The Philippines’ Child Jihadists


The use of child soldiers is well established in the Philippines, where all of the factors that make children vulnerable to recruitment exist prominently. Child soldiers are likewise integral to The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s long-term global strategy. Worryingly, these trends conflate with the protracted history of the Philippines’ Muslim-dominated south seeking independence from the rest of the nation. The result is an increasingly powerful base for ISIS in Southeast Asia, with teenage fighters at the helm.

In the words of Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General to the United Nations (UN), ‘The use of child soldiers is far more than a humanitarian concern… its impact lasts far beyond the time of actual fighting.’ As of 2016, it was estimated that 300,000 children, most of them under fifteen, were involved directly in conflict. ‘Children are not only used by armed groups as combatants, but also as spies, helpers and porters,’ the International Labour Organization reported earlier this month.

Human Rights Watch observes that the children most likely to be recruited are poor, separated from their families, displaced from their homes, and living in a combat zone with limited access to education and little to no government presence. Transpose these criteria onto the Philippines, a densely populated archipelago of 7,100 islands that has been economically underdeveloped since the 1960s and is marked by a history of violence, and it is no surprise that Mindanao, the most conflict-ridden and deprived of the Philippines’ islands, is home to a number of groups who use soldiers under the age of eighteen.

Child soldiers are at the forefront of ISIS’s distinct methods of warfare. First, the group is uncharacteristically transparent about its brutality compared with other terrorist organizations. It publicizes executions and torture as undertaken by children on social media in order to attract worldwide attention and display power beyond the Middle East. Second, it recruits ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ actively, to create a future generation of fighters who are indoctrinated to violence as a way of life from a young age. Without adequate counter-terror measures now, the next generation of child jihadists will be even more destructive than those at present.

Southeast Asia has witnessed growing ISIS influence recently but attempts by Filipino Muslims to secede from the Republic date back as early as 1935. Abu Sayyaf started as a hotchpotch of fewer than 200 men in the early 1980s; by 2016, ISIS’s newsletter stated that the group’s leader had been selected as ‘emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines’. The Maute faction, another allied wing of ISIS, has massacred Marawi in southern Mindanao, the only official ‘Islamic city’ in a nation dominated by Catholicism. Fighters from both organizations, alongside foreigners brought in by ISIS, seek to establish a caliphate there. Multiple sources have witnessed children and young adolescents among the fighters.

Unable to meet his own deadline for peace, having enforced martial law and called upon American intelligence, President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed last week: ‘If I have to flatten the place, I will do it.’ However, bombing would be not only devastating but unwise; the number of persons displaced by the conflict is already 193,000, which only deepens the pool of potential ISIS recruits.

As part of an action plan agreed with the UN, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another group in the area, released more than 1,800 child soldiers last month to whom scholarships were offered to finish school. But given the centrality of child soldiers to ISIS’s global strategy, on top of the fact that most Philippine child jihadists remain in formal education and are not paid for their labour, an amnesty would be ineffective in this instance also.

Significantly, Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science in Manila, adds, ‘This is not like South Sudan or Sierra Leone… Many of these children are actually very much part of the fabric of the community that has been supporting the MILF.’ ISIS’s youth fighters in the Philippines have been not been coerced into fighting, but rather lured by the ideology of Islamism and its glamorization on social media, having grown up against a backdrop of war. One former child Maute fighter recalled, ‘They taught me how to kill people… I told myself, “I will die in this war and I will go to heaven.”’

With that said, a new approach is required. ISIS’s use of child soldiers in the country may prove particularly intractable in the short term because it is a uniquely deep-rooted problem. Therefore, it is crucial that the structural causes of this tragic phenomenon are addressed. Restoring stability to the area whilst increasing living standards in Mindanao must be top priorities for the government.

Elizabeth Burden