MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The cellphone message of the Filipino police commandos to their base was triumphant, “Mike 1 bingo,” a code meaning they have killed one of Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terror suspects, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan.
But the euphoria among police generals monitoring the Jan 25 dawn assault in a southern swampland was brief.
As daybreak lifted their night cover, the young commandos came under intense rebel fire, trapped in the marshy fringes of Mamasapano town, a Muslim rebel stronghold about two to three kilometres (1.2-1.8 miles) from where backup police forces waited. Unable to carry Marwan’s body, one of the commandos chopped off his finger and another took pictures as proof of his death, according to police officials.
Another policeman kept frantically calling for reinforcements by radio, but standby forces failed to penetrate the battle scenes and the pleas for help eventually vanished.
“There was radio silence, a very long silence,” Chief Superintendent Noli Talino, who helped oversee the operation, said in Friday’s eulogy, his voice breaking.
The fighting left 44 commandos dead – the biggest single-day combat loss by government forces in recent memory – and a familiar question: Is Marwan dead or alive?
Commanders and a confidential police intelligence report say Marwan was killed, something they expect to be validated by DNA tests.
A purported picture of the slain militant circulating in the local media closely resembled Marwan’s profile in wanted posters. But many remained skeptical.
In 2012, the Philippine military announced that Marwan and a Singaporean militant known as Mauwiyah were killed, along with a Filipino Abu Sayyaf extremist commander, in a US-backed airstrike on southern Jolo island.
The operation employed American-supplied smart bombs for the first time. Filipino police intelligence officials, however, believed Marwan and Mauwiyah survived and continued hunting them.
They have since launched at least two major secret attempts to capture Marwan in the southern Philippines, where according to US authorities, he has been hiding since 2003.
A US-educated engineer, believed to have been born in Malaysia’s Muar town in Johor province in 1966, Marwan is among the last few known surviving militants of his generation of Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists who survived the anti-terror crackdowns in Asia following the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
Known as a master bomb-maker, Marwan also was very skilled in evading capture. He had more than two dozen aliases and spoke the languages of Malaysia and the Philippines, along with English and Arabic.
Marwan used to head a terrorist group called the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia, and also was a senior member of the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, according to the US State Department, which offered a $5 million bounty for his capture and prosecution.
The JI was blamed for the 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in Bali, Indonesia. It was in the southern Philippines, though, where he stayed longest, taking cover among Muslim separatists fighting a decade long rebellion.