The Philippine military has been ordered to monitor the operations of Islamic schools nationwide amid intelligence reports that they are being used as a breeding ground for new militants, the country’s military chief said Tuesday.
Members of the armed forces were liaising with Philippine education authorities to implement such a move, military chief Gen. Gilbert Gapay told an online forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.
“We are now strengthening and enhancing our program as far as prevention when encountering violent extremism. We are coordinating now with the Department of Education, looking into different schools, particularly in Sulu and other parts of Mindanao,” Gapay said, referring to largely Muslim parts of the southern Philippines.
“This is one of the institutions or areas where recruitment is occurring particularly (among) youths,” he said.
Gapay said the security sector would monitor these schools to prevent the possible infiltration of militants linked to the Islamic State (IS). Internet-savvy IS propagandists have been enticing children through social media, Gapay said.
“We are looking at how the youth are being recruited and radicalized and one of the media vehicles they are using is social media,” he said. “We have found out that some of those who surrendered and captured – quite a number of them – have been recruited and radicalized through social media.”
“Our relentless military operations have restricted the enemy’s movement and deterred their ability to attack our troops,” he said.
Muslim leaders in the Philippines could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.
In March, the police chief of Manila apologized to Philippine Muslim leaders after his department was criticized for its plan to collect the names of Muslim high school and university students in the capital area that critics had branded as religious profiling. The plan was publicized through a leaked memo but canceled amid criticism that police in the capital of the predominantly Catholic country were singling out students from the Muslim minority.
The information revealed by the military chief on Tuesday came days after the arrest of Rezky Fantasya Rullie, a Muslim woman believed to be barely out of her teens and who was allegedly plotting a suicide bomb attack on Jolo Island in Sulu province. The military reported that her parents, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, had carried out a twin suicide bombing at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel church on Jolo that killed 21 and themselves in January 2019.
Military intelligence operatives said they believe Rullie has two siblings – a boy, age 10, and a woman, age 20 – who are being trained as suicide bombers. Officials told BenarNews there is a frantic search for the pair but declined to elaborate.
Rommel Banlaoi, who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Research, said the phenomenon of terror groups using women and children to carry out attacks has been on the rise.
“It is now a preferred tactics of the IS worldwide and is being applied in the Philippines to encourage local operatives,” Banlaoi told BenarNews.
“Aside from female suicide terrorism, a new trend is the possibility of the emergence of juvenile suicide terrorism in Mindanao,” he said, referring to the country’s southern region.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City and Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro City contributed to this report.