Smoke billows from a burning building as troops battle pro-ISIS militants in Marawi, southern Philippines, on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco
Smoke billows from a burning building as troops battle pro-ISIS militants in Marawi, southern Philippines, on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

“A war that includes four-year-olds with AK-47s is a war that no one can win – [even] if some men … go home victorious.”

― Alex Latimer, The Space Race

When a child becomes an instrument of war, a mother cries not only in Marawi City in the Philippines but in the entire world.

Children have become the target of radicalization by the Maute group, an emerging gang of violent extremists in the Philippines inspired by ISIS. The Maute group has been the object of military operations in the past year in rural areas around Marawi, a city of about 200,000 residents 800 kilometers south of the Philippine capital Manila.

Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based think-tank, has noted in recent research that the establishment of a caliphate in the southern Philippines is still unlikely, but that ISIS’ support has given common cause to varied groups in the area that have traditionally been fractured along clan lines.

In the Philippines, a boy who was kidnapped seven years ago is suspected to be one of the child warriors fighting with the Maute group in Marawi City, according to his mother. Rowhanisa Abdul Jabar said her son resembled someone among several photos circulating on social media of children believed to have brought high-powered firearms to the city’s main battle area.

Moreover, CNN Philippines interviewed a 17-year-old former Maute member who said he was recruited in the town of Piagapo in Lanao Del Sur in 2012 when he was 12 years old. The agency reported:

“Benjie” (not his real name) said he was recruited by three foreigners and a Maranao [member of a tribe in the southern Philippines] with the promise he would be trained by the Philippine Army and paid 15,000 pesos [US$290] monthly.

Part of the training involved self-defense, learning the Arabic language, and how to handle torture if captured. Benjie recalled he was offered 50,000 pesos to carry a firearm and start fighting for the terror group by one of the Maute leaders, Abdullah, but he refused.

Other child soldiers were taken to Butig, Lanao del Sur province, through Lake Lanao. Butig, where a Maute training camp is located, was the scene of a gun battle between government troops and Maute fighters last November.

It is clear that terrorists in the Philippines have been using young fighters as they could easily be manipulated. They can easily shape the minds of these young people. Besides, by offering money, it is not difficult to encourage minors to join them.

Based on reports, it was confirmed by Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Task Group Ranao, that terrorists have been using children to fight with them in Marawi City. He said during a press briefing on August 25: “Our soldiers have a soft spot for young fighters, but they are forced to shoot them when they get violent with their arms.”

Recently, members of the Philippine Army’s 81st Infantry Battalion (IB) based in Ilocos Sur province made similar claims against the New People’s Army’s Platun South Ilocos Sur (SIS), which operates in the Ilocos provinces and in Abra and nearby provinces.

On July 22, members of the 81st IB encountered at least 12 rebels from the SIS at Barangay Sorioan, Salcedo, Ilocos Sur, triggering a 30-minute gun battle. During the clash, the soldiers recovered 20 rounds of M-14 ammunition, home-made bombs, cleaning gear, rebel documents and other personal belongings.

Meanwhile, reports of the use of child warriors by the SIS have reached Major-General Angelito de Leon, commander of the 7th Infantry Division, who called on the rebels to stop this practice.

Soldiers deployed in the province of Ilocos Sur have accused the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, particularly its local unit, of employing child warriors, as corroborated by former rebels who have surrendered to the government.

These children were recruited through ideological political organizational work, and they were used as members of the armed group that operates in the region or any concerned areas where it wants to execute its plans.

The Philippines is a signatory to the United Nations’ Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. It says that states must “demobilize anyone under 18 conscripted or used in hostilities and will provide physical, psychological recovery services and help their social reintegration. Armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities anyone under 18.”

In 2001, Elizabeth Protacio De Castro published an article titled “Children in Armed Conflict Situations: Focus on Child Soldiers in the Philippines”. She wrote that children old enough to carry and use M-16 and AK-47 rifles were being coerced and manipulated to join armed groups. “Young and impressionable, child soldiers can become the fiercest fighters through indoctrination,” Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies said in an abstract of the article.

According to the author, there are several reasons why children end up fighting alongside adults. These children may have been victims of physical or sexual abuse or witnesses to the death of a loved one in the hands of government forces. Some factors are more complex. There may be experiences of neglect and abuse, weak family ties and negative experiences in school, or a combination of all the above.

Jumel G. Estrañero

Jumel Gabilan Estrañero is a defense analyst/researcher in the Philippine government while teaching political science, geopolitics, international negotiation, multilateral diplomacy, political economy and geography, international trade, practice and policies, and other social sciences. His articles have appeared and quoted in Asia Maritime Reviews, The Nation (Bangkok, Thailand), Southeast Asian Times, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times, and Malaya Business Insights.