Deep in remote jungle outposts in Mindanao, brutal, violent terrorist groups are planning to massacre Americans and other Westerners or kidnap them and hold them for ransom. The Bali bombing that killed 202 people and wounded many others, the kidnappings of American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, and the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton bombings of 2005 are examples.

These vicious killers have struck before and they will do so again if given the opportunity. Since 2001 the FBI’s most wanted list has included many members of the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah. These two Southeast Asian militant Islamist groups have been linked to Al Qaeda and have demonstrated the ability to successfully launch attacks outside the borders of their own nations.

Working courageously to protect their both own citizens as well as Westerners abroad from these killers are the local police and military agencies that serve the rugged and geographically isolated areas that the terrorists base their operations in. These brave officers are the kind of warriors who, in the words of U.S. Navy SEAL Captain Robert Gusentine, are unafraid to “fight uphill in the jungle at night.”

They demonstrate constant diligence and ferocious tenacity in the pursuit of their enemies and defense of their nation. Since 2001 the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police have been assisted by several hundred U.S. Special Operations personnel assigned to the Joint Special Operations Task- Philippines (JSOTF-P), who are in turn augmented by members of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.

And so when an American military vehicle came under attack near the city of Lamitan, it was the Philippine National Police (PNP) that took the lead on the investigation. Lamitan is located on the island of Basilan and is home to the tough, independent Yakan, Tausug and Samal tribes as well as the colorful Bajao “Sea Gypsies” and was the scene of the 1971 Moro Uprising. For hundreds of years Basilan has served as a launching pad for Moro raids across the Basilan Straight to nearby Zamboanga, and for longer distance attacks into the Visayas and even the Luzon, where the capital city of Manila is located.

It is an island shrouded in mystery and legend; known as both the “Treasure Island of the Southern Seas” due to rumors of Japanese gold or Spanish silver being stashed there during their respective occupations, and as the “Wild West” of the Philippines.   In short, it is no place for a foreigner unfamiliar with its culture, history and dangers to conduct a police investigation without expert local assistance. Fortunately, that expert assistance was at hand.

While the PNP were the investigating agency, they received assistance from four Americans assigned to the JSOTF-P, two FBl special agents, an American Army reserve major and me, a National Guard senior non-commissioned officer.  Both the Major and I work in federal law enforcement in our civilian careers.  While there to advise, assist and help train our Filipino counterparts on investigative techniques and law enforcement methods developed in the United States, we found that we were learning much about the investigative and law enforcement practices that were effective in the austere, complex and dangerous operating environment that is the Sulu Archipelago.

Although they lack the kind of technology and resources that American law enforcement officers take for granted, what our Filipino law enforcement comrades had to rely on was their intimate knowledge of the people, the complex relationships between tribal groups and power brokers, and an encyclopedic knowledge of past crimes that had occurred in their jurisdictions.  These skills would be critical in answering the question of whether this was a targeted attack by terrorists or a random act of criminality.

That was the question at hand. American Special Operations forces assigned to JSOTF-P are generally well received, having done much to provide humanitarian and civil assistance to the people living here and to improve the ability of Philippine police and military forces through intelligence sharing, training and logistical support. Numerous medical, dental and veterinary assistance projects have been conducted, schools and roads built, and wells dug. The fact that the American forces do these things but do not engage in direct combat operations have led to a largely positive relationship with citizens who have seen their communities improved by JSOTF-P involvement.

In the ten years that the JSOTF-P has been operating in the Sulu Archipelago only three Americans have been killed in combat action, fourteen others have died in non-combat incidents including a tragic helicopter crash that claimed the lives of ten men.  “It’s important that we know if there are people here planning deliberate attacks against Americans. We need to find out who they are and roll these guys up,” said one of the FBI agents assigned to the investigation.

Working alongside the PNP was a unique experience for me as an American law enforcement officer. Doing police work in a dangerous neighborhood is a challenge under the best of conditions, even when well-equipped, well-trained and fully resourced.  The PNP works under conditions that would seem impossible to officers working in even the poorest jurisdictions in the United States.

The computer printer in Lamitan’s PNP office was a decades-old dot matrix relic that would be a candidate for inclusion in a museum in the United States.  Crime scene photos were taken with personal cell phones and sent by text message to their supervisors as no officer had been provided an agency camera. One police chief in Sulu is assigned to police a community of over 40,000 people and has eleven police officers to accomplish this.  Officers often get little training, have poor equipment and receive low pay.

Compare that to the U.S., where there are typically between one and four sworn officers per 1,000 citizens and only then can you really begin to appreciate what they are accomplishing under these challenging conditions. A city of 40,000 in the U.S. would likely have between 40 and 80 sworn officers, with individually-assigned or two-man patrol cars equipped with radios or mobile digital terminals allowing centralized 911 dispatch.  In the Southern Philippines the police most often become aware of a crime when a citizen calls them or sends a text message directly to an officer’s personal cell phone. A police station might have one or two vehicles for a large office.

Seeing good police work done under difficult circumstances and with few resources is an inspiration. It led me to wonder if, in my own career, I have been too quick to blame problems on lack of staffing, training or resources instead of looking for innovative ways to get the job done.  As the government of the Philippines continues to improve both security and living conditions in Mindanao, there is a natural and necessary transition away from using military forces to provide basic security and law enforcement movement towards the increased use of police.

“Not enough gunfire”, was the final factor that led to the conclusion by Police Chief Inspector Rolando Democrito of the Lamitan City office of the PNP that the ambush of an American military vehicle that resulted in minor injuries to one U.S. Navy SEABEE was a spontaneous event and not a planned attempt to kill or wound American soldiers. And he would know. The attack occurred in an area where Chief Democrito had both a family member and a Police Officer that worked for him murdered in two separate incidents. “Around here,” he said, “they are going to fire at least one full 30 round magazine in a planned attack.” It made sense.

The three families living within a stone’s throw of the crime scene were in agreement. They spoke of how this type of random shooting happens frequently in these parts; teenagers racing motorcycles at night who stop to fire a few rounds at passing vehicles, at houses, or at nothing in particular. Call it celebratory gunfire or youthful hijinks, its similar to American teenagers doing donuts in their hot rod cars in an empty parking lot on a Friday night.

Analysis of the crime scene and witness interviews supported Chief Democrito’s theory of random criminality. Though reassuring the final outcome of the case stresses the need for continued work by the PNP and JSOTF-P that will end these random acts that threaten the lives of Filipinos and their families.

In 2011 the Commander of JSOTF-P, U.S. Navy SEAL Captain Robert Gusentine, labeled 2011 the “Year of the Cop” and launched initiatives such as the Law Enforcement Working Group intending to bring Filipino and U.S. security, intelligence, and law enforcement personnel together to share information and learn from each other in an interagency working group. In October of 2012, the Government of the Philippines signed a landmark peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a major terror group with a history of violent resistance to the Government in Manila.

As these promising developments take hold the JSOTF-P continues to support Philippine military and law enforcement agencies through partnerships with other experts such as the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigations Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). Meanwhile, the men and women of the PNP stand ready to protect their communities from crime, and to protect both Filipinos and the citizens of the world from some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.

Gabriel Russell is a Deputy Regional Director with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, a First Sergeant in the Army National Guard, Founder and Managing Partner at Takouba Security LLC, and a volunteer at Safe Call Now. He has a Master’s of Science from Central Washington University.  

Photo taken by Navy Combat Camerman, MC2 Josh Scott