Reintegrating Former Terrorist Combatants in Mindanao
This study examines the combatant surrender programme in the Philippines and its impact on reducing terrorism in the country. The Philippines’ government initiated the combatant surrender programme in 2018, and from 2020 to 2022, there were high rates of terrorist surrenders. As of May 2023, more than 1,600 IS-linked combatants have surrendered to the government. Against this backdrop, this paper explores the motivations of terrorists in the Philippines, many of whom are not ideologically radicalised, but rather born into violence or coerced into insurgency. Additionally, the paper analyses the terminologies used for surrendered combatants and the rehabilitation and reintegration efforts by local civil society organisations (CSOs). The paper also highlights the fiscal sustainability concerns of the combatant surrender programme, and potential alternatives to sustain the programme if the government is unable to continue funding it. The research concludes by emphasising the effectiveness of the programme in reducing terrorism in the Philippines and the importance of continued government support for the programme’s fiscal sustainability.
During the COVID-19 period (2020-2022), violent terrorist activities in Mindanao, southern Philippines reduced significantly. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have taken out notable terrorist leaders, overrun terrorist sanctuaries, and implemented effective resource control operations to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining essential resources. Consequently, it has been observed that a large number of combatants were offered livelihood support in exchange for surrender. The charts below display the number of combatants who surrendered to the government over time, based on public information collated in the Southeast Asia Militant Atlas. In 2022, a total of 1,614 combatants, primarily from the Dawlah Islamiyah Sulu and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), surrendered to the AFP (see Chart 1).
Chart 1: Number of Surrendered Combatants in Mindanao
Given the changing nature of Mindanao’s threat landscape, local governments in various municipalities have enhanced their support in rehabilitating and reintegrating former militant combatants. The Philippines government has recently begun consultation for their National Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (NAP PCVE) to institutionalise the mechanisms for reintegrating former combatants into society. This paper outlines the potential reasons for combatant surrender, explains the whole-of-society approach adopted by the Philippines government, and the challenges of the reintegration programmes.
Why do Combatants Surrender?
The Philippines government launched the programme to encourage combatants to surrender in 2018. Based on the authors’ discussions in Mindanao, the local government has played a key role in encouraging combatants to return to their communities. The AFP have worked closely with local elected officials to reach out to combatants through the combatants’ families to surrender.
There is an assumption that rank-and-file members naturally intend to surrender. There are three mechanisms that explain this phenomenon, namely, pocketbook maximisation, aging-out and socialisation. These three mechanisms are consistent with the recent study published by the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP).
The pocketbook maximisation hypothesis claims that insurgents are rational actors and would evaluate the costs and benefits of staying in the group vis-à-vis leaving the insurgency. This hypothesis would account for factors like battle fatigue, starvation, fear of being arrested and any benefits accorded to the combatants after they lay down their arms. Physical safety is another factor to consider, because insurgent groups are not forgiving towards ‘traitors’ in their organisation.
Another aspect of the pocketbook maximisation hypothesis relates to whether the insurgents were given a real opportunity to lay down their arms, and if they did so in a dignified manner. Hence, former combatants are not referred to as “surrenderees” in the halfway houses and communities. In Sulu, Basilan and Lanao, former combatants are referred to as “returnees”, as they have returned to their communities. In Pagadian, former NPA combatants are referred to as “friends rescued”, indicating that the military has rescued the combatants from their trials and tribulations. It is precisely because the term “surrender” is not used that some contest the authenticity of surrendered combatants.
It is important to highlight that the practice of not referring to the surrendered as surrenderees is common. Ramakrishna maintains that militants must be accorded dignity for their successful surrender. Hence, former combatants in any conflict theatre have never confessed that they have surrendered. Despite the absence of a confession, the act of forgoing armed struggle, accepting rehabilitation and receiving governmental aid is a good enough indicator that the combatants have psychologically lost the will to continue fighting.
The second hypothesis relates to combatants aging-out of insurgencies. This hypothesis draws heavily from the theory of desistance from gang membership and has three components. First, individuals age-out of violence with psychosocial maturity. This theory is consistent with the “youth bulge” hypothesis, which states that young unemployed males are likelier to participate in violent movements. The psychosocial maturity hypothesis explains that this phenomenon is the result of the underdeveloped cognitive functions of younger persons. Hence, people who join violent organisations probably have yet to develop cognitive functions to control impulses and express consideration for others. Thus, as their cognitive functions develop, they would leave violent organisations if they were given the opportunity to. Second, individuals may undergo identity transformation and thereby have a different outlook and goals in life. Proponents of this hypothesis claim that criminals tend to blame their circumstances and lack agency. Desistance would only happen if they took ownership of their lives and made practical steps towards change. This process could be motivated by identifying a possible future and a fear of relapsing. Finally, individuals may be disillusioned with their intended cause and drop out of the movement.
The final hypothesis claims that insurgents socialise out of insurgencies and involves the substitution of the individuals’ anti-social networks with pro-social groups. Anti-social networks refer to negative peer influences that are associated with activities that disrupt society or contribute to social fragmentation. Pro-social groups, on the other hand, are groups that foster positive influence in the community. These groups create a supportive environment and help mould an alternative identity for the participants in the group. Fundamentally, exposure to pro-social groups allows individuals to leave violent social movements. Therefore, elements like improved family support and exposure to social networks beyond the insurgency have been cited as important pathways out of the insurgent movement. In the Mindanao insurgency, the AFP report cited the approachability of the AFP as a trust-building mechanism to encourage combatants to surrender. There is also the social contagion effect, claiming that people leave organisations when their peers do. This is consistent with observations in Mindanao, as combatants rarely surrender alone.
Roles of the Local Government and Civil Society
The local government and civil society play a tremendous role in reintegrating combatants into society. For instance, the Preventing Against Violent Extremism (PAVE) programme – which was first conceptualised and implemented in Basilan, and then replicated in Sulu – aims to reintegrate former combatants into society through a holistic approach that encompasses the efficient delivery of public goods, community engagement and financial assistance. The AFP have complemented PAVE with their own Broad Reforms in Addressing Violent Extremism (BRAVE) programme to promote psychological resilience and provide intervention for returnees and their victims. These programmes are further strengthened by Basilan’s award-winning initiative, Advancing and Sustaining the Gains of Good Governance (AS2G CARE), which provides returnees with psychosocial intervention and skills training.
Through these programmes, returnees return to their families but are strictly monitored through mandatory regular psychosocial deradicalisation programmes and vocational education. These programmes ensure that former combatants are self-sufficient before they are reintroduced into the community, and would thus not be financially coerced into terrorism and insurgency.
Based on the authors’ ground observations, one of the problems former combatants face is psychological trauma and emotional management. Due to the constant stress of battle and avoiding the authorities, former combatants develop a “survivor’s mentality” that requires the individual to be self-sufficient. Moreover, it appears common for former combatants to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and to have problems with emotional regulation and social etiquette, because they have been living in the jungles of Mindanao and do not have much experience in socialising with society.
Balay Mindanaw, a CSO operating in Basilan, runs a host of programmes to enrich life beyond combat. In the case of Abu Sayyaf combatants, literacy is an issue as many returnees do not know how to read or write. Balay Mindanaw provides elementary education to returning combatants in Basilan before giving them scholarships to pursue high school diplomas. Psychosocial rehabilitation is also provided to returnees to address their trauma and trust issues. Finally, Balay Mindanaw brings former combatants to cities like Manila to show them that “there is more to life than fighting the government”.
Another CSO-led initiative introduces former combatants to the potential of leading a “good life”. Launched in Pagadian, southwest Mindanao, the holistic Good Life Programme is co-organised by the governor of Zamboanga and the 53rd Infantry Battalion, and seeks to rehabilitate former combatants from the trauma of combat and equip them with vocational skills to be farmers and electricians. Former NPA combatants are also tried for their involvement in terrorism, and kept at a halfway house within a military compound for rehabilitative purposes during the period of their incarceration. This ensures that former combatants do not abscond from justice, while providing them with the opportunity to rehabilitate and preparing them to reintegrate into society.
Despite efforts by local governments and CSOs to reintegrate former combatants, there remain concerns within the larger community. One of the major challenges faced by local governments and CSOs is preparing the community to accept rehabilitated combatants into society.
The local community may be unfamiliar with rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, and could potentially misrepresent the efforts of local governments and CSOs. This unfamiliarity with reintegration programmes may cause them to feel that their personal safety is at risk.
There are also concerns among the victims and survivors of violence perpetrated by terrorist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf. The families of fallen victims have not reconciled the loss of their kin with the acceptance of former combatants into their community. Understandably, they have mildly protested the local government’s decision to reintegrate former combatants back into the community.
It is therefore essential for local governments and CSOs to engage in relationship-building with local communities to ensure they understand the intent of the reintegration initiatives as well as their execution and efficacy.
The Philippines has made substantial efforts to encourage combatants to return to their communities through the implementation of comprehensive support packages for former combatants. However, ensuring the fiscal sustainability of these initiatives is crucial to maintain their effectiveness and reach in the long run.
The Philippine government has shown its commitment to addressing violent extremism by providing former combatants with incentives to surrender and reintegrate into society. The support packages include financial assistance, basic literacy education, vocational training and housing support in some cases.
However, as the number of beneficiaries grows, so does the financial burden on the government. The cost of providing these wide-ranging support packages is substantial, raising concerns about their fiscal sustainability. Given the economic health of the Philippines, it is crucial to assess the government’s capacity to fund these programmes in the long term, without compromising other essential services and development projects.
In this regard, maintaining political will and securing support from various stakeholders is crucial for the success and fiscal sustainability of these programmes. Hence, it is critical for the government to address fiscal sustainability concerns. Beyond support from the federal government, local stakeholders must develop innovative funding strategies and secure long-term financial support for these programmes. Potential solutions could include public-private partnerships, international aid and grants, and community-based funding mechanisms. By diversifying funding sources and collaborating with various stakeholders, the financial future of these vital programmes can be safeguarded.
The combatant surrender programme in the Philippines has been a significant step towards reducing terrorism in the country. Since its initiation in 2018, the programme has seen high rates of terrorist surrenders, with a total of 1,614 IS-linked combatants having surrendered to the government to date.
The rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-combatants have been the focus of local CSOs in the Philippines, who share a cultural closeness with the ex-combatants. Additionally, a whole-of-government approach has been adopted to rehabilitate and reintegrate ex-combatants, which is a positive step towards their successful reintegration into society.
While the combatant surrender programme has been successful in reducing terrorism in the Philippines, lingering community concerns about the ex-combatants’ re-entry into society and concerns about fiscal sustainability must be consciously addressed.
About the Authors
Nurhati Tangging has been involved in the reintegration programme of former combatants in southern Philippines for almost seven years, and has worked in both the public and private sectors. She was the Area Manager of the Balay Mindanaw Foundation, Inc. and an Executive Assistant in the Office of the Regional Governor (ARMM). She can be reached at [email protected].
Kenneth Yeo is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected].
Thumbnail photo by Hitoshi Namura on Unsplash
 Kenneth Yeo et al., Southeast Asia Militant Atlas, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, 2021, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/research/icpvtr/southeast-asia-militant-atlas/.
 Najwa Indanan Uñga, “The Surrender of Islamist Militants in Mindanao: Why They Left the Abu Sayyaf, BIFF, and Dawlah Islamiyah,” National Defense College of the Philippines Executive Policy Brief, No. 2023–02 (2023), https://www.ndcp.edu.ph/the-surrender-of-islamist-militants-in-mindanao-why-they-left-the-abu-sayyaf-biff-and-dawlah-islamiyah-2/.
 Moibe F. Olitres, Beyond the Surface: Psychology of Terrorist and A Basis for Soft Power Approach for Friends Rescued (Quezon City, Philippines: Teramag Publishing, 2022).
 Kumar Ramakrishna, “Content, Credibility and Context: Propaganda, Government Surrender Policy and the Malayan Communist Terrorist Mass Surrenders of 1958,” Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1999).
 Lionel Beehner, “The Effects of Youth Bulge on Civil Conflicts,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, April 13, 2007, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/effects-youth-bulge-civil-conflicts.
 Ellen Greenberger and Aage B. Sørensen, “Toward A Concept of Psychosocial Maturity,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 3, No. 4 (1974), pp. 329-358; Michael Rutter, “Age as an Ambiguous Variable in Developmental Research: Some Epidemiological Considerations from Developmental Psychopathology,” International Journal of Behavioral Development, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1989), pp. 1-34; Richard Restak, The Secret Life of the Brain (New York: Joseph Henry Press, 2001).
 Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth Cauffman, “Maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Psychosocial Factors in Adolescent Decision Making,” Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1996), pp. 249-272; Elizabeth Cauffman and Laurence Steinberg, “(Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable than Adults,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law, Vol. 18, No. 6 (2000), pp.741-760.
 Peggy C. Giordano et al., “Gender, Crime, and Desistance: Toward a Theory of Cognitive Transformation,” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 107, No. 4 (2002), pp. 990-1064; Ray Paternoster and Shawn Bushway, “Desistance and the ‘Feared Self’: Toward an Identity Theory of Criminal Desistance,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 99 (2009), pp.1103-1156.
 Tore Bjørgo, “Dreams and Disillusionment: Engagement in and Disengagement from Militant Extremist Groups,” Crime, Law and Social Change, Vol. 55 (2011), pp. 277-285; Julie Chernov Hwang, “The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists: Understanding the Pathways,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2017), pp. 277-295.
 Mark Warr, “Life‐course Transitions and Desistance from Crime,” Criminology, Vol. 36, No. 2 (1998), pp.183-216; Beth M. Huebner et al., “Gangs, Guns, and Drugs: Recidivism Among Serious, Young Offenders,” Criminology & Public Policy, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2007), pp.187-221.
 Uñga, “The Surrender of Islamist Militants in Mindanao.”
 “Advancing and Sustaining the Gains of Good Governance (BasilanProvince) 2022,” Galing Pook, YouTube video, February 8, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5IgAyNABtg; “Basilan Program Helps Reintegrate Rebel Returnees | The Final Word,” CNN Philippines, YouTube video, December 16, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VSVL1bJUM4.
 Although the bill was introduced to combat Communist insurgents, the initiative was adopted by local governments to deal with Dawlah Islamiyah insurgents. See Office of the President, Institutionalising the Whole-of-Nation Approach in Attaining Inclusive and Sustainable Peace, Creating a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, and Directing the Adoption of a National Peace Framework, Executive Order No. 70 (2018), https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2018/12dec/20181204-EO-70-RRD.pdf.
 While Dr Moibe’s book describes the trauma experienced by NPA returnees, similar experiences were also articulated by Abu Sayyaf returnees. See Olitres, Beyond the Surface: Psychology of Terrorist and a Basis for Soft Power Approach for Friends Rescued.
 Moibe F. Olitres, “Understanding the Psychology of a Terrorist”, in Beyond the Surface: Story of Resilience and Redemption (Quezon City, Philippines: Teramag Publishing, 2022), pp. 26-48.
 See Section 11 and 12, Department of National Defense et al., Implementing Rules and Regulations of Administrative Order No. 10 S. 2018, 2018, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2018/05may/20180517-IRR-AO-10-RRD.pdf.
 An immediate assistance of PHP 15,000 (US$260) will be provided for each returnee. The unit receiving the returnees will receive PHP 21,000 (US$370) per returnee to defray overhead costs such as meals, registration of identification cards and other administrative matters. Each returnee receives PHP 50,000 (US$890) of livelihood assistance. Returnees will also be compensated for the firearms they return at market value. In total, returnees receive US$1,550 in direct cash assistance. They will also receive healthcare insurance for one year. See Section 11, Department of National Defense et al., Implementing Rules and Regulations of Administrative Order No. 10 S. 2018.