Whether Islamic State or Boko Haram, children in conflict zones are easy prey for extremists

A 12-year-old child is believed to be behind the deadly attack at a Kurdish wedding party in Turkey that killed at least 51 people. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held Islamic State responsible for the bombing and said that either a suicide bomber, aged between 12 and 14 years, "detonated (the bomb) or others detonated it."

In war-torn countries, children are the first victims of violence. They are not just vulnerable to exploitation or abuse but are often used as human shields by extremist regimes. In the conflict zones of Syria, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Nigeria and Sudan, extremist groups have a history of using children as weapons and suicide bombers.

 Whether Islamic State or Boko Haram, children in conflict zones are easy prey for extremists

People gather after an explosion in Gaziantep, Turkey killed 51 of a wedding party. AP

Brooke Goldstein, a human rights attorney, author and filmmaker in an interview explains that groups like Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas are promoting the concept of 'martyrdom' to school children and recruiting them as suicide bombers. She says families are known to encourage children to become suicide bombers and become martyr as they are promised cash payments.

She says:

On top of it all, terrorist groups such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, who have each openly declared responsibility for recruiting children as suicide bombers, patrol the streets for their child victims. Children are being picked up, literally, from the classroom and sent out with explosives in under 48 hours! Some of the children that are preyed upon are those who have, for one reason or another, been marginalised.   

Islamic State (IS) videos have shown boys killing opponents through beheadings and shootings and they have deployed child suicide bombers to stage attacks in Iraq and Syria. According to AP, the group maintains an army of child soldiers, which it calls "cubs of the caliphate," and seeks to re-educate children at IS-run schools, indoctrinating them with their own radical version of Islam and exposing them to violent acts including beheadings as part of a concerted effort to build a new generation of militants.

The Guardian reported that the IS is recruiting children as "spies, preachers, soldiers, executioners and suicide bombers". The report states that children are either forced to join or kidnapped, and are given lessons on the Quran, use of weapons and combat tactics.

The Unicef in a recent report said that thousands of children have been abducted in Iraq. Girls are at the greatest risk of being sold into sexual slavery, while boys are often forced into becoming combatants or suicide bombers.

A report by the Combating Terrorism Center stated that the IS is recruiting children at an alarming rate. According to the report, "From 1 January, 2015, to 31 January, 2016, 89 children and youth were eulogised in Islamic State propaganda. Fifty one percent were alleged to have died in Iraq, while 36 percent died in Syria." It further stated that based on the sample size, 60 percent were categorised as 'Adolescent', 34 percent as 'Older Adolescent' and six percent 'Pre-Adolescent'.

Human rights groups and Unicef report a dramatic increase in Boko Haram's use of children as suicide bombers. In a report earlier this year, Unicef said one in five suicide attacks claimed by the militant group across Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad are now carried out by children. In Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said that since Boko Haram began its attacks in 2009, it has recruited hundred, and possibly thousands, of youngsters and used dozens, mostly girls, as suicide bombers.

In a BBC report, Unicef's Manuel Fontaine was quoted as saying, "As 'suicide' attacks involving children become commonplace, some communities are starting to see children as threats to their safety." UN report says that one in five Boko Haram suicide bombers has been a child and 75 percent of the children used were girls as they are believed to arouse less suspicion. The report added that these young girls are often drugged, and some are forced to marry Boko Haram fighters.

Even Al-Qaeda has a history of recruiting children and training them to be suicide bombers. The leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, used teenagers as suicide bombers to fight the American occupation in Iraq before he was killed in a US airstrike in 2006.

A PBS-Frontline report said that children as young as three years are indoctrinated. These children are recruited after the families are promised financial security. The report explains that since most of the families are large, they are willing to give up one of their child to the militants in exchange of money.

"They’ll tell children that if they become a martyr they won’t feel any pain at the moment of the explosion. They even go through the motions with the older kids of burying them alive to get used to the idea that they rise from the dead, or they shoot them with fake bullets to show that they’re invincible," Mia Bloom, a professor of communication at Georgia University, told PBS-Frontline. 

Recently, Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old from Aleppo, whose face covered in dust and blood became the face of the conflict-torn Syria. Last year, the haunting image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi's body lying face-down on a Turkish beach revealed the horror of the Syrian war. Through these images, the international community was forced to witness the tragic stories of Omran and Aylan. But there are scores of children who are being used as tools to propagate violence and war. Will their stories garner enough outrage and sympathy?

With inputs from AP

Updated Date: Aug 22, 2016 15:15:51 IST