Indonesia’s president declared yesterday that a man shot and killed by Indonesian security forces this week was Dulmatin, one of the men responsible for the Bali bombing in November 2002.
This in and of itself is noteworthy since people who do things like blow up crowded discos should be brought to justice.
I find it more interesting for another reason, though – I once spent 5 months trying to help find this man in the Southern Philippines.
From November 2006 – April 2007, I was part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P). Dulmatin and his still-at-large compatriot, Umar Patek, were believed to be the highest-level Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorists operating in the area.
JI is an Indonesian terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda that has spread to nearby countries, including the Philippines.
One mission of the JSOTF-P was to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) find JI leaders like Dulmatin and Patek. We were also looking for terrorists from another, allied organization, called the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
The ASG is the group responsible for the high-profile kidnapping of the American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham in May 2001. Mark Bowden tells the story of the Burnhams as a part of his April 2007 Atlantic Monthly story about the struggle against terrorism in the Southern Philippines. Gracia Burnham also wrote a book about her experiences as a captive of the ASG, entitled In the Presence of My Enemies (2003).
Some say that the Burnham kidnapping in mid-2001 was part of the catalyst for the U.S. decision to send troops to the Southern Philippines in early 2002. Whatever the case, it can be stated with little doubt that the Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks certainly played a role. This organization, called Joint Task Force 510 (JTF-510), was the precursor to today’s JSOTF.
My own interest in the region started much later, in early 2006, when just back from a deployment to Iraq, I was notified that I would deploy again before the year was out to the Philippines.
Just before I arrived in the Philippines, the AFP and their American partners had initiated a major sustained campaign unlike any that had been conducted to that point in the south, dubbed “Operation Ultimatum.”
This new type of fighting on the part of the AFP aimed to give the rebels and terrorists a “full court press” – when the Filipino troops would have traditionally made an attack on enemy strongholds and then soon after returned to their bases, not capitalizing on momentum gained against the enemy, for this new operation they were turning over a new leaf: they would not return to their camps, they would conduct sustained operations over a long period of time and give the ASG and JI outlaws no place to run to.
The results were good, right from the get-go. While it was not clear that it had happened at the time, the then-emir of the ASG, Khadaffy Janjalani (“KJ”) was killed in the opening offensive on Sulu Island, the main rebel stronghold at the time.
Just a few months later, in early 2007, the new leader of the ASG, Abu Solaiman, was killed in another operation on Sulu. The ASG leadership was being decimated and their forces were in retreat.
Not long after that my short assignment in the Southern Philippines came to an end. But I didn’t stop watching the Filipino – American partnership that continues to this day there. There has been a lot of good news from the area lately.
Just a few weeks ago, I saw that the latest ASG leader, a man named Albader Parad, was killed by AFP troops. And now this about Dulmatin. I found it interesting that Dulmatin was killed in Indonesia. News reports were conflicting about how long he had been back in Indonesia, but it sounded like it had been at least 6 months.
During my time focusing on the Southern Philippines, it was always hardest to figure out how to get at the JI operatives. They always seemed to be a couple notches higher up the ladder than their ASG compatriots in terms of their operational savvy and skill level. For this reason, it doesn’t surprise me that Dulmatin and possibly Patek were able to exfiltrate the area, in spite of the bounties on their heads and the fact that they were the “top dogs” the AFP and Americans were searching for in the Southern Philippines for years.
The sum total of all of this, in my opinion, is that the Southern insurgency in the Philippines is facing a crisis. Over the past 3 1/2 years, their leadership has been decimated and they have been on the run. True, they are still capable of small-scale banditry (like the recent revenge attack on Basilan), but in all they have lost much of their original operational capacity.
I think a key aspect of the success of the approximately 8-year old mission there is the robust partnering between the Filipinos and the Americans. Everything that the U.S. troops do there is “through, by, and with” the Filipinos. The JSOTF is always doing something in the various communities in the area, from engineering projects and conducting medical and dental clinics, to teaching basic land navigation, weapons handling, and marksmanship training with the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP). It really is the “soft” side of things driving the boat there, and thankfully the security environment permits it to be that way. I’ve heard it said more than once that the JSOTF-P model is how Iraq and Afghanistan might look at some time in the future (Iraq probably sooner than Afghanistan) – less focus on kinetic operations (killing bad guys) and more focus on partnering and building local capacity. Over the long-term (like I said, the U.S. mission there has been going on in some shape or form since 2002), the local people buy in to what the Filipino government forces and their American partners are “selling” and turn away from any appeal that the rebels may have had. It’s counterinsurgency done right, my friends.
Keep up the good work, JSOTF-P.