Earlier this week, Pakistani authorities announced they had rescued 20 young boys “who were among hundreds recruited by the Taliban and brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers at a secret indoctrination camp” in the Charbagh area of Swat Valley. Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, who heads a special support group tasked with handling the return of people displaced in Swat, told Al Jazeera, “They have been brainwashed and trained as suicide bombers, but the nine who I met seemed willing to get back to normal life…It seems that there are some 300 to 400 such children who the Taliban had taken forcibly or who they were training.”
The Independent reported the indoctrination program lasted more than a month, noting the rescued boys, “some as young as nine,” revealed details of how they were enticed to become part of the Taliban. Maj. Nasir Khan, a military spokesman in Swat, told reporters,
When we interrogated the boys, they said that they had been taken hostage by the Taliban by force, or in some cases they were taken to the training camps by their friends…They were heavily indoctrinated. When I asked them about what they were told, they said: ‘The Pakistan army is the ally of the Western capitalist world, they are the enemies of Islam. The fight against them is justified, they are apostates, the friends of the infidels.
Although media outlets reported the boys were taken either by force, lured by friends, or were kidnapped, the Washington Times earlier this month quoted U.S. officials, who said Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Beitullah Mehsud was also paying $7,000 to $14,000 for each child recruit, depending “on how quickly a bomber was needed and how close the child is expected to get to the target.”
After they were recruited, Taliban militants “would then gauge their levels of intelligence and physical strength before dividing the young boys into separate categories. The first group was used as local informers who would patrol the streets of the valley gathering information. One of the boys interrogated said he was given a pistol and told to monitor the Pakistan army’s troop movements. The more athletic recruits were selected to trained to become fighters and launch small-scale guerrilla attacks against the Pakistan army. According to the Independent, “those who were judged to be less intelligent and more susceptible to manipulation were chosen to join the Taliban’s stockpile of suicide bombers.”
The sad reality is that indoctrinating children to become soldiers is not a new phenomenon. According to Amnesty International, approximately 250,000 children under the age of 18 are thought to be fighting in conflicts around the world. Moreover, although many child soldiers are between the ages of 15 and 18 years of age, significant recruitment starting at the age of 10 and the use of even younger children has been recorded.
Children have been targeted because they can be easily manipulated and brainwashed by a group’s ideology. In Sierra Leone, this process was facilitated further by pumping child soldiers with “brown brown,” consisting mainly of amphetamines and cannabis and alcohol, all at once. Dr. Mike Wessells, a senior child protection adviser for the Christian Children’s Fund and a professor at Columbia University, noted that peer pressure, as well as a system of rewards and incentives, are often used to indoctrinate child soldiers in various conflicts. He added that some groups also use a very old psychological principle:
Most normal people are capable of doing quite violent acts if they are exposed progressively. You know, the way people learn to do torture is not by going in and applying electric shocks and doing horrible things out of the blue. No. First they are placed in a situation where they witness someone being interrogated, maybe next time they see the person being slapped. And maybe the next time they slap. In Columbia, it’s not uncommon for one of the rebel groups, one of the guerrilla groups called the FARC to take young people and to steel them to violence and to numb them to killing by having them murder their friend.
In the case of the Taliban in Pakistan, it seems that militants use their brand of religion as their main indoctrinating tool. Bashir Ahmed Bilour, an NWFP minister, told Al Jazeera, “They are prepared mentally. They say that Islam is everything for them. They say they are doing it for Islam. They say they have to carry suicide attacks for the sake of Islam…They are brainwashed to such an extreme that they are ready to kill their parents who they call infidels.” A senior official, who spoke with The Nation, echoed, “[The children] were told that the Pakistani Army has become an enemy of Islam, as it is fighting for Christians and Jews.”
In the PBS documentary Children of the Taliban, which aired in April, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy interviewed a thirteen year old boy, who was recruited into the Taliban at the age of 12. The boy described his haunting journey, “First it was the sermons at the mosque, then being recruited to a madrassa, and finally spending months in military training…They teach us to use a machine gun, Kalashnikov…Then they teach us how to do a suicide attack.” When Obaid-Chinoy asked if he’s like to carry out a suicide attack, the boy answered, “If God gives me strength.”
The reporter also interviewed Qari Abdullah, a Taliban commander responsible for recruiting children as young as five years old from poor families. He said, “Children are tools to achieve God’s will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it…The kids want to join us because they like our weapons.” In an article Wednesday in the Independent, Obaid-Chinoy describes one propaganda video, “Twenty-five children appear in a Taliban propaganda video wearing the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez. They sit cross- legged on the ground rocking back and forth reciting the Koran. A white bandana tied across their forehead, reads: “La illaha illala: There is no God but God”…Their teacher, dressed in brown military fatigues walks around reading aloud from a book titled Justifications for Suicide bombing…The text on the screen reads ‘Preparing suicide bombers.'”
While the rescue of these young boys is significant, the issue does not end there. The Independent reported that a special school is being established in Swat to rehabilitate, re-educate and counsel these children, but the government must take steps to address this problem in the long-term. According to some of the boys, more than 1,000 children may be undergoing training in the special camp in Swat. A rehabilitation program must therefore be able to accommodate not just the children who have been rescued, but the many more who are still in the camps. Moreover, although indoctrination methods vary from conflict to conflict, there are universal lessons that can be drawn from programs already instituted to rehabilitate child soldiers from other countries. Finally, it is vital that the government eliminates the root cause behind the Taliban’s recruitment of children – if militants provide financial incentives to poor families to send their children to these camps, the state must counter that strategy. Only then can these young boys hope to regain their lost innocence.