MANILA – The Philippines has officially adopted a strategy to prevent and counter violent extremism as officials seek to avoid a repeat of one of the country’s most prominent acts of terrorism in recent history, the May 2017 siege of Marawi City by pro-Islamic State fighters.
Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said Wednesday that the government’s Anti-Terrorism Council has approved the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (NAP PCVE), with the Department of the Interior and Local Government tasked to lead its implementation.
“We have to take care of our population, especially in some areas, so that there will no longer be terrorists in the future,” Esperon said in a forum organized by the government in the lead-up to President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address on Monday.
“The PCVE will take care of potential terrorists” by addressing sectors in society where they are likely to breed, including certain communities, schools or learning institutions, jails and social media, he added.
Other groups to be focused on are Filipinos working overseas especially those who go to certain countries where they can become radicalized, and religious leaders who have a big influence on ordinary people, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said.
According to Ano, who was the military chief during the destructive, five-month battle in Marawi, which suppressed the IS-allied fighters’ plan to establish a caliphate there, social media are included because they are “where almost 90 percent of recruitment takes place.”
Esperon, who is also a retired military chief, noted that over the last several years, including during the Marawi siege, “many of our programs use military force … or kinetic forces” wherever terrorists are.
The Philippines is a signatory nation to the United Nations Office for Counter-Terrorism, established in 2017, so adoption of the NAP PCVE will fortify the nation’s approach to addressing the problem of terrorism.
Esperon said recent incidents underscore the relevance of the measure.
Security authorities confirmed the first case of a Filipino radical committing a suicide bombing. The bomber blew himself up during an attack at a Philippine Army camp in the southern island province of Sulu on June 28.
The incident left two bombers, three soldiers and two civilians dead, while 12 soldiers and 10 civilians were wounded.
“You saw in Jolo the Filipino suicide bomber. At the age of 14, he left his home. They said he was battered. If he was battered and left his home, where did he go? Who looked after him? Who takes care of those people who can possibly become terrorists?” Esperon said.
“If we don’t prevent that, then, there will be more violent extremists. And what’s scary is, they can even become suicide bombers, even when it’s not the character of Filipinos to commit suicide.”
Aside from curbing would-be terrorists, the action plan can also be a tool for de-radicalization, Ano said.
“Through the NAP PCVE, we will work with religious leaders, Imams and Muftis to mainstream their teachings and sermons, and help de-radicalize the youth who are the common targets for recruitment by radical groups,” he told Kyodo News.
“Likewise, through NAP PCVE, de-radicalization programs are also being implemented in all detention centers so that radical detainees would become responsible citizens once they are released,” he added.
In one of the country’s jails, where a number of suspected violent extremists awaiting trial are being detained, an education program called Alternative Learning System has been implemented by the warden, Michelle Bonto, as a tool for de-radicalization.
“There is a need to address education because most research on extremism states that education is the key to helping them understand, to open up their horizons,” Bonto told Kyodo News in an interview at her assigned jail facility located in a Metro Manila suburb.
“We teach them how to comprehend first so that they will be able to value what we give them, whatever modular programs we have, or reformation programs we have,” she said.
At the time of the interview in June, Bonto’s facility had 351 detainees, including alleged members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, Jemaah Islamiyah, Rajah Solaiman Movement, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Maute Group.
Humane treatment of the detainees by jail officers and visits by family members, are also keys to helping change the antigovernment feelings and attitude of suspected violent extremists, said Bonto.
“It’s not easy (to de-radicalize) because radicalization takes time. Therefore, de-radicalization will also take time. And we also have push-and-pull factors, like the family of terrorists.”
“So, it’s important that when you de-radicalize a person that you include the entire family,” she explained, drawing her insight from years of research and actual engagement with alleged violent extremists.
Esperon said an Executive Order from Duterte’s office regarding the NAP PCVE is expected after its adoption by the Anti-Terrorism Council “if only to delineate responsibilities,” and to give “authority to secure funding” for its full implementation.
But, as it stands now, some action plans are already being implemented by the respective agencies designated for the vulnerable sectors that have been identified.
“There will be a series of consultations with all stakeholders nationwide, inclusive of all government agencies, civil society organizations, private citizens and nongovernmental organizations, to gather input,” Ano said.
Esperon said that while many lessons regarding violent extremism have been learned locally, the Philippines will also follow the examples of other countries, including Jordan, Indonesia and Malaysia, to more effectively prevent and counter it.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who also spoke at last Wednesday’s forum, expressed hope that the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will help eradicate “this scourge.”
“We are trying to solve this not only militarily, but also by involving the communities, the traditional leaders, the Ulamas, to prevent this extremism among our people. With the (autonomous region) in place, we can bring in development in these areas so that people will have something to do, and not enter into criminal activities,” Lorenzana said.