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It was almost midnight of May 22, a Wednesday, when Com1 held them up. May niluluto pa. Something is being cooked up. Apparently, new ‘intel’ was on its way. The subject of the meeting was about a target.
In Marawi, it seemed like just another ordinary day, as the people began preparing for the start of Ramadan four days hence.
Azalea thought that, in the spire of events running though his mind in the past days, it might be more about the Maute brothers. Their latest assignment had been a step-up from a series of military operations and other incidents taking place in the province since 2014. When he was put on hold again, Army intelligence officers were planning to raid a politician’s safe house where Abdullah Maute was supposed to be hiding, in the vicinity of the campus of Mindanao State University. Something was really going on but they could not pin it down. That it was Com1, no other, calling for the meeting brought Azalea to the conclusion that it was a bigger target than he thought. A plan was to be executed and a final briefing was to be held early the following day, Thursday of May 23.
Near midnight of Wednesday, as Azalea was heading back to the camp, bits and pieces of information began popping out from his cell phone. Someone all the way down from the area command of Western Mindanao in Zamboanga City was coming all the way up to Marawi bearing a ‘target packet.’ This had to be big, if the top headquarters in the region had news for Marawi. The 1st Infantry Division was within the area of responsibility of WesMinCom, which in the past was the base of the powerful southern command taking charge of the entire Mindanao mainland and the islands.
The drive by land normally takes an average of seven hours. A small team from the Naval Intelligence Security Group arrived in two civilian cars in Ditucalan at about six o’clock in the morning of May 23. Azalea and the other officers got a few hours of sleep at the camp and while they waited, they had their typical morning mess, filling up their plates with rice, fried eggs, some hotdog and some dried fish. It was a full breakfast, and little did Azalea know it would carry him through in the harrowing hours to come.
This is what we’ve been waiting for, said Com1, calling back the men for a meeting after a short half-hour private talk with the Navy officer bearing the news.
This is big. The target is Isnilon Hapilon. IH.
How long had they been waiting for this moment? IH had been IH since Com1 himself was a battalion commander on the island of Basilan, where Hapilon was the top renegade of the Abu Sayyaf faction. The military had thought he had died in one of the air strikes in Butig at the start of the year. If not dead, then wounded. With the kind of heavy bombardment unleashed over the rural town of Butig, he had to be. But there was no sign or proof that one of the most high-value targets on the list of terrorists holding base on the southern islands was taken down; at best they had hearsay. As it were, Hapilon had found his way out of Basilan, an island off Zamboanga City, and into the forest of Lanao for a pact he had made with the Maute brothers.
The intelligence officer, a Naval commander, presented ‘Target Packet Bingo,’ a dossier that gave background information on Hapilon’s whereabouts. What he had in his packet was Hapilon’s presence in Marawi, in a place that was not more than two kilometers from Camp Ranao, in a tight neighborhood located between the camp and the university. The intelligence officer said they had an ‘asset,’ the military term used for a spy or a mole, or sometimes coded AA for ‘action agent.’ The information was believed to be reliable; if not, he would not have gone this far. However, other details were limited. There was a target location, but nothing else was specific. There could be five or ten people in the company of Hapilon, they reckoned. There were no pictures of the house, the spy was inside and certain that IH was there and might soon leave by nine o’clock – in less than three hours.
They had to make a move.
As far as they knew IH didn’t stay long in one location, moving about to avoid getting hunted down. The Naval officer said he had a strong feeling that Hapilon was exactly where his asset said he was. Malaki ang kutob ko. I’ve got a strong hunch about this. We have to strike now. We have to take this chance, or the target might just slip through our fingers.
The military had been after him for more than two decades. Isnilon Hapilon was the lieutenant of Khadafy Janjalani, one of two brothers who organized the radical Abu Sayyaf Group on Sulu island in the early 1990s. Both brothers are now dead in the military order of battle. The most-wanted list has been getting shorter in the past decade of manhunt; IH had always managed to evade the net.
Hapilon was there now, in Marawi.
Cris Yabes is an international journalist who has extensively covered conflict zones in Mindanao. The Battle of Marawi, her 10th book, is her account of the siege of Marawi from interviews and her personal on-the-ground experiences. Cris is also author of several novels. Her book Below the Crying Mountain won the UP Centennial Award in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asia Prize in 2010.