More than four decades of continuous conflict has made Mindanao a region of war widows.
At least nine women, including the three daughters of the acting Abu Sayyaf Group leader, have been arrested in a series of raids, the Philippines military said on Tuesday, as the government steps up efforts to go after armed fighters accused of carrying out a string of deadly bombings in the southern province of Sulu.
The Joint Task Force Sulu said in a statement that weapons and bomb-making materials were seized from the women, who the government described as “potential suicide bombers”.
“This is how desperate the remaining terrorists are, willing to sacrifice their families just to get back at government forces,” Major General William Gonzales, the military task force commander, was quoted by news reports as saying on Tuesday.
Gonzales pledged government troops would “continue to exhaust” all options “to put an end to terrorism here in this province.”
The suspects are facing charges of illegal possession of explosives.
Gonzales did not say how the investigators were able to determine that the women were planning a suicide attack.
But Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Corleto Vinluan later told reporters that the women had undergone an “orientation” programme on suicide bombing and were assembling explosives in their homes.
“They are using wives and widows now because they are having a hard time recruiting men, and it is more difficult to identify and detect the female suicide bombers,” Vinluan was quoted by news reports as saying.
Earlier this month, at least four Abu Sayyaf members surrendered to authorities, the military said, bringing to almost 100 the number of fighters who have turned themselves in over the last year.
The military said three of the female suspects arrested were the daughters of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, identified as the acting Abu Sayyaf “emir”, who has also pledged allegiance to the ISIL (ISIS) group.
Two of them were arrested in Sulu’s Patikul town on Friday, followed by a separate raid that nabbed the third sister, Elena, who is the widow of another Abu Sayyaf sub-commander named Walid Abun.
The military said Elena was also accompanied by another woman, whose husband was also killed in an encounter between the Abu Sayyaf and government forces.
One photo provided by the military showed three of the female suspects with their faces blurred and one of them was carrying a toddler.
Sawadjaan has been blamed for masterminding several suicide attacks in Sulu.
Authorities in Sulu arrest several women, some of whom are supposedly related to Abu Sayyaf bandits & tagged as "potential suicide bombers," following "intelligence-driven" operations this week. The military says bomb-making materials were also seized 📷JTF Sulu | @cnnphilippines pic.twitter.com/iafLSFf11L
— David Y. Santos (@davidyusantos) February 23, 2021
Separate operations in recent days also nabbed five other female suspects, the military said.
Recovered from the suspects were improvised explosive device components such as switches, batteries, pipes, concrete nails, blasting caps as well as materials for detonation. Photos of the bombing materials and identification cards of the suspects were also published by the military, and circulated on social media.
In August 2020, two suspected female suicide bombers blew themselves up in Jolo, the capital city of Sulu, killing at least 15 military personnel and injuring dozens.
In early 2019, suicide bombers also blew themselves up killing more than 20 people inside the city’s Catholic Cathedral.
Sulu is known as the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has long been battling for independence in the southern region of Mindanao.
The group regard Mindanao as their ancestral homeland dating back to the pre-Spanish colonial period.
But the group is also notorious for kidnappings, robberies and deadly bombings.