The warning order came in at 1500 requesting sniper/observer teams from the SEALs. They scrambled to prepare their men and were airlifted from Zamboanga to Lanao by C-130 that morning at 0500. The mission was dubbed Operation Haribon after the Haribon Infantry Brigade in the area. When NAVSOG Detachment 8 hit the ground, the SEALs soon moved in to fill a sniper and reconnaissance role, spotting enemy movement 700 meters away from their hide site.
The Maute Group is yet another secessionist group in the Philippines that seeks to carve out a province of their own in the southern portions of the archipelago in which they would enforce strict Islamic law. In many ways, the Maute Group is just a pack of bandits with an ideological cover. In February of 2016, Omar Maute and his brother Abdullah directed his terrorist organization to capture villages, towns, and municipalities in Lanao del Sur which provoked the reaction they wanted from the Philippine government.
The action was designed to raise the group’s public profile, scare civilians into joining their cause, and to attract overseas jihadi finance networks. The Maute Group had pledged their allegiance to ISIS and was now rising their black flag above villages in Lanao. Meanwhile, Omar Maute was forging an alliance with Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group.
“We are looking at the targets who are complacent, doing their every day routine but facing the direction they expect the infantry to infiltrate from,” said “Carlo,” a Philippine Navy SEAL platoon leader in an interview with SOFREP. The snipers radioed any intelligence information they gathered back to headquarters until the time came for them to engage. The enemy had .30 millimeter sniper rifles and a home-made .50 caliber Barrett. The SEALs were firing their 7.62 DMR sniper rifles. They soon found that at 700 meters the enemy was not able to hit the broadside of a barn. The SEAL snipers were highly skilled marksman who had attended both Army and Marine sniper schools before bringing those tactics back to NAVSOG and implementing the best of both courses into their unit.
The Maute Group suffered under precision fire from the snipers as well as indirect fire that the SEALs called in on enemy positions. “We did that for whole day, we did it until 1800 in the evening,” Carlo recalled. Using the cover of darkness that night, the SEALs withdrew to the Haribon Brigade’s tactical headquarters where they met with a Light Reaction Company (LRC). The LRC is one maneuver element belonging to the Light Reaction Regiment (LRR), the Philippine Army’s elite counter-terrorism unit. “It was a joint operation between the SEALs and LRC,” Carlo said.
The ground element had to conduct a river crossing in order to infiltrate into the village. Because of the crossing, it was decided that the SEALs would be the lead element into the target area. “When we reached near the target, the firefight escalated,” Carlo said. “On the first burst of gunfire two Army guys are already dead.” The enemy held the high ground and had the Special Operations soldier pinned down with machine gun and sniper fire. With the sun coming up at 0500 in the morning, the decision was made to withdraw and try again after consolidating and re-organizing their forces.
The next attack saw the assaulters dashing across an open rice field while their sniper provided support. Hitting the first building, four Maute terrorists were killed immediately. The snipers eliminated a further two fighters. Also present in the village was a four-story tower specifically made for enemy snipers to fire at the Philippine military forces from out of small holes. The SEALs quickly captured the tower and placed their own snipers inside. At the end of the first day of fighting, the SEALs established their tactical operations center in an abandoned school.
The house to house combat continued for five days. Frustratingly, Omar Maute managed to escape up into the mountains before he could be captured or killed. Only 17 enemy bodies were recovered, but the exact number of enemy dead is difficult to estimate. Islamist groups tend to recover their dead and bury them quickly in accordance with their religious beliefs. Intelligence assessments put the total enemy dead at around 50 but no one knows for sure.
Operation Haribon 2 followed, but SOFREP caught up with the SEAL platoon leader who participated in Haribon 3. The Maute Group had again taken over a villages in Lanao which consisted of about 300 homes and structures. “The Infantry could not penetrate the town so they called on the joint special operations group to clear the town. Enemy numbered around 200 well armed Maute terrorists,” said “Tony” the SEAL platoon leader on the mission said. His team had been in Cotobato running counter-narcotics operations against criminal elements when they were flown into Lanao by C-130.
Their strike time was set at 0500 in the morning. The SEALs attempted to infiltrate along the backside of the village where the terrorists should not have been expecting them. Instead, they came under heavy fire from well prepared trenches and inside houses. A Forward Air Controller (FAC) was shot through the chest. The SEALs had to crawl for several hundred meters to recover and evacuate him to safety.
“There is the possibility that the operation was leaked to the enemy,” Tony told SOFREP. At the time, the government was involved in peace negotiations with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) terrorist group. As a part of their cease-fire agreement, the MILF had to be told about military operations in the area. Some suspect that the MILF leaked their advanced warning of Haribon 3 to the Maute Group.
“We held our ground and step by step we cleared the town after three days…with no sleep,” Tony described. “During the first two days it was difficult because the enemy was just one house or two houses away, about fifty meters. We utilized artillery and air assets to go house to house, little by little until the armored vehicles came in.” There was a bridge into the village, but the SEALs suspected that the Maute group had rigged it with explosives so they were not about to risk having the infantry drive their armored vehicles across. Later, they were able to identify another route that vehicles could take into the operational area.
For three days, the SEALs provided sniper support while LRC operators were clearing the village. They Army operators suffered over a dozen men wounded, plus the FAC who was shot on the first day. Afterwards, the SEALs were assigned follow on operations to clear out several Maute Group camps in the jungle. They discovered underground bunkers and many Improvised Explosive Devices. “We found wires, batteries, and explosives,” Tony said.
Operation Haribon 4 picked up right where the past three had left off and Carlos again found himself thrown into action alongside his teammates. “While the infantry was in the mountains we acted as a QRF in the urban areas,” Carlos said but soon they had specific High Value Targets to go after: the Maute Group financier and his brother. The SEALs would go after one brother while the LRC would go after the other, striking the two houses that were several hundred meters apart from each other at the same time.
“We planned to gain control and then provide sniper support for the other objective and likewise,” so that the SEALs and LRC could provide mutually supporting fires. Instead, the SEALs found themselves under fire from multiple elevated positions and trapped outside as “the explosive we have, the time fuse was damaged. But we cannot destroy it [the door] with the sledgehammer so we call for the help from the LRR. They brought their explosive and set it up. We were then able to conduct the entry and clear the building,” the SEAL said. “We suffered two wounded at that time with that fucking door!”
The SEALs made their entry through the breach point and killed two terrorists. The brother was spotted but managed to escape. However, he did leave behind a blood trail indicating that he had been hit. The SEAL enlisted men wanted to follow-up on the blood trial but Carlo would not allow it as they have very limited numbers of men in their element and it would be easy for them to become surrounded and cut off. The brother’s nine-year-old daughter was also shot in the side during the firefight. “We rushed her to the hospital and she survived,” Carlo said of the event.
Both SEAL leaders pointed towards their good working relationship with the Light Reaction Regiment. “We conducted previous operations and trained with them so we have strong relationship [with LRC] so they know our movements and we know their movements,” Tony explained. Both repeatedly spoke of the bravery of their men and were quite proud of their performance under fire as well as their dedication to leaving no man behind, be he a SEAL, a Light Reaction Company operator, or a Forward Air Controller. The SEALs also indicated a number of lessons learned and areas that can be improved when it comes to both equipment and planning.
As to the significance of the Haribon operations, “the president went to the municipality and raised the Philippines flag after Haribon 3 and the whole world saw that the Maute group can’t do that here,” Tony said of the mission. They had helped the Philippine government make a statement that terrorists were not going to be able to raise their black flag on their soil.
The Haribon operations now place in context the greater fight at hand, and perhaps the Maute Group’s end game currently unfolding in the city of Marawi. In late May, the Maute Group raided the city and again raised their flag, challenging the rule of law in the Philippines. The Light Reaction Regiment, Scout-Rangers, and other Special Operations groups have responded as the Philippine Air Force conducts airstrikes against Maute Group positions inside the city. The Philippine Marines have also been airlifted to the city.
Much like the 2013 siege of Zamboanga in which a renegade MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) faction attempted to take over the city, one side is going to go home with victory. The other will go home in a body bag. Today, that renegade MNLF faction no long exists.