Women and Children Taking Up Arms for ISIS in Marawi, Philippine Army Says

Smoke rises next to damaged buildings and houses, as government forces continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines, on June 21. Women and children are now taking up arms for ISIS in Marawi. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Women and children are taking up arms to fight for the cause of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, the military said on Monday.

The battle for the city between jihadis from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, both aligned with ISIS, and Philippine troops is ongoing after more than 100 days, and the army is making a drive to oust the fighters from their remaining pockets.

The military has recaptured key areas of the city on Mindanao island, including its main mosque, but dozens of militants are holding out in the dense urban environment. The depletion of its ranks has led to women and children taking up arms in what the military said was a last stand for the group.

"Our troops in the field are seeing women and children shooting at our troops, so that's why it seems they are not running out of fighters," Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, the regional military chief, told reporters, Reuters reported.

The Philippine army is employing both women and men in the battle to retake the city, but mostly male radical Islamist fighters have been waging the insurgency until now, according to the military.

In other areas of ISIS-held territory, the group has called upon women in the last throes of battle. In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, as Baghdad's forces neared liberation of the ISIS bastion, it released a wave of female suicide bombers to delay the advance.

ISIS has traditionally not welcomed the active combat role of women, referring to them only as "supporters" in its claims of responsibility, despite their committing attacks for the group's cause: bar Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter who led an attack in December 2015 in San Bernardino, California.

The earlier incarnation of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq, advocated for women to commit suicide attacks only "in circumstances where men cannot," its Minister of War Abu Hamza al-Muhajir said in 2008.

But women have taken an active role in the suicide operations for other insurgency groups, such as Chechnya's Black Widows, Al-Qaeda in Jordan, ISIS affiliate Boko Haram and Palestinian militant factions.

ISIS and its affiliates have used children in its propaganda campaign to shock audiences and further spread its message of brutality. The use of children in Marawi, if confirmed, is a shocking and new development in the jihadists' bid to maintain its grip on territory in the city.

In three months of fighting, hundreds of people—mostly militants—have been killed. Evidence has surfaced indicating that the jihadis besieging the city are not simply acting on the inspiration of ISIS and that the group's central command in Syria has been funneling funds to Southeast Asian militants to help the offensive.

The battle for Marawi, ongoing since May 23, represents the most significant capture of Asian territory by an ISIS-linked group, and the most notable since ISIS seized the Libyan central coastal city of Sirte in mid-2015. But the Philippine military remains confident that it can regain control of the entire city soon.

"We are now in the final phase of our operations and we are expecting more intense and bloody fighting. We may suffer heavier casualties as the enemy becomes more desperate," Galvez said.

The Philippine military is conducting airstrikes on a daily basis in the city, and the U.S. and Australian militaries are providing assistance in the battle to defeat the jihadists.

Abu Sayyaf's notorious leader, Isnilon Hapilon, is leading the campaign to take control of the city after a failed army raid to capture him in May. He is believed to be in hiding in the city, amid its dense urban sprawl of mosques, houses and buildings, some connected by tunnels.

Last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appeared on the front lines of the battle, firing a sniper rifle at the militants in a bid to show solidarity with his troops in what was a public act of force. A government statement said that Duterte "tried a sniper rifle and fired twice toward the direction of the terrorists."