By Darwin Wally T. Wee
ISABELA CITY, Basilan, March (PNA) – If not for the quick intervention of his mother, Hafidz Kumar, who was then 16 years old, could have joined the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and live a life of a thug.
”I was once convinced to join the ASG. You know in rural areas, in the mountains, we do not see any hopes. If you go out, all you can see are mountains. Even inside the house, you see nothing. Our minds are close to think of other opportunities and other good possibilities in life,” Kumar, now in his 20s, told the Philippine News Agency at a recent youth forum here.
”It’s like a detention cell – there are only four corners. Our world revolves around our house and in the mountains. So, if you’re worried and if you think you don’t have any hopes in life, you’ll easily join the ASG,” Kumar said.
Kumar, who just graduated from a four-year Bachelor of Public Admiration course at the Basilan State College last year, detailed the harrowing conditions and the vulnerabilities why many young people are easily being duped to join the Abu Sayyaf in Tipo-Tipo, his hometown.
”I was thinking of joining the Abu Sayyaf. My mother learned about it, and she decided to send me to Marawi City,” he recalled.
However, two of his neighborhood friends and playmates decided to join the dreaded group.
Kumar recounted that they were all in their teens when the bandits tried to lure them to join their “cause.”
“Tipo-Tipo is the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, especially the village of Baguindan. Sometimes, when we go to the mountains for our livelihood, we meet them, and they talked to us. They play their weapons as if they are toys. We are being fed with delicious food. We are also being given money. So some of my friends said they have no choice but to join the Abu Sayyaf,” he recalled.
“We don’t know anything in life. You’re given a nice weapon and money ranging from PhP50,000 (A$1,400) to PhP100,000 (A$2,800),” he said of the ASG’s recruitment strategy.
It was during Kumar’s stay in Marawi City where he realized that there is so much more than what the Abu Sayyaf members have offered to him.
“I was 16 years old in 2008. I was studying at a madrasa (Islamic school) in Marawi City and I saw people going to schools, riding motorbikes and wore fancy clothes. I told myself that I need to change my vision in life. I realised that if I will join the Abu Sayyaf, I will never see the opportunities and I’ll not achieve anything,” he shared.
“I told myself that I need to continue my study. I phoned my uncle in Isabela City if he can provide for my education. He paid for my tuition during my first year in college. From there, I was exposed to different places and learned the diverse views of life,” he added.
Kumar, who is the eldest among the six siblings, grew up without a father. His mother separated from his father and remarried but the second husband died while working in Sabah, Malaysia.
With little help from family members later on, Kumar ended up financing his own education. He decided to go back to Basilan after spending at least a year in Marawi City with a conviction to get a college degree.
“I was a working student. I worked as a crew at Jollibee. I saved my money and used it to finance my education when I was in my second year. During my third year in college, we created the Basilan Youth Congress. I saved those reimbursements during training and forums. I used the saving to pay my tuition until I graduated,” he said, adding that he also received some allowances from local leaders in the province.
Kumar said the only way for young people, especially those in the remote areas, not to be swayed easily to join the extremist group is for them to have access in basic education and information.
“I told my friends, if you compare your life to me, I am poorer. I don’t have a father. I have many siblings, but I was able to finish my education,” he said.
Kumar, who is is currently taking up a master’s degree also at the Basilan State College, said that getting a good education will make him “more credible,” as his group is now engaging with young people in conflict-prone areas through peace forums.
“My topic is always on motivation. I talked about those Moro leaders who were able to make names despite coming from impoverished families,” he said.
“With perseverance and prayers, there is nothing impossible in life,” he said.
Kumar noted that if the young people in conflict-prone areas are educated, the “relevance of the Abu Sayyaf would diminish.”
He said this would also combat the wrong teachings of Islam, which Kumar noted are being used by the Abu Sayyaf to justify their actions, especially when recruiting young individuals.
Kumar said that there are foreigners who are coming to Basilan to preach extreme views and ideology of Islam.
“Some are even convincing the young people to join the ASG, because they are using prophet Mohammad’s jihad as the basis. In short, they brainwash the recruits,” he said.
“Even some Muslim clerics here are also brainwashed about the wrong teachings of Islam. Some of them even go to the mountains and help and defend the ASG, saying what they are fighting is for Islam,” he explained.
Kumar confirmed that the Abu Sayyaf is recruiting young people, who are shown in videos posted on social media fighting government troops.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is linked to Al-Qaeda and has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is included in the list of foreign terrorist organizations of the U.S. State department. It emerged in this island province in the early 1990s. It led some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of a passenger ferryboat that left hundreds of people killed, kidnapping of foreign tourists, extortions and beheadings.
For Gov. Hadjiman Hataman-Salliman, the problem needs to be addressed holistically.
“The people will feel the presence of the government with the delivery of basic services, and with that the vulnerability of the youth to join extremist groups will be lessened,” Salliman told the Philippine News Agency in a separate interview.
He also confirmed that most of the members of the Abu Sayyaf now are young men.
“We need to establish schools in remote areas,” he said, noting he created a “mobile Ulama” (Islamic scholar) to go around this island province and teach the correct ideology of Islam so the youth will not be misled by the Abu Sayyaf.
Amir Mawallil, executive director of the Office on Bangsamoro Youth Affairs (OBYA) in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), said the solution should focused on the underlying factors on why young people are joining the extremist group.
“One of the many ways to address the vulnerability of the youths in joining the Abu Sayyaf is to resolve the structural violence in the concerned areas,” he said during a recent youth consultation in this province.
“We are coming up with several programs to provide platforms for the youths to freely express themselves without resorting to violence,” he pointed out.
Some of the programs involve the training of young Moro people in arts, reeducating the correct Bangsamoro history, and increased interaction especially in social media.
With all these interventions, Kumar said “it is just a matter of time for the influence of the Abu Sayyaf to become no longer significant to the communities in this province.”
“There is a need to reach out to those young people in remote areas because they don’t have access to this information,” he said.