The video cannot quite avoid the impression of a childish game. The boy selected for the martyrdom operation, dressed in black, walks down a line of his young friends, embracing each one for the last time. The camera seems to be held at adult-height. It follows the bomber as he walks towards his target – another group of children. One of them tries to stop him, but he evades the security. A plume of dust is thrown up in the air in an uncanny simulation of an explosion. The bomber and his targets lie on the ground, pretending to be dead, trying to keep the smiles off their faces.
When this video popped up on the Internet earlier this year, many in Pakistan were deeply disturbed by the story it told of how children have become psychologically and physically involved in the violence in the country. According to Salma Jafar of Save the Children UK in Pakistan, ‘It’s horrifying and alarming. These children have become fascinated by bombers rather than condemning them. If they glamorise violence now, they can become part of it later in life.’
In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, hundreds of children have been among the civilian victims of ground fighting and air strikes. Suicide bombings were introduced to the war in Afghanistan in 2003 (during that year there were two such attacks), and became increasingly common after 2005. The tactic spread from there to Pakistan. During the Islamabad Red Mosque siege in 2007, mothers sympathetic to militancy dressed their children in suicide-bomber costumes, with fake bomb vests. An increasing number of children have been made to wear the real thing.
As many as 90 percent of suicide bombers in Pakistan are 12 to 18, according to editor and author Zahid Hussain. In July, a child bomber as young as nine was arrested while trying to cross from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Analysts say that a string of individual cases show that some of the child suicide bombers used in Afghanistan are recruited and trained in Pakistan before being sent – or sold – to be used in attacks across the border. The price of a child bomber, reportedly between USD 7000 and USD 14,000, depends on how close to the target they are expected to get.
Children are easier to indoctrinate or coerce. The ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan’s population (60 percent of Pakistanis are under 25), and the poor condition of state education in the country, offers the Taliban a practically inexhaustible pool of vulnerable boys to be turned into live ammunition. The would-be bombers being rehabilitated at the Sabawoon school, in Malakand (see accompanying piece by Iqbal Khattak), epitomise the typical profile of these children. According to Muhammad Farooq Khan, who taught at the school, they often come from large and extremely poor families in remote rural areas. (Khan was murdered in October last year. Unsurprisingly, many people working to rehabilitate indoctrinated children prefer to remain anonymous.) They lack positive male role models. Before they are lured away by extremists, most have had no experience of life outside their villages.
Most at the school were educated not at madrassas but at government schools. Despite widespread assumptions, several studies have shown that madrassa education is not the common path into militancy. Partly that is because madrassas account for but a small proportion of Pakistan’s schools. Meanwhile, the government sector often turns out barely educated children ill equipped to resist indoctrination.
Qurbani ka bakra
In the training camp, the children’s family ties are severed. They place their trust in alternative or surrogate sources of guidance and authority. Accounts of the indoctrination process agree that trainee bombers are systematically cut off from alternative sources of information. Religious teachings emphasise violent jihad and martyrdom.
The common term used by extremist clerics for these children is qurbani ka bakra, or ‘goats for sacrifice’. ‘Children are tools to achieve god’s will, and whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it,’ says to Qari Hussain, a former Taliban commander notorious for training bombers. Hussain is reported to have died in an American drone strike that killed around 80 people at a funeral in South Waziristan earlier this year.
In 2010 the Pakistan Army captured a facility, painted with scenes of paradise, where children were trained for suicide bombing. In contrast to the barren mountains all around, heaven was depicted with green hills and rivers of milk and honey. The virgins who are said to await martyrs lined the river banks. While adult bombers might experience some ‘existential grappling’ at the idea of their own death, if not at that of others, children might not be able to fully comprehend the end of their own lives, especially when the afterlife is presented as so close at hand.
Psychologists describe how children are malleable and impressionable; a person’s awareness of mortality and moral sense is absorbed during childhood. The trainers show them videos of purported atrocities against Muslims. They are offered a simple polarising narrative in which the US is both the enemy of Islam and an ally of the Pakistani state; likewise, the Pakistan Army is so tainted by association with the ‘infidel’ that it is scarcely seen as Muslim at all. Captured would-be bombers parrot the same line when they are asked about the ordinary Muslims who would be among their victims: Unless they are fighting against the enemies of Islam, ‘no one is innocent.’
What we see here is a 180-degree inversion of moral norms. ‘No matter who, no matter why, no one, at any point, has the right to use children as instruments of war and destruction. It is the most extreme form of abuse and an act of twisted cowardice to turn a child into a bomb,’ says Sarah Crowe, spokesperson for UNICEF South Asia. ‘Children are the very essence of humanity – using them as military tools brutalises humanity and criminalises their childhood. They have no place in any form in any conflict and it is the duty of all to do their utmost to protect children from acts of violence.’
Scholars of militancy point out that suicide attacks typically cause higher casualties and are therefore attractive for relatively weak contenders in asymmetric conflicts. They also prove not so much the fanatical determination of the perpetrators as their willingness to exploit others for their purpose. Suicide attacks generate more anxiety and a sense of helplessness, fear and disturbance in society compared to other methods – the more so if the bomber is a child or a woman. These effects help to generate intense media coverage. But some necessary conditions must be present before a suicide strategy will work. The perpetrator’s passive supporters in the wider population must be sufficiently polarised against the enemy that they are willing to support, or excuse, the tactic. Among the group’s active members, the radicalisation process must be so extreme that they are willing to participate, or to groom children, to carry out suicide attacks.
It is interesting, then, that while Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security claimed in June to be holding 100 would-be suicide bombers between the ages of 12 and 17, local militants denied the claim. ‘It’s our policy not to recruit children – in order to prevent vice in our ranks because most mujahideen are single men and spend a lot of their time away from their homes, so the policy is to avoid any child sexual abuse in our forces,’ a Taliban spokesperson was quoted as saying. In fact, accounts from captured child-bombers in Pakistan suggest that sexual abuse does sometimes occur in training camps.
Recent evidence from Afghanistan indicates that patterns of recruitment might be shifting. Lotfullah Mashal, spokesperson for the National Directorate of Security, told the UK Daily Telegraph in May that four young bombers recently captured at the border were all from the Pakistani city of Attock. ‘In the past we have had suicide attackers from Waziristan and Bajaur,’ Mashal said, ‘but this is the first time we have arrested child suicide attackers from the settled areas [the non-tribal areas] of Pakistan.’
Two recent cases in Pakistan also suggest that patterns could be changing. In June, two men in Karachi confessed to kidnapping children and selling them for terrorist training in Waziristan. In the same month, a nine-year-old girl was snatched on her way to school in Peshawar. A few days later her kidnappers changed her private-school uniform for a state-school one, strapped her with eight kilograms of explosives, and told her to push the button when she reached a police checkpost. The girl seemed to understand enough to raise an alarm, and the bomb was safely defused.
~ Thomas Bell is a freelance journalist in Kathmandu.