While it may seem that Islamic suicide attacks are a distinctly “modern” phenomenon, there is actually a long tradition of such warfare in the Philippines. Known as the Juramentados, these attackers would rush groups of enemies with erect penises and razor-sharp swords and kill as many as possible in their final, frenzied moments of life.
During Spanish actions against Moro fighters and in later American campaigns, these attacks were a constant threat, particularly in Sulu.
In fact, they were so effective that the concept of “stopping power” was invented, and the US Army upgraded its firearms to at least .45 calibre ammunition.
Their name comes from the Spanish ‘juramenar’ meaning ‘one who takes an oath’.
The ceremony to prepare a man for “the path to paradise” (Parrang Sabbil) was similar to burial rituals. This was quite fitting, as this is what would soon happen anyway.
First they would bathe in a river, ritually facing north, south, east and west. Then they would shave off their hair, and trim their eyebrows into the shape of “a moon two days old”.
After the cleansing, they would wrap tight cords around their ankles, knees, upper thighs, wrists, elbows and shoulders. These would act as a tourniquet and prevent them from bleeding to death too quickly.
Oddly, they also bound their penis in cords to keep it erect. Nobody knows why — but if you’re getting ready to meet 72 virgins as a reward for martyrdom, you may as well be prepared.
After this long and complex ritual, the Juramentado would don a pure white gown and turban and choose their weapon.
These would usually be the leaf-shaped Barong or Kris – a weapon with wavy blade patterns also known as a Kalis.
All that remained was to find a group of enemies, and rush in shouting “La ilaha il-la’l-lahu” (“There is no god but Allah”) and kill as many as possible.
In numerous reports, they could be peppered with bullets before going down — at least until .45 calibre guns became standard issue.
However, there were other ways to combat the Juramentados that exploited their beliefs – an early form of psychological warfare.
In 1983, American journalist Daniel Mannix released a version of the autobiography of his father, Rear Admiral Daniel Mannix.
The book, called The Old Navy: The Glorious Heritage of the U.S. Navy, Recounted through the Journals of an American Patriot, included the following paragraph: “What finally stopped the Juramentados was the custom of wrapping the dead man in a pig’s skin and stuffing his mouth with pork. As the pig was an unclean animal, this was considered an unspeakable defilement.”
It is believed this practice, which blocked the believer’s “path to paradise”, is what killed off the juramentados. The very last cases of Juramentado attacks were recorded in the early decades of the last century.
It is to be hoped that as groups like Abu Sayyaf continue to draw inspiration from the so-called Islamic State and seek new ways to spread terror, they won’t look too closely at this chapter of Moro history.