The Abu Sayyaf, particularly the group in Basilan, has apparently found fresh strength in its young recruits, military and civilian officials said.
This theory came to the fore following claims by soldiers wounded in the recent clashes in Mohammad Ajul town that they clashed with bandits estimated to be as young as 15.
In interviews with some of these soldiers, the Inquirer learned that the young Abu Sayyaf gunmen were "fearless".
"It's as if they do not die. They were aggressive in attacking us," Private First Class Mario Amancio, 27, one of the seven injured members of the 9th Scout Ranger Company (SRC) during last week's clashes in Mohammad Ajul, said.
Amancio said these young bandits, some barely out of their teens, were armed with high-powered rifles.
Private First Class Charlie Benoy, 24, also of 9th SRC, said in his years in the army, it was his first time to encounter such "fierce fighters."
"I had been into a lot of clashes but this was the worst. Maybe because the enemies were so young," he said.
Mohammad Ajul Mayor Talib Pawaki said they learned that Ustadz Abbas Alam, the local Abu Sayyaf leader who figured in the clashes, had been recruiting minors from as far as this city.
"The recruitment is done through social media," he said.
Zamboanga City Mayor Ma. Isabelle Salazar said the city government received similar information and this was being verified by the police.
But authorities needed the co-operation of parents to prevent their children from becoming bandits, according to Senior Supt. Angelito Casimiro, the city police director.
Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said the recruitment by the Abu Sayyaf of minors had become a major concern for the military.
"The more they recruit young people, the more dangerous for us because the enemies were getting more aggressive," he said.
In Cotabato City, the United Nations International Children's Fund has also launched the "Children, not Soldiers" awareness campaign.
Unicef country representative Lotta Sylwander said "No child under the age of eighteen should be engaged in any form of military activity or be involved with armed groups."
"We are all part in the Mindanao-wide campaign for peace, making sure that children have the chance to be strong and become a positive force for a brighter future and non-violent life," said Sylwander, as she led in the distribution of campaign materials to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other community leaders.
Like the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF was also once accused of using minors as fighters.
"Let us spread the message of peace by educating parents, elders, and MILF commanders the hazards of war among minors," said the Unicef official of the basic rights of children being violated.
Sylwander said through manipulation, young recruits were lured into early violence putting them at risk.
Sammy Al-Mansour, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces chief of staff, said the rebel group has a similar campaign also and this was intensified when MILF chair Murad Ebrahim signed a joint communique with then Unicef country representative Nicholas Alipui in June 2007.
It was followed with the UN-MILF Action Plan that he signed along with former Unicef country head Vanessa Tobin and UN representative Jacqui Badcock in August 2009, he said.
"Yes, the BIAF is fully committed to abide to its obligation under the international humanitarian law and international human rights law, specifically on the convention of the rights of children as embodied in UN Security Council Resolutions 1539 and 1612 that mandate involved parties to prepare action plans to halt recruitment and use of children in any military-related activities," Al-Mansour said. Julie Alipala and Charlie Señase