Nearly every Filipino must know the name “Marwan” by now. If this nom de guerre did not exactly ring a bell when its owner, Zulkifli bin Hir, was alive, it has definitely acquired unprecedented notoriety after his death.

“Oplan Exodus,” the secret operation launched against him and Basit Usman, took the lives of 44 highly trained commandos belonging to the Philippine National Police Special Action Force. Its aftermath has triggered a firestorm of recrimination that has strained relations between the police and the military, and seriously dented President Aquino’s credibility as a leader. It has put in grave doubt the sincerity of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose members figured flagrantly in the Mamasapano carnage. It threatens to derail the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

There can be no doubt about the valor and heroism of the young police officers who fell in the service of the nation. But, was getting Marwan equal to their sacrifice? Was the Malaysian-born jihadi the “high-value terrorist” he was touted to be? What exactly was he to the MILF? These are some of the questions that the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Ipac) tries to answer in a recent paper. The 14-page study draws extensively from interviews with Indonesians who knew Marwan in Mindanao, and may be accessed at:

It is my first time to encounter Ipac’s work, but I know some of the people on its board—like the prominent human rights lawyer Mulya Lubis. The institute is headed by Sidney Jones, who has done solid scholarship on Southeast Asia for the International Crisis Group and was herself at one time the director for Asia of Human Rights Watch. Founded in 2013, Ipac operates “on the principle that accurate analysis is a critical first step toward preventing violent conflict.”

I’m saying this because even as we should not take the entire report as gospel truth, we cannot dismiss it either as pure hearsay. The conclusions it draws have a profound bearing on prevailing attitudes toward the MILF, and on the government’s effort to balance its counterterrorism policy with its quest for a peaceful and just resolution of armed conflicts.

The Ipac article, titled “Killing Marwan in Mindanao,” disputes certain claims about Marwan’s presumed leading role in the foreign terrorist network in Mindanao that do not square with the facts as recounted by people who saw him up close. In his first speech after the Mamasapano incident, President Aquino offered a glimpse of the SAF mission’s high-value target: “Marwan is part of the Central Committee of the Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for the Bali bombing in Indonesia.” Ipac says that, in fact, Marwan was never a member of Jemaah Islamiyah, nor was he in Bali at the time of the October 2002 Bali bombing. He was then already living in Mindanao.

The scariest depiction of Marwan is that of a bomb expert who ran a bomb-making workshop and trained an entire generation of jihadis in this lethal craft. At the Senate hearing, dismissed SAF chief Getulio Napeñas called him “the most notorious bomb expert not just here in Southeast Asia but in the entire world.” Marwan’s Indonesian associates laugh at this exaggeration. One of those interviewed for this study sees him as “a little snake who has been blown up into a dragon.” “Marwan by all accounts was not a leader in Mindanao and had no special bomb-making skills; those he had were in sharp-shooting. A tendency to panic in crisis situations made him unwanted in battle.”

How then did he land in America’s list of the world’s most wanted terrorists? Three possible reasons: First, the foreign jihadis he rubbed elbows with in Mindanao included big names like Bali bomber Umar Patek and the explosives expert Dulmatin who were both with the Jemaah Islamiyah. “Marwan’s stature may have been a reflection of theirs.” Second, he might have been confused with another Malaysian, Zulkifli Marzuki, a close associate of Hambali, the

Indonesian terrorist now detained in Guantanamo. Third, in the 14 years that he lived in Mindanao, mostly under the protection of the Abu Sayyaf and the breakaway group of Umbra Kato, Marwan was the target of countless operations by the police and the military. His legendary elusiveness made him the ultimate catch in the eyes of the SAF.

There might also have been an “institutional factor” at work, says Ipac. “The more fearsome his reputation, the more Philippine authorities and their US allies may have believed that extraordinary measures were required to deal with him.” Four hundred commandos were thus deployed to go after him and Basit Usman on Jan. 25, with no thought of taking either of them alive. Working on an intelligence packet presumably supplied by the US Joint Special Operations Task Force, the SAF leaders seemed so sure they would get their man this time that they didn’t bother to coordinate with the armed forces in the area.

This debacle has cast the MILF in the worst possible light—as terrorist coddlers. This is so ironic, says Ipac. “Marwan’s career shows clearly how MILF leaders rejected the presence of foreign jihadis and tried to ban any activities that could threaten negotiations. They were not always successful and there were occasionally rogue commanders who provided refuge and other forms of support, but the message was clear that terrorists were not welcome. In the future as in the past, the only possible strategy for managing extremism in the southern Philippines is to work in partnership with the MILF.”

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