The Pentagon Might Still Be Hunting Terrorists in The Philippines
American intelligence could be critical to Manila’s new offensive
Philippine troops launched a new offensive against Abu Sayyaf in October, following a spate of kidnappings by the terror group. But without spy planes and other advanced gear of its own, Manila could be relying on American support to help find the insurgents and their captives.
The Philippines has been a major, if largely obscure, battleground in Washington’s counterterrorism campaign since 2002. We don’t know what tools might be available now, but redacted and declassified official documents show the Pentagon regularly snoops on militants in the Southeast Asian nation.
Philippine authorities have recently received at least one report on Abu Sayyaf from a “foreign intelligence service,” Philippine president Benigno Aquino said, according to the Rappler news network.
Perhaps not coincidentally, American forces in the country “collect, fuse, and disseminate timely and accurate intelligence to the right agencies,” a six-year-old Pentagon briefing also explains.
Most notably, American commandos in the Philippine’s restive southern region operate their own small air arm. Various light aircraft and helicopters fly out of Edwin Andrews Air Base on the island of Mindanao, according to reports War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The fleet includes two Pilatus U-28s packing powerful video cameras. In 2013, American commanders sent the single-engined aircraft 300 miles north to survey the devastation resulting from Typhoon Yolanda.
The small planes would stay airborne over the affected areas for up to 45 minutes, according to an official briefing. The U-28s flew at least two missions every day to support the disaster relief efforts.
These aerial spies could orbit over Abu Sayyaf strongholds on Basilan and Sulu Islands—fewer than 100 miles away from Edwin Andrews—for hours at a time.
The Pentagon has also dispatched larger intelligence planes to The Philippines from around the Pacific in the past. The Air Force’s Air Combat Command makes note of some of these missions in its official histories for 2009 and 2010.
In 2010, RC-135V/W Rivet Joints flew “Misty Wind” patrols to scoop up radio chatter over the archipelago nation. A number of U-2 Dragon Ladies flew their own “Misty” missions to either snap photos or home in on enemy transmissions the year before.
Navy P-3C surveillance planes have also made frequent trips to the region. Though designed to hunt submarines and other warships, the four-engine P-3s also have infrared video cameras that have proved useful after natural disasters—and could also help find rebel fighters.
The Philippines were also within range of the flying branch’s Global Hawk drones flying from Guam. But the giant unmanned planes recently moved to Japan to focus on the Korean Peninsula.
American commandos could still provide some coverage of terrorist hideouts with their compliment of smaller drones, including the Boeing-made Scan Eagle. Philippine forces also have their own tiny unmanned aircraft for local missions.
And its not just spying from the skies. American forces in the sprawling archipelago have helped developed intelligence networks on the ground as well.
“[American commandos] intuitively knew where to go to find the centers of gravity in the human domain and force multiply by orchestrating existing networks” in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda, the commander of the American task force in the country wrote in a post-mission report.
Translated from the mil-speak, that means the operators knew who could give them vital information about property damage and potential survivors. American forces could just as easily use these methods and connections to sniff out militants and their bases.
Intelligence specialists have also used gear on the ground to scan Philippine airwaves. In 2002, the Army sent a “Special Purpose Electronic Attack” element to help with rescue hostages from Abu Sayyaf.
The team from the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade planned to “attack the communications of terrorist cells” during the mission, the Army’s annual history explains. For unknown reasons, Philippine authorities eventually declined the Pentagon’s offer—and two hostages died in the abortive rescue attempt.
But a decade later, Marines from the 3rd Radio Battalion—another signal-snooping unit—also arrived in the Southeast Asian country for a temporary stint. This time “the Marines conducted ‘real-world support’ activities, including combat operations,” Capt. Paul Kempf told military reporters after the deployment wrapped up.
Washington and Manila have stepped up their military cooperation lately. In April, the two countries signed a new defense agreement that focuses in part on helping Philippine forces “build a more credible defense,” a U.S. Pacific Command spokesperson told War Is Boring.
The “agreement … enables us to better address common security challenges,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel told a gathering at San Francisco Commonwealth Club in July.
“The U.S. is working with the Philippines … to ensure that it responds to the evolving security environment of the 21st century,” the Pacific Command rep added.