Philippine troops patrol a highway on the outskirts of Isabela, the capital city of Basilan. When Filipino special operators were ambushed by Abu Sayyaf militants on the island in 2011, a team of U.S. special operators, including Staff Sgt. Robert Watts, mounted a rescue mission. (AFP / Getty Images)
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Staff Sgt. Robert Watts, now a gunnery sergeant, was recognized by the National Defense Industrial Association for his role in a daring mission to rescue Filipino special operators in 2011. (Courtesy of NDIA)
Filipino special operators swam ashore under cover of darkness during a daring raid on an island with known terrorist safe havens before they realized their mistake: They'd entered a village sympathetic to the violent Abu Sayyaf group.
The Oct. 18, 2011, mission on the island of Basilan quickly spiraled out of control, according to one U.S. Marine commander's written account of the incident. The unit, an element of the Philippine 4th Special Operations Battalion, was ambushed with machine guns, an improvised explosive device and other weapons after villagers tipped off Abu Sayyaf, which has carried out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations in the Philippines for more than two decades. Six Filipino service members were killed and about a dozen more were wounded, U.S. military officials said.
Strikingly, five Filipino special operators were beheaded, officials said.
Into this melee stepped several U.S. special operators, including Staff Sgt. Robert Watts, a team chief with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. The Filipino unit asked U.S. special operations forces in the region for help, prompting Watts and others to launch a maritime rescue attempt from the island of Mindanao about 50 miles away, according to a written account authored by Watts' company commander, Maj. Paul Gillikin.
The mission highlights MARSOC's quiet role in a dangerous part of the world. The command has deployed 14-man teams to the region on a rotational basis for years, taking part in a broader SOCOM effort to support the Filipino military's long struggle with terrorism and international crime on its own islands.
After the call for help, Watts and another Marine guided U.S. boats carrying reinforcements from the Filipinos' 4th SOB to an insertion point near the fighting, and then pushed ashore, according to Gillikin's account. The situation was dire when they arrived.
"The volume of fire was withering," Gillikin's account reads. "… Many of the survivors and injured began texting family members asleep far away [to say] their final goodbyes, while others attempted to summon fire support and reinforcements to break the ASG's dominance." The dive team was unable to withdraw from the engagement area and became in danger of being overrun. A member of the ground force stepped on a booby-trapped IED, causing a catastrophic explosion that wounded him and several surrounding members."
Gillikin's description of the battle was submitted in a recommendation that Watts, now a gunnery sergeant based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., receive a Superior Achievement Award from the National Defense Industrial Agency, a prominent organization in Washington that links defense companies with the military and federal agencies. With Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and other top officers present, the organization honored the gunny and several other special operators Jan. 28 at the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict symposium in Washington.
Watts, then with Marine Special Operations Team 332, Mike Company, 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalion, provided medical care to survivors during a two-hour evacuation to a hospital on Mindanao, according to his NDIA award citation. "Blood washed back and forth with fresh ocean water" on the boat's deck as it ripped through rough Pacific waters on the way back, Gillikin's written account says.
Gillikin and Watts were not available for interviews for this story, said Maj. Jeff Landis, a spokesman for MARSOC. The command, which released Gillikin's description to Marine Corps Times, offered few additional details about the incident or MARSOC's role in the region, citing operational security and sensitivities with both the U.S. Embassy in Manila and other U.S. special operators in the region.
Terrorism in the Pacific
The ambush was "nothing short of the bloody macabre," Gillikin said in his recommendation. Part of a military effort known as Operation Valor, it marked the bloodiest day in Filipino special operations history, he said.
The chaotic mission underscores MARSOC's evolving role throughout the world. In recent years, the organization has deployed about 70 percent of its personnel to Afghanistan, but top officers planning for operations after the war want to realign the command's battalions regionally. One each would be focused on U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Pacific Command, which includes the Philippines.
Already, MARSOC is heavily involved in U.S. Special Operations Command's work with allies in the Pacific, Landis said. Marine special operators develop crisis-response capabilities and coordination with forces there.
MARSOC's training and advising missions in the Philippines typically are not filled with firefights, but "our operators can certainly operate on the kinetic level at any given time," Landis said.
That's key in a nation facing significant terrorist threats. The most prominent is Abu Sayyaf, which has fought for more than 20 years to establish an independent Islamic province in the southern portion of the Philippines, where the government has less influence compared with other parts of the country. Some of the islands there, including Basilan, have urban areas, but extremists also congregate there.
Abu Sayyaf was formed in the early 1990s by a Filipino who met Osama bin Laden after traveling to Afghanistan in the 1980s to join the mujahedeen's fight against the Soviet Union, according to a 2003 report by the National Bureau of Asian Research, an independent Washington think tank. It is still linked frequently to al-Qaida.
Another common threat in the Philippines is Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamist extremist group that was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. after it was linked with the 2002 bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali. The organization is believed to share funding with Abu Sayyaf and maintain links with al-Qaida. It operates in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia.
Several U.S. troops have been killed in the Philippines in the past decade in insurgent attacks. In one example, Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Shaw and Staff Sgt. Jack Martin died after an IED exploded near their Humvee on the island of Jolo in 2009. They were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
U.S. special operators will continue to support the mission to "neutralize terrorist activities" from the two organizations and prevent them from keeping safe havens in the southern Philippines, Landis said.
"The Republic of the Philippines is our longest standing ally and partner in the Pacific," Landis said. "Our bilateral relationship continues to grow. The U.S. and Republic of the Philippines continue to work together on challenges of mutual interest, such as economic development, disaster relief, violent extremism and international crime."