In-depth: Child Soldiers
IRAQ: Finding hope for former child fighters
Orphaned boys are vulnerable to extremist groups (file photo)
BAGHDAD, 14 June 2010 (IRIN) - Sheikh HM’s message to the teenagers gathered around him after Friday prayers at a Baghdad mosque was straightforward: “Islam is simple. Be a moderate Muslim and not an extremist one to win the love of God.”
The cleric, who gave only his initials for fear of retaliation, said the only way to win the war against terrorism and sectarianism in Iraq is to keep young people away from extremists.
In late 2007, al-Qaida in Iraq started to use women to gather intelligence, transport weapons and carry out suicide attacks, prompting authorities to recruit and train female guards at checkpoints to search for explosives hidden under their robes.
Trying to outwit these heightened security measures, Sunni insurgents shifted to recruiting teenagers to carry out attacks, as they raised no suspicion when approaching checkpoints and convoys.
“With the absence of governmental and non-governmental programmes to use the power of youths to build the country, we the clerics must take up the role of teaching children what is right and what is wrong to help those who are lost find a way out,” the sheikh said.
In 2008, al-Qaida formed the Paradise Birds organization to recruit and train children to carry out attacks on security forces and undertake suicide bombings, according to a senior anti-terrorism security official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
|A US army specialist examines a bomb attached to a simulated suicide bomber
“We don’t have a specific number for those children, but we are sure that there are a remarkable number of them, especially from remote villages, who are inspired by al-Qaida ideology,” the official said. “From interrogations, we found out that all these children either lost their loved ones in attacks or were forced into the organization by families who sympathize with al-Qaida.”
In 2008, Iraqi authorities showed a video seized in a raid north of Baghdad of a bunch of teenagers, some as young as 10, acting out mock kidnappings. Wearing soccer shirts and balaclavas, they ran around with guns, kicked down doors and pretended to attack and kidnap other boys.
In one clip, boys with ammunition belts draped across their chests were practising how to force a man off his bicycle and kidnap him. In another, the boys were seen pledging allegiance to al-Qaida in Iraq.
In April 2010, a 10-year-old boy was apprehended by security forces just before he tried to blow himself up with an explosive vest at a security checkpoint in Fallujah, about 660km west of the capital and the former stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq.
The boy, whose father was an al-Qaida fighter killed the year before, told interrogators that he started out by helping insurgents transport bombs and small weapons and then was forced to carry out a suicide bombing, Lieutenant Ahmed Subhi said.
The anti-terrorism official said would-be child suicide bombers are sent to juvenile detention centres where they are interrogated and then put through rehabilitation programmes before they are released. He said nine teenagers had carried out suicide attacks since early 2009 and nearly a dozen were caught before doing so.
Baghdad psychiatrist Ahmed Khalil Nassir said most of these children lived in remote areas and were from poor and uneducated families. This made it very difficult for health workers or officials to identify them or offer any form of rehabilitation after their release from juvenile custody.
“First, we have to make sure that all children in such areas are enrolled in schools to get a proper education in order not to be the prey of extremists; and second, there must be programmes for those who joined the insurgency and treatment based on the reasons that forced them to do so,” Nassir said.
“Without adequate programmes, those children will continue be an easy target for al-Qaida and those who get arrested and then released will not give up fighting,” he said.
Hanaa Adward, head of the Baghdad-based al-Amal NGO, said there were a few programmes conducted by the government and NGOs to rehabilitate child fighters and help them rejoin the society, but their effectiveness was limited.
“There are some government programmes to rehabilitate them inside detention centres, teaching vocations such as carpentry and metal-work, but the role of NGOs is still weak because of the rules the government imposes on NGOs when visiting these detention facilities,” Adward said.