MANILA, Philippines – He was “a little snake who has been blown up into a dragon."
No less than dismissed police Special Action Force (SAF) chief Getulio Napeñas called him "the most notorious bomb expert not just here in Southeast Asia but also in the entire world" during the Senate probe on the Mamasapano clash.
A report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, however, debunks common knowledge about Marwan's reputation as a world-class terrorist. The institute is headed by Sidney Jones, who used to be with the International Crisis Group and has done various research projects on security in Mindanao.
"Killing Marwan in Mindanao" was based on documentary sources and interviews from 5 Indonesians who knew Marwan in Indonesia and/or the Philippines. The sources all requested for anynomity.
As the political fallout from the Mamasapano clash put the future of the peace process in jeopardy, the report raised questions on whether the consequences of the January 25 operation should have been "more systematically" taken into account before it was executed.
It traced Marwan's career from his beginnings in Indonesia to Afghanistan, his involvement in the Ambon Conflict in Indonesia, and how he weaved his way into conflict areas in Mindanao until he was killed in the Mamasapano clash that also claimed the lives of 44 elite cops, 18 rebels and at least 3 civlians.
Contrary to how he was portrayed in the media, Marwan was “a little snake who has been blown up into a dragon,” according to one of Marwan's Indonesian associates as quoted in the report.
Marwan was never a member of the once feared Jemaah Islamiyah, according to the report. While he was a senior member of the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, which had ties with the JI, he was never its leader. (EXCLUSIVE: Marwan's ties that bind: Aljebir Adzhar aka Embel)
Napeñas, in the February 9 Senate hearing, referred to Marwan as one of the "technical masterminds behind the 2002 Bali bombing." The report disputed this and stressed that he had "no role whatsoever" in the bombings and he was already in the Philippines when these took place.
He was neither a leader in Mindanao nor did he have special bomb-making skills. In fact, Marwan's expertise was more on sharp shooting. Marwan was even scared of bombs, according to the report:
"When his friends in Pawas were learning bomb construction, Marwan often stayed in his house; he told his friends the bombs scared him. He did not take part very often in weapons training either because he was already relatively skilled. He spent much of his time surfing the Internet with his laptop. The camp had a generator, so there was no problem with electricity.
Marwan was known in the Pawas camp as a gun collector, with an M16, Shotgun 12A, Winchester 22 and Armalite 15, acessories such as an M9 bayonet and a Glock bayonet knife sent by his elder brother, Rachmat from Califorina."
Why Marwan's reputation blew up
There are more 4 main factors that could have contributed to how "the image became bigger than the man," the report said.
After fleeing to the Philippines, Marwan became part of a small group of foreign jihadis who operated in Mindanao that included Jemaah Islamiyah members and Bali bombers Umar Patek and Dulmatin, who fled to the Philippines after the bombings.
"Marwan's stature may have been a reflection of theirs," the report said.
The group was forced to flee central Mindanao for Jolo after the MILF leadership severed its ties with jihadis. Umar Patek and Dulmatin eventually left for Indonesia but Marwan was left behind.
Marwan may have also been mistaken for another Malaysian, Zulkifli Marzuki, who was JI's secretary and had dealings with the al-Qaeda through his links to Hambali – the only Indonesian in Guantanamo prison. Some intelligence information attributed to Marwan may have been referring to Marzuki. In fact, the authors of the report said they themselves confused the two Zulkiflis in a 2003 report for the International Crisis Group.
Another factor is Marwan's ability to evade arrest. Before he was killed in Mamasapano, the police and the military hatched at least 9 operations against Marwan from 2010 to 2015. (READ: Why SAF didn't trust the military)
As his reputation became more notorious, authorities – both in the Philippines and the US – deemed it necessary to employ "extraordinary measures" to arrest him, as shown by the size of the SAF Force that was organized to arrest him.
Was it worth it?
During the eulogy for the 44 fallen SAF members on January 30, SAF's Chief Superintendent Noli Taliño asked: "Is it worth it, one international terrorist equivalent to 44 SAF troopers?"
He said he it was worth it because more lives were saved when Marwan was killed.
Regardless of how important Marwan really was, the report questioned the wisdom of undertaking a counter-terrorism operation in the midst of a peace process that was already in its advanced stages.
The report noted that even when government operations forced Bali bombers Umar Patek and Dulmatin to flee to Jolo from central Mindanao before going back to Indonesia, it did not stop violence in Mindanao as shown by the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009 and the Zamboanga siege in 2013.
"Even with rock-solid information about the Malaysian’s location, President Aquino, SAF members, and others involved in the operation should have carefully considered the costs and benefits of going after him without informing the MILF, just as the Bangasamoro Basic Law was finally coming up for debate," the report said.
"If he had escaped yet again, there would be another chance to capture him. It is not clear there will be another chance for peace if this one collapses," it added.
Challenge to MILF
The report said the value of the Rewards for Justice program should also be examined as "huge bounties placed on the heads of foreign jihadis have helped to burnish their reputations as world-class terrorists, perhaps out of proportion to their actual roles."
The MILF, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014, must also do its part, the report said.
"The MILF also needs to consider its moves. Its leaders see themselves now as the aggrieved party, blindsided by a counter-terrorism operation that no one told them was coming. But if inquiries find that any of the trapped forces of the 55th company were executed after they were wounded, then the MILF fighters responsible have violated basic principles of humanitarian law and do need to be held accountable."
Read the full report below: