KIDAPAWAN CITY, Philippines - When the first grenade tumbled out of the window, William stared at it for a second before he realized what was happening.
Then another homemade bomb landed a couple of metres away from his feet and the former Canadian soldier dove for cover.
Inside a nearby shack, two suspected Islamic insurgents were struggling with officers from a Filipino police SWAT team. William, the team's security adviser, had been ready with other troops to provide covering fire for the officers, but the two grenades chucked out of the window quickly changed that plan. "A bunch of us jumped into a ditch and waited for the explosion," he explains. "Nothing happened, but it took us a minute to realize the grenades were duds."
The mission on the Philippine island of Mindanao was supposed to be a quick operation to nab a couple of drug dealers with ties to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But the men weren't going quietly. When the SWAT team smashed through the door of the shack, one man pulled a shotgun and was immediately wrestled to the ground by an officer. A second man, who had thrown the grenades, clambered out of the shack and started running down an alley. He was shot and killed by police.
It didn't take long for an angry crowd from the Muslim community to gather. "People were yelling, saying that police had just executed the guy," says William. "The Muslim elders were really stirring things up and it was getting pretty ugly. We got the hell out of there as fast as we could."
The 2003 raid was typical of the no-holds-barred world of urban and jungle warfare on an island one senior U.S. diplomat to the Philippines has declared the new Afghanistan. In the thick of the conflict is William, a 38-year-old Canadian who makes his living as a soldier for hire. He allowed the Citizen to accompany him on the job with the understanding that his full name not be used and that his identity would be concealed in photos published in the newspaper.
Since William came to Mindanao several years ago, he has seen his workload steadily increase as the island's security situation has continued to deteriorate. In the past four months alone, he has trained bodyguard teams for several city mayors and conducted a small unit tactics course for a Filipino police counter-terrorism team.
Operating out of Kidapawan City, William is one of thousands of former soldiers working around the world for private military companies. What is unusual about William is that he often accompanies the units he trains into the field. He has even led combat missions against insurgents. "That to me is the real attraction of the job," William explains. "Most guys will just provide the training and that's the end of their involvement. But I see the job right through to the end of the operation."
William does most of his work for Grayworks Security, a Filipino company that sells its services to government and business. Much of the training he provides for clients is based on the standard infantry tactics he learned in the Canadian army. "I'm not claiming to be a special forces or anything like that," he explains. "I'm just regular military. But Filipinos love the idea they're being trained by someone other than a Filipino."
At a base about three hours west of Davao City, William meets a team of Philippine police counter-terrorism officers he has recently instructed. In the barracks, there are handshakes and slaps on the back. William easily converses in Tagalog, the main language spoken in the Philippines. There are a few jokes and then discussions start about the latest sightings of guerrillas from the MILF or the al-Qaeda-sponsored Jemaah Islamiya.
The counter-terrorism troops wear faded camouflage uniforms and their assault rifles are heavily worn from extensive use. The men have the look of predators. The unit is resting before it launches a large-scale operation against a marijuana plantation believed to be run by MILF supporters. Like many guerrilla armies, the MILF uses proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs to help finance its activities.
Since helicopters are a rarity here, it isn't uncommon for the unit to hike through mountains and jungle for several days before being in position to launch its raids. The Philippine army might provide artillery bombardment before the team attacks, but more often than not, they're on their own.
"These guys are pretty tough," says William. "They go out day after day on their operations and there's no whining or complaining. It's not like in the Canadian army."
William spent seven years in the Canadian Forces, serving as an infantry soldier on missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He had planned to stick with the job until retirement, but became disillusioned with the changes he saw in the service.
William says he watched as good officers and non-commissioned members, who were "born" combat soldiers, went nowhere. Promotions seemed to be reserved for those who knew how to "kiss the right ass," he says.
In Afghanistan, he would watch American soldiers go into battle, hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda, while Canadian troops patrolled Kabul. Despite the pronouncements of politicians and generals that Canada was playing a lead role in the war on terrorism, William says, there was little real action.
More troubling was what he viewed as slipping standards of military professionalism. Troops feigned sickness to avoid patrols. Some soldiers seemed to just want to stay at Camp Julien in Kabul playing computer games or watching movies. Other soldiers William admired started finding work with civilian police forces or going back to school. A few headed to Africa where they worked as guns for hire, protecting aid agency and United Nations officials.
After his tour in Afghanistan, William knew it was time to get out of the army. If he was going to be a soldier, he would have to do it where there was a war. Offered a job with Grayworks, he headed to Mindanao.
Life on the island takes some getting used to, particularly for a Canadian. Mindanao is 95,000 square kilometres of jungle and mountains. Its cities are a crowded mass of people trying to survive as best they can. The humidity is stifling. When it's not raining, the heat is overpowering. The people are friendly and if you don't go looking for trouble, you won't find it.
But for a private security contractor, Mindanao has all the necessary ingredients -- bandits, terrorists and big business.
The island is home to much of the Philippines' mineral wealth and produces most of the nation's food. Numerous mining companies, including Canadian firms, have operations in Mindanao. Large U.S. fruit growers own banana and pineapple plantations while other foreign and Filipino companies process rubber, harvest coconuts and catch tuna.
The companies are targets for a variety of guerrilla groups and bandits. The island's inaccessible jungles have made excellent training bases for al-Qaeda-linked terror organizations such as Abu Sayyef and Jemaah Islamiya.
Jemaah Islamiya, or JI as it is known locally, is fighting to create a Southeast Asian Islamic state and is believed to be behind the October 2002 bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people and the attacks in October that claimed 23 lives.
Abu Sayyef, financed in its early days by Osama bin Laden, specializes in bombings and kidnapping foreigners. In February, it launched a wave of bomb attacks in cities on Mindanao and in the city of Manila, killing 12 and injuring 100.
Another group, the New People's Army, (NPA) which is the military wing of the country's Communist party, has been at war with the government for 37 years and in recent months has stepped up its attacks on police and army units. In 2002, the U.S. and Canada officially labelled the NPA as a foreign terrorist organization.
And the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has camps on the outskirts of Kidapawan City, has been fighting for a separate Muslim state since the late 1970s.
Although the groups have different goals, it is widely accepted among Philippine intelligence officers that the MILF and NPA at times support each other. In addition, the U.S. has accused the MILF of supporting JI and Abu Sayyef, an allegation strongly denied by MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu.
In April, Joseph Mussomeli, the U.S. charge d'affaires to the Philippines, called Mindanao the world's new centre for terrorism. He claimed that portions of the island are so lawless it now compares to Afghanistan.
For William, the chaos means employment. "This is the perfect place for me," he explains. "Lots of action means lots of potential clients."
These clients include the San Miguel Beer Company, which came to Grayworks looking for help after guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades at one of the company's processing plants.
In another case, NPA insurgents tried to extort "revolutionary taxes" from the Dole fruit company in return for not attacking the firm's 50,000-hectare banana plantation near Davao City. Dole refused to pay and instead turned to Grayworks. In a matter of months, William trained and led a company commando team on search-and-destroy missions against NPA training camps near the Dole site.
The North Cotabato provincial police hostage-rescue team, also trained by William, has had its own successful operations, rescuing several people held by criminal kidnap-for-ransom groups as well as shutting down drug labs.
William isn't the only private soldier who has been attracted by the area's turmoil. Andy Bradsell, a Canadian security contractor killed last year in Iraq, also worked in the Philippines, training a presidential bodyguard unit as well as advising on counter-insurgency operations in Mindanao. Control Risks, a British company, has an office in Manila and clients on the island.
Then there are the freelancers who show up looking for action. For instance, several American soldiers of fortune were arrested by police outside Davao City when officers spotted machine-guns lying on the back seat of their car. Meanwhile, in September, the Philippine government deported Vipezlav Busfy, 41, a Czech national who claimed he was on a mission to assassinate an unidentified Muslim leader in Mindanao. Authorities believe the man was mentally unstable.
In another case, a French mercenary showed up on Mindanao announcing he was going to hunt down JI and Abu Sayyef terrorists for the millions in reward money offered by the U.S. government.
"He's probably still wandering in the jungle looking for them," says William, laughing. "Without connections, without intelligence about the security situation, you'll get nowhere fast."
Much of that intelligence comes from informants and police agents working the back alleys of the Alim Street shantytown, home to more than 1,400 Muslims in Kidapawan City. MILF sympathizers are plentiful in this impoverished section of the city. JI agents have also recently been seen on Alim, a collection of tin shacks without running water or proper sanitation.
Peace groups and other critics of the Philippine government's war on terror in Mindanao point to the oppressive poverty in places like Alim for fuelling the insurgency. A Canadian Department of National Defence report obtained by the Citizen also suggests poverty, and not religious differences, is the driving force behind the Muslim guerrilla war.
William agrees that such economic conditions aren't helping matters, but he has little interest in getting involved in politics. His job is to prepare troops for combat.
As William stands on Alim Street explaining the security situation, Muslim residents glare at him. They know who he is, as do many of the MILF in the area.
It wouldn't take much to try to kill the Canadian; so far he has had several death threats and once a suspected MILF informant followed him to his home. William went out to the front door and waved at the man, who had been sitting in a car for several hours watching the house.
"I guess I should take it more seriously, but they know where I live," says William. "My attitude is if they're going to try something, then let them do it. They'll see what happens."
Almost everywhere William goes, he carries a .45 calibre handgun. An M-4 carbine is usually nearby, as well as grenades and other weapons. He has several locations in Kidapawan and Davao City where he can stay. At one house, William set up Claymore mines along the perimeter of the property, but eventually had to disarm them when a family moved in nearby.
He was worried children playing near his backyard might trigger the mines and get shredded by the hundreds of steel ball-bearings that would be fired off when the weapon exploded.
At another Grayworks-owned home, there are grenade launchers, thousands of rounds of ammunition, as well as Second World War-era machine-guns. Some have been captured in raids, others purchased on the open market.
The MILF and Abu Sayyef also have no problems obtaining weapons, many of those smuggled in from Malaysia.
Filipino counter-terrorism officers say despite a ceasefire reached with the MILF, the Muslim army is still stockpiling arms. The MILF is also continuing to sell drugs to finance its operations, according to police. On Nov. 8, the brother of MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu was killed in a gun battle with police special forces in Cotabato City. Officers say Abdul Bayan Kabalu was wanted on drug charges and shabu, similar in potency to crack cocaine, was found during the raid.
"The ceasefire doesn't mean s--t here," explains William. "It was brokered by the central government in Manila, but Mindanao is a different world."
Part of the challenge in Mindanao is knowing who to trust. Corruption is part of life in the Philippines and William says there is always the potential that members of the police or military might tip off criminals or insurgents about raids. Police officers have also been involved in kidnappings of business executives.
To further complicate matters, some Grayworks Security and government military personnel are former insurgents who have switched sides.
To avoid potential problems, the plans for raids are shared with only a few key individuals. Grayworks' soldiers for hire as well as police units are often not given details of missions until they are on the road and heading toward a particular target, William says.
Sometimes such operations can take on a comedic flavour. During a recent raid on Alim Street, Philippine counter-terrorism police decided to use the one aging armoured vehicle they had in their arsenal. It blew a tire on the way to the Muslim part of the city, causing the strike force to move at a snail's pace. "Besides, you could hear the thing coming a mile away," says William. "By the time we got to Alim Street, the guys we were after were long gone."
Other missions have been more successful. During Operation Seminole, a raid against an MILF training camp and drug lab in the village of Pikit, William, along with the police special forces he had trained, captured six suspected insurgents. Also recovered were $2,000 in cash, the drug shabu, grenade launchers, assault rifles and MILF training manuals -- in all, considered a pretty successful haul.
William readily admits part of the attraction is the adrenaline rush he gets from combat. He describes the almost surreal experience of the firefights he has been in; men hiding behind coconut trees and clumps of bamboo, so close they could clearly see each other. People running and tripping, widely firing their assault rifles. Some were laughing as if it were a child's game. He shows a grainy photo he took of NPA guerrillas dragging away one of their dead into the jungle.
But being a hired gun can also mean long hours of boredom. This becomes evident on a trip to the Lapanday Fruit Corporation, where some of William's Grayworks guards are employed. The 125-hectare banana plantation near Dallag had been the target of various bandits, so Grayworks was contracted to provide a force of up to 15 men to protect the site.
As part of his management duties with the company, William must go to the plantation to check on the guards, bring them supplies and deal with any concerns they have over salaries and working conditions. But just getting to the site is a five-hour, bone-jarring trip over muddy mountain roads. The four-wheel-drive truck gets stuck several times, although villagers willingly offer to push the vehicle out of the brown muck. NPA are known to operate in the area, so William and a driver have their handguns on the front seat of the truck.
A Grayworks employee keeps reassuring William that the site is located just over the next mountain, but the road never seems to end. "This is why I'm getting out of the management side of the business," says William after four hours of being bounced around in the truck. "Too much paperwork, too many people skills, too much crap. I'll be focusing more on training and combat ops."
William says he has all the work he can handle. He is an independent security contractor, but is still closely associated with Grayworks. In the near future, the firm plans to join with another security company in Manila to bid on a contract to provide guards for a group of casinos. If that contract comes about, William will handle training.
More ambitious is a potential deal with a British consortium that hopes to open a gold mine on Mindanao. The operation, in the middle of NPA territory, would cover 900 square kilometres, although the actual mining would be confined to several key areas.
If that deal goes through, William will have to establish, train and lead a 115-member security force to guard the mine sites. Five of his former comrades from the Canadian military would be brought in to instruct the private army.
"Once those mines start up, they'll be targeted for sure by the NPA," says William. "We're going to have our hands full dealing with that, but that's what the job's all about, isn't it?"
Tomorrow: battlefield abuse
Soldiers of Fortune: Canadians at Work in the War on Terror
Defence writer David Pugliese has spent the past two years painstakingly building the trust needed to tell the stories of Canada's soldiers of fortune. His search took him from the dangerous terrain of the Filipino island of Mindanao, where the war on terror is employing private soldiers, to New Brunswick and Edmonton, where the families of two slain Canadians live. This powerful series details a growing business in an ever-more terrorized world.
Saturday: Security for sale
Yesterday: Soldier Inc.
Today: Mindanao's Canadian
Tomorrow: Abuse on the battlefield
Wednesday: Mercenary peacekeepers
Thursday: Canadian hired-gun ban urged
Ran with fact boxes "Soldiers of Fortune: Canadians at workin the war on terror" and "The Series", which have been appended tothe story.
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