Terrorists recruiting child warriors from Sabah and Marawi


Second of four parts
MARAWI CITY: The battle against the Daesh-Maute terrorists may have been won by the government, but the war is far from over, Meranao and Muslim sources from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as well as from Sabah told The Manila Times.

The systematic recruitment of the vulnerable youth and adult population is ongoing, sources claimed.

“Children from indigent families in Mindanao were sold by their own parents to at least one of the Daesh-linked imams from Marawi,” according to a military intelligence officer.

For many of the parents of the estimated 2,000 child soldiers in Marawi, it was very difficult to say no given the lack of economic opportunities and fear of offending powerful persons in the community.

A mother, still in mourning in Marawi City, recounted how she and her husband were approached twice by a local Daesh-linked imam or priest prior to the Marawi attack.

Almost two years ago, she and her husband were given P150,000 in exchange for their then 11-year-old son to become one of the Daesh-Maute child soldiers.

The house used for two years by Abu Sayyaf leader and Islamic State emir Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City

At first, they were offered P50,000 in cold cash, and the imam assured them there were no strings attached to that amount, which was “just a generous gift.”

The imam told the mother and her husband that in case they needed more money to provide for their eight children, they should not hesitate getting in touch with him for more.

That day of desperation came, and the parents received the same Daesh-linked imam into their humble home, asked for his generous help, and received another P100,000.

This time, however, the imam said that if the parents accepted the final P100,000, he expected them to give him one of their sons.

They were given three months to spend quality time with their 11-year-old before the Daesh-linked imam came back for his new recruit.

The mother said the recent death of their son in the Marawi siege was haunting her and her family.

She told The Manila Times that by sharing the painful truth behind her son’s meaningless death, she wanted to help stop the active recruitment of child soldiers in Mindanao.

Stateless children
There is another steady stream of new recruits.

A source from Sabah, an advocate for stateless persons of Filipino descent, claimed there were more than 400,000 stateless children of Filipino descent, who have either undocumented or stateless parents working in the low-paying informal sector in Sabah.

This means that about 99 percent of these stateless children of Filipino descent are unable to attend public schools in Sabah, a Malaysian state to which the Philippines has historic claims.

Less than one percent of these stateless children can be absorbed by three alternative learning centers, only one of which is recognized by the Malaysian government.

Limits on their educational and employment opportunities, in addition to their susceptibility to poverty, malnutrition, and various diseases, make it extremely difficult for them to be fully self-determining people.

Retreat point used by the Maute terrorist group. PHOTOS BY DREI TOLEDO AND MIMI FABE

The fact that these stateless persons lack a nationality altogether―unlike migrants, internally displaced persons, and other types of non-citizens―makes their condition particularly harsh.

Some Sabah-born stateless Muslim children of Filipino descent return to the Philippines through the porous borders of Mindanao.

They easily become vulnerable recruits in Mindanao by the likes of Daesh-Maute and other extremist groups.

Undocumented and stateless persons are ideal terrorist recruits since they have no public records: no birth certificates, no passports, and no real identification cards.

A well-planned assault, but not on Marawi
Since the end of the Marawi siege, locals have become more willing to air different opinions and provide information they were hesitant to share in the beginning.

According to local Meranao and Muslim sources—Daesh sympathizers and opponents alike—Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute never intended to attack Marawi City.

After all, Marawi was already the “Islamic City,” the country’s center of Muslim worship, governance, culture and commerce.

According to one of the few Daesh-Maute leaders interviewed byThe Manila Times, the real plan was to establish an IS base in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi; the ultimate goal was to first attack and take over Iligan City, Cagayan de Oro City and Davao City, home city of no less than President Rodrigo Duterte.

80% OF MARAWI INTACT Photos above show two homes cleared by the military in battle-zone areas. Below, structures outside the main battle area, still standing and not often shown by the media. Eighty percent of the Islamic City remains intact. PHOTOS BY DREI TOLEDO AND MIMI FABE

“More people need to ask why, in the first place, would ISIS-Maute fighters deliberately want to destroy Marawi City when it is already an Islamic City? Think about it,” the source said.

The original Daesh-Maute operational plan failed, however, since the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) successfully cordoned Hapilon and Maute within Marawi City before the end of May, before local Daesh commanders, fighters, and mercenaries could unleash a more catastrophic terrorist attack and damage outside the Islamic City.

What Aquino knew
Marawi residents knew about the presence of Daesh-Maute or ISIS Philippines in their city since 2015, and yet nearly everyone kept silent, according to sources.

An intelligence official corroborates this, saying that as early as 2013, during the administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, foreign government researchers provided Philippine government officials, political scientists, and national security experts critical information regarding the presence of Filipino jihadist leaders and about 100 Abu Sayyaf Group members in Syria.

Some Abu Sayyaf fighters were even deployed to Syria for training, along with their wives, all of whom were spotted and identified by the foreign researchers.

According to the same intelligence official, Philippine military officers during the previous administration consistently denied reports that at least 100 Filipino jihadists have joined Daesh and swore their oath of allegiance to ISIS.

The Daesh-Maute stockpiling of weapons, high-powered firearms, equipment, food, and medicine, all strategically stored in various locations in the “underground tunnel system” beneath Marawi City, began at least two years ago, the intelligence official said.

Marawi residents never expected that the Daesh-Maute “Islamic State (IS) territory expansion plan” would backfire two years later, and end up destroying several barangay (villages).

Only 20 percent of Marawi destroyed
Majority of local and international mainstream media ―using the power of framed images and videos― have conditioned many people to believe that after five months of war against Daesh-Maute terrorists, practically all of Marawi City had been destroyed.

The fact is, less than 20 percent of the entire land area of Marawi City was destroyed during five months of fighting.

During fieldwork in December, The Manila Times found that collateral damage in terms of land area had affected only 24 out of the 96 barangay in Marawi City.

This means that the Marawi siege destruction was contained by the AFP within less than a fifth of the entire city’s land area.

The rest of Marawi and beyond continues to be fertile ground for terrorist fund-raising and recruitment.

(Next: The anatomy of terrorist financing)

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