The War on Terror: How the Abu Sayaff Group Demonised Fear
Book review by Tan Kaiyi
Title: The War on Terror
Author: Rene Acosta
Publisher: Penguin, 2019
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.”
As Southeast Asia achieves prominence as a rising tiger of the East (once again), it can be easy to forget the violence that plagued the region. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, but concealed is the reality of military juntas, corruption and royal drama. Indonesia, known for its pristine mythical landscapes, is also home to soil infested with the blood of suspected Communists. Even Singapore, the icon of the region’s progress, is not exempt from a history of violence. The Japanese Occupation and racial riots are just some of the stains on the history of the island nation.
The War on Terror deep dives into the vibrant yet troubled land of the Philippines. Written by veteran journalist Rene Acosta, this slim book is a concentrate of bloodshed and death. The non-fictional account is told through behind-the-scenes perspectives, detailed accounts of the operations and moments of extreme terror that not even today’s ultra-violent entertainment can match. The book centers on the Filipino military’s actions against the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). An Islamic separatist organization that operates in the Southern Philippines, it has been terrorising the group of islands—and the surrounding regions—since its first recorded activity in 1991.
The beginning sets the tone for the relentless bloodshed that pervades the book’s pages. Acosta starts his narrative in February 1993, when a group from the Philippines Marine Corp was massacred by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). They were lured out into a surprise attack by 300 members of the MNLF. Acosta spares no details when it comes to describing the atrocity of the massacre, reporting that the Marines were “…were stripped to their underwear and whose bodies showed burn and hack wounds that left most of them nearly unrecognizable…”
From there, readers are given a blow-by-blow account between the military and the ASG, which continued the armed struggle of the MNLF after it moderated. Acosta maintains the aforementioned journalistic precision throughout the book, relating battles and the drama behind the military operations with great precision. Readers are even updated on the events on an hourly basis, giving the impression that they are the commanders of the operations themselves supervising the fighting:
At exactly 4.00 a.m., the military began hitting Hill 400 with all of its might—with a barrage of artillery fire—followed by MG-520 attack helicopters that struck the enemy communication towers and bunkers. Al-Madinah was also attacked. By 6.00 a.m., two Air Force OV-10 bombers left their base in adjacent Zamboanga City for the bombing run.
The details can be excessive at times, to the point where the readers can lose the big picture. However, Acosta uses them to devastating effect to bring out certain emotive aspects of the fighting. Here’s how he describes the helplessness of being pinned down by an invisible sniper.
The members of the ASG were heard shouting every time the snipers would hit their colleagues but all they could do was to respond aimlessly and incessantly with automatic fire. By night-time, when the attacking troops continued to hit their targets with snipers, the terrorists were heard taking a headcount over the radio, reporting that so and so had been hit.
The passage is subtly powerful in two aspects: it tells of the emotional carnage wrought by war but communicates it through the everyday reality of hearing about something through a radio. Relating to combatants under fire can be difficult for common folk, but everyone has received news from radio before. War, through Acosta’s everyday lens, becomes banal glimpsed on a daily basis.
Acosta maintains this journalistic precision for the drama behind the military operations as well. Readers are put into the hot seat in the command centers. Several scenes are furnished with dialogue to deepen the level of immersion. Consider this heated exchange between retired Lt. Gen Juancho Sabban, ex-commandant of the Philippines Marine Corps and his colleague, Lt. Gen Romeo Zulueta, on their approach to attack ASG encampments on a hill.
Sabban believed that without pummeling the two camps with artilleries and bombing them by air to soften their defenders, it would take them at least a month to capture Al-Madinah and Hill 400.
‘We were told that we need to have clearance from the defence secretary in order for us to use and fire artillery, but the camps have running trenches,’ Sabban said. ‘I told Gen. Zulueta that we will incur heavy casualties if we will not use howitzers,’ the Marine captain said.
But Zueleta sharply rebuked him, who said, ‘You are hard-headed! We know things and we know what we we’re doing, that is why we are called generals!’
The book thus also provides a fascinating glimpse into the complications of military operations. Breaking the overly simplified visions of fighting promoted by Hollywood, Acosta reveals readers the painstaking planning and strategy required to take down one of the region’s most terrifying criminal groups. For instance, early in the campaign, the Filipino Marines got hold of cutting-edge night fighting systems to deal with the ASG terrorists in their home territory. The ASG had superior advantage when it came to knowledge of the terrain and were nearly invincible in the day. The systems turned the tide around. The Marines came up with the approach of ‘owning the night’, conducting their fights in the shadows. With their ability to sneak up on ASG fighters in the dark, the terrorists’ strategic advantage of being able to see and navigate their own land was overturned. The night belonged to the Marines.
War is not a glorious enterprise according to Acosta’s reportage. One of the rules of battle is that “no plan survives first contact”. The War on Terror not only reveals the grand successes but embarrassing blunders that happen in battle. Acosta’s observations imply that combatants are not the invincible warriors of allegedly realistic movies and Netflix shows, but actors in war’s “comedy of errors”. Witness this instance of a botched bombing attempt:
…the second bomber failed to unload its bombs again. Over the radio, the pilot said the bombs were stuck, adding it would be too risky for him to land with his cargo; therefore, he had to jettison them somewhere else –into the sea. Sabban questioned why the pilot needed to release the bombs into other areas when he could do it at the target. Sabban ordered the radio operator on the ground to tell the pilot to return to Hill 400 to unload the bombs there.
Another comical episode was during the collaboration between the Filipino and American militaries to secure the release of the Burnhams of the Dos Palmos kidnappings. They had agreed to provision a satellite phone for the terrorists during hostage negotiations, but they procured one with an antenna so large it had to be mounted before use. The soldiers eventually replaced it. However, this shows that the best minds in warfare are not exempt from simple and potentially deadly missteps. Neither are they above the whims of chance. In characteristic detail, Acosta tells of an incident when a military sniper missed his target, ASG commander Albader Parad, because the terrorist reached down for a towel at the exact moment the shot was fired.
Acosta’s brings his journalistic balance into play as well, revealing the workings behind the other end of the moral spectrum. Acosta carves his window into terror through snippets of recorded conversations, abstracts from letters and discussions among ASG operatives. His distanced perspective allows us to gaze into the terrorist mindscape in its totality—and again banality. Far from being the shadowy figures that everyone fears in the papers, Acosta reveals them to be humans that we could all be neighbours with—should circumstances differ. They are subjected to disagreements, infighting, and weaknesses for money and women. For instance, the later part of the book’s narrative reveals the financial and logistical realities that even the ASG has to face. Some members were bought over and turned into moles—not for sake of ideology but practical realities. The military converted certain critical ASG members into informants simply by offering them money or support for their families.
It can be strange to see such “everydayness” as bedfellows with ideological grandeur. This mixture, however, makes evil all the more chilling. It warns that the greatest minds of terror can be cultivated from the normal; that someone you know from studying engineering with in university could be capable of writing the following in support of extremism:
I won’t blame you if you don’t agree with what I’m doing because we are not of the same religion and ideology. For me, I love my ideology more than my family and even myself.
The War on Terror is a thrilling read overall. But there are times when Acosta’s distanced prose falls flat. His style certainly mimics the coolness and depth of journalism but when it comes dialogue, they can come across as too remote and unconvincing (see the earlier exchange between Sabban and Zulueta).
More importantly (and likely unintended), Acosta’s commander’s eye view gives us an alternative look at the affairs of warfare in all of its common realities. The public today is inundated by romantic depictions of warfare. Even anti-heroic works have joined the chorus of glory due to poor artistry, delivering their messages through hyper violent bravado and macho protagonists that suggest the opposite.
By detailing the banal along with the glorious, Acosta’s story and tone could have the effect of stripping war of its imaginative power—and perhaps loosen its hold in the hearts of the violent and the extreme.
Tan Kaiyi is a content consultant at a marketing communications firm, based in Singapore. His poems have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. Kaiyi’s horror story, The Siege, appeared in Kitaab’s Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018).
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