Over the weekend, Pahjwok (via the AfPak Daily Brief) reported that police detained three alleged girl suicide bombers in Islamabad, “while two teenaged girl would-be suicide bombers surrendered to police in the troubled Swat valley.” The two girls, identified as Rabia and Arfa, revealed to reporters that they had been trained by militants associated with Mullah Fazlullah (the firebrand Swati cleric nicknamed the “Radio Mullah“). 14 year old Rabia noted, “During our training as suicide bombers, we have been told to believe that we would go immediately and straight to the heaven after carrying out suicide attacks in reward for this great service to Islam.” The news agency reported:
The girls said they changed their minds after coming to know that it was a wrong path to go and Fazlullah and his men were involved in torching schools and destroying bridges. She revealed dozens of girls like them fall prey to Taliban’s hands and the militants use them for suicide bombings. She appealed to all would-be suicide bombers not to carry out their attacks on the behalf of Fazlullah and his allies because such attacks result in killing of innocent people and their Muslim brethrens.
The News’ Rahimullah Yusufzai framed the two girls’ statements to the press in light of two other media events organized by Pakistani security forces on Saturday – the press conference of Mullah Fazlullah’s mother Amna Bibi and Fazlullah’s former teacher Maulana Waliullah Kabulgrami to the media. Taken alone, the statements by Rabia and Arfa are a disturbing indicator of the recruitment of female suicide bombers as well as the indoctrination of young girls and boys into militancy. When framed in light of the two other media events that day, Yusufzai noted, “it appeared that the security forces were on a mission to further damage the already battered image of the Swati Taliban.” Moreover, the statements by Mullah Fazlullah’s teacher criticizing the Swati Taliban leader and asserting that suicide bombings are un-Islamic “might influence public opinion in Malakand division and other parts of the country and harm the Taliban cause.”
It seems the military is arguably as intent in fighting this battle from an information operations standpoint as they are from a tactical perspective on the battlefield. Given the dissemination of Taliban propaganda, (often using the Al Qaeda production house Al-Sahab as their platform), Pakistan’s security forces are matching such efforts in this “battle for hearts and minds” with a campaign that villifies the enemy and sways potential Taliban sympathizers. The objective is simple: to marginalize support for these militant groups and cut their influence in this region.
That is why Yusufzai’s reaction to the military-initiated media events is interesting. He wrote:
A number of people who spoke to this writer were critical of the decision to bring Fazlullah’s mother before the cameras in Swat’s Khwazakhela area. And mind you none of them had any sympathy with the Taliban militants. In their view, keeping women and children out of the affairs of militants fighting the state should be the guiding principle of the government and the military trying to win the hearts and minds of the people in militancy-hit Frontier.
Recruiting young children and especially young girls into militancy is a disgusting tactic. That is undisputed. However, in this battle for the now-cliched “hearts and minds,” is it inappropriate or even counter-productive for Pakistan’s security forces to use them to convey that fact? Having Fazllulah’s purdah-wearing mother make an unprecedented public statement may help in villifying the enemy, but does it also earn the military supporters? Is there a line that the state shouldn’t cross?