, through sources. At least three people confirmed the information to me. That’s a basic rule in journalism: as much as possible, the information should be confirmed by one other source, aside from the one who gave it to the reporter. If possible, the one who confirms the report must not be friends, or come from the same camp, as the one who gave the report. Some — not necessarily all — of the sources must be people who are in a position to know if such a report was made, or were present when it was discussed.

  5. Good for you, Dana.

    What a scoop!

  6. […] reading the exposes by @maria_ressa (here) and @danabatnag (here), it suddenly made sense why certain people, particularly those coming from the military, wanted […]

  7. even though the system is flawed, the commander/s have a choice: to do or not to do the wrong thing. hang the errant commander/s but crush the enemy. the enemy should not have existed, in the first place, so wipe them out so no more of this will ever happen again!

    • Hi Vic. I think I know you; there aren’t that many people with the same name, right? I remember one Vic Vizcocho, but am not sure if he’s Jr or Sr. 🙂
      You’re entitled to your own opinion of course, but I would rather that the system is changed; because it’s an initial report, it’s not exactly clear how much of the responsibility goes to whom. There were many other factors that the report did not discuss.

      • hi, dana. i’m the jr. and i’m the one 😉 nice to know you remember despite decades (?) of not being in one place at one given time… so, what’s the latest on this incident?
        regards 😉

  8. Ay gunggong pala talaga itong Presidente natin. “Tayo ang nag-initiate ng ecounter at tayo ang nalagasan.” Sabi niya ipaiimbestiga niya muna ang kaso pero may konklosyon na siya na AFP ang nag-initiate ng ecounter at paulit ulit ang mali ng AFP. Kung lumabas sa imbestigasyon na walang encounter kung hindi “ambush” ang nangyari at kaya hindi preparado ang AFP dahil hindi naman talaga sila makikipaggiyera sa MILF at dahil “training exercises” lang ang ginagawa nila ng pahanong iyon diba kahiya hiya siya?

    • i think if you check the earlier stories makikita mo na military mismo ang nagsabing sila ang nag-initiate. Sinabi niya na may paulit-ulit na mali, pero hindi niya tinukoy mismo kung sino ang may mali at paano ang pagkakamali. Ang sinabi niya, may ongoing investigation at ayaw niya munang magsalita nang hindi pa tapos ang imbestigasyon.

  9. President is right in not getting haste….the btruth is far from what the media initially reported….and the warmongers and destabilizer were fast in exploiting the situation….

  10. The President is right. Investigate first and justice prevail. Di kaya mga officer na kasabwat ni Arroyo at sinadyang palpak ang operation para bigyan ng problema ang presidente at para magkaron sila ng dahilan para mag ingay ng coup attempt para ma divert ang atensyon ng tao sa mga kaso na nakaaabang sa pamilya Arroyo.

  11. First, I’d like to give some kudo’s to the author of this article, because it shed some light to the incident. Second, I would like to congratulate Pnoy for his decision making ability and not let anger prevail to get some vengeance. When lives are lost in battle its always going to be the leaderships fault and everybody in the military knows this. It was not a well planned operation, and so the end result is very obvious. My dad was in the Philippine military and growing up around Phil military personnel gives you an idea of some of the ways; habits the military conduct their business. In my observation, most Phil military personnel have this “bahala na” mentality. Meaning, that even thou they (the military leaders) know they might suffer without proper planning of this particular operation, they continued on because of this “bahala na” mentality. Let’s not kid ourselves with the military’s capabilities i.e. malfunctioning equipments, untrained soldiers and no personal protective equipments (real flak jackets and helmets). These are the basic needs for fighting an enemy besides being brave or some people call it Gung Ho, or tough. If the AFP doesn’t learn from this incident I think we should get used to seeing the same story over and over again.

  12. Whenever the command is lost, subsequently the command post looses its control. Breaking the the normal flow of the chain of command by not channeling the plan to the higher military echelon simply cannot be a legitimate operation.

    Information gatherings and assessments are tools for effective tactical operations.

    Who ordered this operations? It is written on the walls of the the responsible officer/s who ordered the jump-off to the scuba diving school.

    Illegitimate operations as such is outrageous. The officers who ignored the basics of chain of command must be punished in the military court. To those who died and wounded in the infamous Basilan ambush are not spastic horses, they are our beloved soldiers.

  13. FYI at the start of the story it says “The initial findings – THE INVESTIGATION IS STILL GOING ON”
    Give the officers a chance to air their side, refute these powerpoint presentations and proffer their evidence. In the news they insisted that they asked the permission of the MILF commanders before they entered the area. If they did ask their permission, I doubt those shady MILF commanders would affirm their statements. Those poor soldiers would have a hard time getting their voices heard in the midst of PNoy’s PR machinery+obvious bias and sympathy for the rebels.

    • Hi Lourdes. They are being given a chance to reply; that is why the AFP has so far refused to comment on the reports. That is also why I highlighted the fact that the investigation is still going on — there might still be a plausible explanation for all that has happened. I came out with the report because the debate was heavily one-sided; no one was pointing out that there were lapses on the part of the AFP. As a journalist, I leave the decision to go to war to the people, and I will concede that the decision does not even have to be based on the right reasons. But if we go to war, it should be based on FACTS, not conjectures or opinions. And if we’re going to war we should make sure that we’re deploying our people efficiently.

    • Also give the civilians on the ground to air their side. its always been the soldiers faces being spotlighted in media. are civilians in Basilan treated as sub-human in this country? “I love my own” na ba kumbaga? Wag naman sana. There are two sides to the story. Ask them their story. Not only this incident but from previous years as well. Ask them too what the American soldiers are really doing in Basilan all these years. Para magkabukingan narin.

  14. if the president is slow in his action, it could be that he is trying to relax a bit and let not emotion prevailed over him. in an emotional situation such as this, it is imperative that one has control over his emotion. otherwise, things would likely go out of hand and explode right in front of you. it is easy to declare an all out war, but one should always remember that it is a true to life story, not one we saw in cinema (you know what i mean). what had been lost will be lost forever, the damage will continue to linger in our minds. to act blindly, without knowing all the facts, is the most stupid thing to do. one must assess the situation from all angles before making any move. yes, a number of soldiers were killed, but this is not enough reason to pull the trigger at once. we are men of reason. as such, we should temper our emotion while we piece together all the data that led to that debacle. and if the result of the final report showed that the fault was on the military, since we are men of the pen (and i’m sure the government has a lot of them, too) it can always present it in a way enough to rally the support of most, if not all, sectors of the society to go to war (if that is the most logical thing to do under the given situation)! erap had learned his lesson. while he was praised for his being decisive in declaring an all out war against the moros, he failed to give justification to it, enough to win the support of the people.

  15. […] must reads: Ed Lingao: Media Goes to War Inday Espina Varona: Twin Evils Dana Batnag: The Al-Barka Incident Maria Ressa: Why the Fiasco in Basilan Glenda Gloria: Your War, Out Fatal […]

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