Skip to main content

New terror weapon: Little girls?

By Mia Bloom and John Horgan
January 7, 2014 -- Updated 2023 GMT (0423 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Reports of 10-year-girl in Afghanistan intent on suicide bombing is a first
  • Not unusual for children to be groomed for martyrdom, they say, but Taliban deny practice
  • Writers: Children are often in the dark about their assignments
  • Writers: Families, communities must guard against children falling under sway of extremists

Editor's note: Mia Bloom and John Horgan are professors of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. They have been traveling to Pakistan to conduct research on children's involvement in terrorism. Follow them on Twitter: @Drjohnhorgan and @miambloom.

(CNN) -- Disturbing reports are emerging from Afghanistan that a 10-year-old girl named Spozhmai was pre-empted from carrying out a suicide bombing attack against a police station in Khanshin.

Though Taliban forces are already deploying female operatives in a limited capacity, it was the first report of a young girl who was groomed for martyrdom. It represents the latest development in a long history of terrorist organizations' use of children.

BBC reports suggest the girl is the sister of a Taliban commander. This is not unexpected.

Indeed multiple Islamist groups specifically recruit within their own families. In Chechnya and Dagestan, we have seen sisters, brothers and cousins involved in terrorist operations, sometimes together. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, various Taliban units have engaged in targeted recruitment of pairs of siblings.

Mia Bloom
Mia Bloom
John Horgan
John Horgan

In our research over the past year into children being groomed for terrorist activity in Pakistan, several of the youth we encountered undergoing de-radicalization and preparation for reintegration via the Sabaoon facility (Pakistan's rehabilitation facility for child militants) were recruited by relatives in the Pakistani Taliban.

In almost all cases we have studied, the child recruits were genuinely unaware of what they were being asked to do -- what such operations could entail. Those who were aware displayed serious hesitation and were often given drugs by their recruiters to help them to comply. Some of the children changed their minds at the last minute and thus found refuge at Sabaoon.

Duping children into carrying out a suicide attack is not a new tactic. In June 2007 in the southern Afghan province of Ghazni, the Taliban failed to deceive a 6-year-old boy, Juma Gul, into being a suicide bomber. Putting the vest on him, the Taliban repeatedly told him that "flowers and food would appear once he pressed the button."

Walking toward his target, Juma hesitated. He decided not to press the button and instead called out for help from nearby Afghan National Army soldiers, who deactivated the device on his body.

Children trained for suicide attacks
Poll: Afghanistan War support at new low

The incident was a watershed. Abdul Rahim Deciwal, the chief administrator for Juma's village of Athul, brought the boy and his brother to meet with the village elders, who expressed strong disapproval of the tactic and even began cooperating with NATO forces to weed out the Taliban.

Incidents such as these would appear to indicate that Taliban fighters are adopting the strategies of Iraqi insurgents, who have been known to use children to disguise bomb-laden vehicles or dupe drivers into carrying improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, at times without their knowledge. In those cases, the would-be bombers are detonated by remote control.

This week's report of the attempted attack did not include a remote control detonator, and the 10-year-old girl was unsuccessful in executing the mission of those who deployed her. Afghan security forces, however, have long been aware of this particularly insidious tactic.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi has denied the group used child fighters, disclosing at the time of the Juma Gul incident that the Taliban had hundreds of adults ready for suicide missions. "We don't need to use a child," he said. "It's against Islamic law, it's against humanitarian law. This is just propaganda against the Taliban."

Such statements are easily disputed.

For example, in the publicly released documents seized from his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound, Osama bin Laden acknowledged that "most of the work in Afghanistan (has) turned to the goal of luring and preparing the youth."

More recently, in November, there were media reports that Afghan police had pre-empted a 12-year-old bomber in the Panjwai district of Kandahar; the child was allegedly wearing an explosive vest en route to a local girls' school.

When children are forced into terrorism, they become victimized and traumatized by their experiences in the process. In turn, they exploit and victimize others. Many remain in the movement until adulthood and beyond. And it's not just in their home countries: Efforts to groom children and adolescents as a future generation of militants has also been uncovered in diaspora communities within the United States and the UK.

Perhaps the most well-known case in recent times has been the disappearance of some 17 Somali-American adolescent boys and young men from Minneapolis.

Jonathan Evans, former director-general of the British Security Service, or MI5, warned that al Qaeda is targeting vulnerable youth -- even the very young -- in such communities as terrorist recruits, underscoring the need to protect children everywhere from exposure to violent extremism. Evans explained: "They are (radicalizing), indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism. This year, we have seen individuals as young as 15 and 16 implicated in terrorist-related activity."

Such realities pose serious challenges to countering violent extremism, especially when most efforts today place firm emphasis on undermining the allure of troublesome ideologies. Most of the children are not recruited on ideological grounds, and in cases where some children do appear to be under some ideological influence, it is clear they do not understand it.

Whether for children recruited by the Pakistani Taliban, or young Somalis recruited in Minneapolis, there is a critical role to be played by families and communities in protecting young children from being vulnerable to the clutches of violent extremists.

These efforts cannot be limited to a frame of counterterrorism. This is a challenge of basic child protection.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mia Bloom and John Horgan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT