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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT