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Operation Freedom Eagle
Balikatan 2002-1

Operation Freedom Eagle was a plan first to conduct a combined unconventional-warfare campaign against terrorism in the Philippines and later to advise and assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines in internal defense and development. The operation was heavily linked with Exercise Balikatan 2002-1, which was focused on counter-terrorism. By August 2002, with the end of Exercise Balikatan 2002-1, Operation Freedom Eagle transitioned to Operation Enduring Freedom - Philippines.

Even before the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the US military was already actively engaged in training Philippine troops to more effectively combat terrorism in their own country, including as part of the annual Balikatan exercises. In March 2001, Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group, out of Okinawa, began training a light reaction company (LRC), intended as a specialized counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency unit, for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The unit was intended to be deployed to counter the rising strength of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an al-Qaeda linked organization in the southern Philippines. In April 2000, the Abu Sayyaf Group had announced its intention to begin launching attacks against Americans and other westerners in the Philippines. As Abu Sayyaf continued to pose a challenge to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the decision was made to discuss incorporating a terrorist coordination and assistance visit into the planning for Exercise Balikatan 2002-1.

Following the attacks on 11 September 2001, Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOCPAC) and its components worked to develop a training package that would improve the Armed Forces of the Philippines capability to conduct internal defense and thereby combat terrorism. They sought to implement various recommendations from the initial planning for counterterrorism training as part of Balikatan 2002-1. The Philippine government responded positively to the proposed course of action and a robust package of training, assistance, and mobility equipment was developed.

The debate in 2002 over South-East Asia in Washington was between 2 schools of thought, the law-enforcement school (led by US Deputy Secretary of Defence and former Ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Wolfowitz) and a school of thought favouring improved military ties (led by Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld). The idea of South East Asia becoming a 'second front' for the US war on terrorism might have been based on superficial analysis and an ill-informed understanding of the dynamics of a complex region. Despite the arrest of alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines; sending 660 US troops to the Philippines; and the presence of radical Islamic groups in the region (notably the Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Sayyaf Group, and the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia), the threat posed by radical Islam in South East Asia was felt to be exaggerated. Though in the law-enforcement school felt that a military-oriented approach would be misguided because, although Southeast Asia might represent a security threat, it was not a military threat. Terrorist groups such as JI and KMM did exist, but so also did many broader movements such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Free Aceh movement, along with Islamic paramilitaries such as the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia. Framing Southeast Asia as the military 'second front' was simplistic and flawed.

In spite of any reservations that might have been held, it was initially hoped that the mission, named Operation Freedom Eagle, would use Balikatan 2002-1 as springboard for a combined unconventional warfare campaign against the Abu Sayyaf Group and other militants in the southern Philippines. In deference to the Philippines' sensitivity to sovereignty issues, the 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), modified its initial plan to one of advising and assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines in internal defense and development. To this end, US Pacific Command's crisis response force, Joint Task Force 510, led by SOCPAC, was activated to oversee forces deployed in support of Operation Freedom Eagle. MH-47Es of Company E, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and MC-130Ps of 351st Special Operations Wing were also deployed in support of the operation. Army special operations personnel were grouped with regular Armed Forces of the Philippines units and elements of the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit militia. Army Special Forces personnel deployed with Ground Mobility Vehicles (modified HMMWVs) to help provide mobility and force protection.

In the Philippines, US troops began military exercises on 15 January 2002 with Philippine soldiers, targeted at preparing the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fight against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. The joint military exercise Balikatan 2002-1 involved 1,650 US troops, including 150 special forces troops. The exercises were conducted with the Philippine armed forces in Zamboanga and Basilan Island, which were roughly 1000 kilometers south of Manila. Most of the American troops trained at a base near the city of Zamboanga, across the water from Basilan. This phase of the joint campaign was to last 6 months.

The Philippine Defense Secretary stated that the purpose of the operation was to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf and free a Philippine nurse and an American missionary couple (Martin and Gracia Burnham) taken hostage in May 2001. The Abu Sayyaf Group was also holding a Philippine nurse, Deborah Yap.

In addition to helping conduct operations against Abu Sayyaf, US troops were to help upgrade communications of the Philippine military in the south and to provide training on new, US supplied equipment that included helicopters, weapons, and night vision tools. The US government increased military assistance to the Philippines from $2 million in 2001 to $20 million in 2002.

The Balikatan 2002-1 exercise in Basilan was governed by Terms of Reference, in response to concerns that the US troops would engage in combat with the Abu Sayyaf Group. This marked a departure from prior exercises in that the lethal rules of engagement were involved. US forces could advise, assist and train Philippine units, but they were not supposed to engage in direct combat. American soldiers in the Philippines could engage in combat in self-defense if they come under attack. The Terms of Reference governing the 660 US troops and 3,800 Filipino soldiers were put in place to allay fears that the Americans would engage in combat operations, considering that the exercise sites were near the combat zone areas in Basilan.

Balikatan 2002-1 was conducted in 3 phases. Phase 1 was the Preparation Phase when a series of planning conferences and exploratory talks would be held to determine priority areas of concern to train the 2 forces. Phase 2 was the Training and Field Exercise Phase covering about a 4-month period. Phase 3 was the Redeployment Phase wherein participating US and Republic of the Philippines personnel were returned to their respective units.

As of late March 2002 there was a proposal for the deployment of 300 more US troops in Basilan, where there were already 660 US soldiers. In late March 2002 it was revealed that a total of 2,665 US soldiers would take part in the separate Republic of the Philippines-US Balikatan 2002-2 exercise, beginning in April 2002. This statement by Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes was in contrast to the previous announcement by Armed Forces spokesperson Brigadier General Edilberto Adan that 1,700 US troops would be involved. Reyes also said that 10 more military exercises involving US troops would be held during 2002, though these would be smaller than Balikatan 2002-1 and 2002-2 and would be. They were expected to be short, 2-day to one-week exercises. No Terms of Reference were required for Balikatan 2002-2 because there was no threat of hostile action in the locations where the exercise would be held in Luzon.

On 6 June 2002, American missionary Martin Burnham was killed dead and his wife Gracia hospitalized after a rescue attempt by the Philippine military. Philippine nurse Edeborah Yap also died in the fighting in the southern Philippines. The Philippine soldiers continued to pursue the kidnappers. The Abu Sayyaf Group had kidnapped the Burnhams and 18 others on 27 May 2001 from an island resort. The Burnhams were celebrating their wedding anniversary at the time.

In mid-July 2002, US troops began packing up and loading their equipment onto a US Navy ship anchored off the southern Philippines, as the joint 6-month anti-terror exercise Balikatan 2002-1 between the countries ended. The US participation in the exercise and Operation Freedom Eagle officially ended on 31 July 2001. Both Manila and Washington said the 6-month operation was a success, with the killing in June 2002 by Philippine troops of top Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya.

About 100 US soldiers remained behind on Basilan to continue to advise the Philippine military on its war on terror. This contingent eventually morphed into the Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines (JSOTF-P), which continued the mission as part of Operation Enduring Freedom - Philippines (OEF-P), the successor to Operation Freedom Eagle.




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