August Issue 2009
From Suicide to Safety
Wearing smudged clothes and broken sandals, the boys looked haggard. Some of them fidgeted nervously with their soiled white skullcaps as they spoke about their ordeal at the Taliban camps where they were being trained to become suicide bombers.
“It was very tough there; occasionally, we had to train 16 hours a day,” said Abdul Wahab in a choked voice. The 15-year-old madrassa student was among the hundreds of boys who were lured by the Taliban into joining their camp. “I was told that it was the religious duty of every Muslim to secure training to fight the enemies of Islam,” Wahab said. He panicked when, a few days later, he was told that he was to become a suicide bomber.
Hundreds of children, some as young as 11, are increasingly being used by Islamic militants for suicide bombing, which has become the main weapon of terrorism in Pakistan, killing thousands of people every year. In most cases, children are coerced into the situation.
Murad Ali, aged 13, was studying in class five in a school in Mingora, when he was taken to a camp in Chuprial — a mountainous region in Swat which until recently was a stronghold of the Taliban. At first, he was thrilled when he was given a gun to fire. But his excitement vanished when he was informed about the next stage of his training. “My instructor told me that martyrdom earned the greatest reward from Allah,” said Ali, who has still not recovered from the shock. He started to cry when he was rescued.
The military offensive in Swat forced the Taliban to abandon the camp, bringing freedom to Ali and some of the 1,200 boys in the camp. Most of them were recruited after the Pakistan government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February this year, virtually handing over control of the scenic valley to the militants. The brief truce ended after the Taliban started advancing to the areas close to Islamabad. It was particularly traumatic for the parents when they discovered that their children had suddenly disappeared. “We did not have any clue as to where he went,” said Ali’s father, Mohammad Salman. In his mid ’40s, Salman runs a medical store in Mingora. He returned home a few days ago, after the military declared the town secure. “I was horrified when I was told that my son could be a suicide bomber,” he said.
According to a senior army officer, some 1,200 to 1,500 young boys were taken from Swat alone by the militants to turn them into suicide bombers. “We are trying to track them down,” said Brigadier Tahir, the commanding officer in Mingora. “We are not sure how many of them are still alive.”
Pakistani investigators said the boys were brainwashed by the Taliban, who told them that they would become martyrs and go to heaven directly after their death. “They were told that the Pakistani army had become an enemy of Islam, as it was fighting for Christians and Jews,” revealed a senior official involved in the interrogation of the potential suicide bombers who have now either surrendered or been captured by the security forces. The militants particularly chose young children as they could not be detected easily and would be able to reach the targets unnoticed.
On the day of the attack, the bomber would be taken to a mosque, where he was congratulated by his colleagues for being chosen by God to become a martyr. “Sometimes he was heavily drugged before he was sent on his suicide mission,” said an official. The trainees were told that they should not allow anyone, not even their parents, to stand in the way of jihad. “You must not even hesitate to kill your parents if they are on the wrong side,” said Khurshid Khan, aged 14, who was selected for advanced training, which could have taken him to South Waziristan — the lawless tribal region controlled by Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban’s movement. Pakistani intelligence officials revealed that 70% of the suicide bombers were trained at the camps run by Mehsud’s most trusted lieutenant, Qari Hussain. A ferocious militant commander, Hussain often boasted that through his lectures, he could convince anyone to become a suicide bomber in 10 minutes.
Once trained, the children could also be sold to other groups. “A young trained boy can fetch thousands of rupees,” said a Pakistani official. Many children trained at Hussain’s camp have carried out attacks on US and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. A recent UN report stated that 80% of the bombers involved in the attacks in Afghanistan came from camps in Pakistan.
A major challenge for the Pakistani officials is to rehabilitate the children who have been rescued. “We are trying to set up a rehabilitation centre for them where they will be treated by psychiatrists,” said Brigadier Tahir. “This will help them to resume normal life.”
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.