Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Taliban’s Teenage Suicide Bombers

The Taliban are increasingly relying on Pakistani teenage suicide bombers to terrorize both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistani youths are being trained in the tribal regions and sent to cities throughout Pakistan – as well as across the border into Afghanistan. In this series, Central Asia Online explores how the Taliban recruits and trains teens to kill themselves and others, the emotional and financial cost to the families of the suicide bombers, and how teens freed from the Taliban are being re-integrated back into society. Finally, we meet the teenager who is the lone survivor of the team that attacked the Jalalabad branch of the Kabul Bank February 19, killing 40 people and wounding 70 others. The teen talks about why he now regrets his actions.

Isolation, distortion of Islam key to training teen bombers

Taliban ‘suicide nurseries’ train children as young as 10
PESHAWAR – Umar Khitab, 15, was a would-be suicide bomber. He remembers the day he arrived at a Taliban “suicide nursery,” a school for young suicide bombers.

 “There were 13 other children, mostly from FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and Malakand, who had been brought for training,” Khitab, a resident of Charbagh Tehsil in Swat, said. “The training camp located in South Waziristan had a lot of facilities, such as computers, compact discs, and audio and video.”

Fortunately, before Khitab was sent on a mission, he was freed and has now been rehabilitated at an army-run centre in Malakand.

Hundreds of children are undergoing brainwashing at a number of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) training centres in FATA, according to Pakistani intelligence.

In an interview April 8, 14-year-old failed suicide bomber, Umar, who was arrested during the Dera Ghazi Khan Shrine attack April 3, said there were 350 to 400 suicide bombers, many of them teenagers, being trained by the TTP in North Waziristan.

“They keep teens in isolation, secluded from other people. Only three to four people are allowed to meet them,” said Abdul Basit, a scholar of suicide bombings at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad.

As many as 5,000 Pakistani children have received militant training, including on suicide bombing, the institute estimated.

Some teens come from madrassas, where they learn a distorted version of Islam from extremist, often religiously ignorant, clerics, analysts say.

More theological brainwashing awaits teens at the TTP training centres, which meld them with talk of jihad, a route to Paradise through killing infidels, and promises of 72 virgins.

They also watch videos purportedly showing the killing of Muslims by non-Muslims in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Instructors tell them that a war is being waged against Islam.

The TTP also trains them in kidnapping, explosives and weapons.

Evidence found

In May 2008, the Pakistani Army’s 14th Division took Spinkai in South Waziristan. There it found a training camp run by Qari Hussain, then suspected of being in charge of suicide bombings in Pakistan, according to Dawn.

Army officers found a well-equipped training centre with computers, video equipment and literature that showed how children as young as 10 learned to become suicide bombers, Dawn reported. Some videos showed how to make and detonate improvised explosive devices. One recovered video showed a group of teenage boys, some clearly pre-teens, wearing white headbands and being lectured by a masked instructor as armed guards stood nearby.

“They have qualified experts in the training camps located in FATA. (The) majority of the would-be bombers receive their training in those camps and then are sent to hit the targets elsewhere in the country,” Shafqat Ali, a Malakand Division senior police officer, said.

“We arrested more than 300 would-be suicide bombers during the past two years. The majority of them were quite young and knew about the planting of explosives, making and wearing and detonating suicide jackets,” he said.

Militants adjust to government crackdown

The militants used to send suicide attackers out from FATA but have changed their tactics after the government tightened security.

Now, after initial training at a centre, they send the bombers to a school nearer the target. “In case of planning a suicide attack in Peshawar, the militants prepare the bombers in a nearby place as about 50 would-be bombers have been arrested by police and security forces during the past three years,” Ali said.

In October, police in Karachi arrested a 16-year-old would-be suicide bomber, who revealed that the TTP had established a training school outside Karachi.

In a madrassa, the teenager, Mohammad Salaam, met a man called Zahir Shah. “He convinced me that Muslims globally are being subjected to brutality,” Salaam told investigators.

“They deliver lectures and sermons in an attempt to … brainwash young men to join their ranks and carry out suicide bombings,” Salaam recalled. “They deliver lectures and sermons in an attempt to … brainwash young men to join their ranks and carry out suicide bombings,” Salaam recalled.

Salaam said instructors told him that as a good Muslim he had a duty to defend Islam, and that “as soon as I blow myself up, I will be in heaven and will get eternal peace.”

They also threatened to kill him if he refused to carry out a suicide attack. Salaam agreed to become a suicide bomber, but Karachi police arrested him before he could execute his orders.

Militants isolate bombers both in the training centres and once they’re on their way to a mission. A handler usually accompanies them, guides them to the target, and then leaves them to detonate their explosives.

Some bombers falter before mission

Sometimes, though, if bombers lose contact with the handler, they also lose their sense of mission.

Police arrested two such rudderless bombers in Peshawar last August. “Both had lost contact with their handlers,” a police officer in Pishtakhara Police Station told Central Asia Online. “The bombers from Mohmand Agency were staying somewhere in Peshawar where they had been prepared for attacks. At the 11th hour, they failed to contact their handlers, which led to their arrest.”

Security forces captured the pair when they defied orders to halt and tried to run away. Police found suicide jackets and ammunition in the large shopping bags they were carrying.

“A communication gap between the suicide bombers and their handlers also led to the arrest of a student of University of Peshawar in early February this year,” campus police officer Daud Khan said. “He had been deputed to blow himself up on the campus.”

“I have received complete training in Bajaur Agency, where they gave us Pashtu books that contained the methods of making and planting bombs and carrying and transportation of explosives,” Jamil Ahmed, the 17-year-old detainee, told investigators. Later, he changed his mind and informed the police because he didn’t want to kill the innocent.

Militants have used other means to ensure bombers don’t waver before blowing themselves up.

“Before sending them on a mission, they are administered some narco-drugs which keep them semi-conscious,” Haroon Rashid, another would-be bomber, told police.

Rashid was arrested in Peshawar’s University Town May 6 when he failed to detonate a suicide bomb at a foreign mission in the area.

Teenagers recruited, trained as suicide bombers

Taliban target pliable youth

On April 3, two suicide bombers struck the Sakhi Sarwar Shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan, killing 50 worshippers and wounding more than 100 others.

The bombers who died – and two would-be bombers arrested at the shrine – were all teenagers. In 2010 suicide bombings in Pakistan reached a deadly peak. Just 49 bombings claimed 1,167 lives, according to official statistics. This represents a startling increase over 2009, when 76 suicide bombings killed 949.

Perhaps even more troubling than the numbers of victims is that many of the suicide bombings are committed by teenagers – usually boys – abducted and brainwashed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Taliban sources have claimed to have anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand teenagers trained as suicide bombers, while government sources say as many as 5,000 teenagers have undergone training by militants.

Pakistan’s children don't sow terror just at home. About 10% of the local suicide bombers are used locally while the rest are sent across the border to Afghanistan, one official of the Forensic Science Section of the Peshawar Police Department said.

Today, Central Asia Online begins a six-part series examining how the Taliban transforms teenagers into walking bombs ready to end their own lives.

Recruitment

The process begins with recruitment, which usually means kidnapping and brainwashing. Teenagers in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are kidnapped by the TTP while on their way to school or work, or plucked from a madrassa where they have been studying, and sent to one of a number of training centres in areas under Taliban control.

The children of the poor are usually more vulnerable to abduction and training as suicide bombers. Poor parents lack the resources to pay a ransom to free their child. And teenagers from impoverished homes are more emotionally vulnerable to the TTP’s brainwashing because they have little hope for a good life – and have received little or no education, leaving them ill-prepared to stand up to the Taliban’s techniques.

Training

Teenagers already studying in a madrassa, especially one run by extremists, may be more ready than peers attending a non-religious school to become a militant combatant or suicide bomber, especially after five or 10 years of study.

“A cleric has plenty of time to mould them to his way of thinking,” said Abdul Basit, an expert on suicide bombings at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad. “The child sees no life outside the madrassa. It is everything – provider of food, education and social security. It’s the world he knows.”

Kept in isolation, the children receive a distorted view of the teachings of Islam and hear that it is the duty of Muslims to kill infidels. In some cases they learn it is no sin to kill other Muslims – as martyrs, they, too, will go straight to paradise along with the bomber. And once they reach paradise, rivers of milk and honey and beautiful virgins await.

That training can turn them into religious fanatics convinced they’re following Islam.

Umar, one of the teenagers arrested at the Sakhi Sarwar Shrine, was not ready to give up even after one of his grenades blew off his hand, said Khalid Mahmood, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Dera Ghazi Khan.

“When we captured him, he was shouting to let him free since he wanted to be a martyr and it’s a moral duty to send all policemen and army personnel to hell,” Khalid said. “It portrays the level of indoctrination he had received.” Some don’t accept the Taliban’s dogma, and in those cases militants threaten, beat or forcibly drug children into compliance.

Families suffer

Often the families do not know what has become of their children – until it’s too late. In a society where children play an important role in financially and emotionally supporting the entire family, their loss is especially devastating.

The 15-year-old son of Allah Dad Khan in a village near Mardan disappeared on his way to work one day. Allah Dad learned his son had carried out a suicide bombing in Afghanistan only when the Taliban offered him some money as compensation. Allah Dad still can’t fully accept that his son won’t return one day.

De-radicalisation

Not every child trained as a suicide bomber is sent to blow up others. A number have been freed after the army has retaken territory from the militants.

The Mishal school in Barikot Tehsil of Swat is one of a number of government-run schools that work with teens freed from the grip of the Taliban. Psychologists and others work with the children to correct the misperceptions of Islam the Taliban has given them. They also receive vocational training to give them hope for a better future.

Regrets of a lone survivor

Central Asia Online’s series will end with an interview with Zara Jan Khan. In many ways, Zara Jan is a typical Taliban-recruited teenager. Uneducated and from a poor family, he agreed to Taliban training because militants assured him he would be killing infidels. On February 19, Zara Jan took part in the assault on the Jalalabad, Afghanistan, branch of Kabul Bank. The only militant to survive that attack, he now knows the Taliban misled him and has come to regret his actions.

Asfaq Yusufzai and Amna Nasir Jamal contributed to this report

Taliban uses kidnapping, promises of Paradise to recruit teens

Easier to brainwash youth psychiatrist says

PESHAWAR – “I was picked up by militants and taken to a place where I, along with a dozen others, was shown video films of the training of the suicide bombers, which impressed me a great deal,” Zakaullah Khan told Central Asia Online by telephone.

Khan is among 140 young militants who recently completed a deradicalisation programme at the army-run Sabaoon School in Malakand.

“Initially, I was upset when I was kidnapped by the Taliban, but later I felt satisfied because I was told that suicide bombing is the easiest way to Paradise,” he said.

Today, after completing the six-month programme at Sabaoon, Khan has learned job skills and is returning to a normal life.

Most bombers are 12 to 18

Psychiatrist Dr. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a leading specialist on the psychological problems of the militancy-hit Malakand Division, says a majority of suicide bombers are between 12 and 18 years old.

“It is easier to brainwash young people than old ones. The fresh minds are empty and can be filled with any stuff you want,” he said.

Aside from being easier to brainwash, children arouse less suspicion. On February 10, a teenage suicide bomber wearing a school uniform targeted an army parade, killing 20 cadets in Mardan.

“Children (bombers) are the integral and very effective weapons with which militants can hit at will at any place of their choosing. Children are also trained in kidnapping, assassination and detaining individuals,” Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah, former secretary of security for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), said.

Poverty and a lack of education are key weaknesses used by the Taliban to lure youths – and kidnapping is the Taliban's primary technique for finding youths to train.

“(The) soft targets are the poor and (uneducated) children,” said Iftikhar, who is involved in rehabilitating would-be bombers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.

Brainwashing in extremist madrassas

While some children are snatched off the street, others come from madrassas – especially those run by extremists or by imams with poor knowledge of the Koran. Students receive an inaccurate or purposely distorted version of Islam and its teachings, officials said, and that leaves them vulnerable to militants.

“My son was at a Darul Uloom, and we thought that he was studying the Koran. One day the Taliban informed us that (my son) was going to take part in a suicide attack, which saddened us,” said Rehman Shah, a shopkeeper in Mamond Tehsil of Bajaur Agency.

Shah begged the Taliban for his son Javid’s life, he said. “Ultimately, the Taliban set free my son.”

But his son, already brainwashed by the Taliban, “was unhappy as he wanted to blow himself up at any cost,” Shah said.

Family members took 14-year-old Javid to Peshawar and exposed him to entertainment, films and the simple enjoyment of bazaars and city life to undo the Taliban’s isolation and brainwashing.

“Now I am convinced that I was wrong. I should study to help my poor parents,” Javid said recently.

Abducting children for bomber training

The Taliban also abduct poor street children for use as suicide bombers.

“Four children between 11 and 15 years have gone missing in Bajaur in the past two months,” Political Administration Tehsildar Shoaib Khan said in March. “Their parents are sure that their children have been picked up by the Taliban because they were all from poor families.”

The Taliban usually kidnap the rich for ransom and poor children for suicide bomber training, Shoaib said.

Authorities traced three kidnapped Dir District children to a South Waziristan militant training camp, intelligence officials said. The parents pleaded for their sons' release and ultimately paid Rs. 100,000 ransom (US $1,176) for each boy.

But others learn their child's fate only after it's too late. “In August 2009, a dozen men of a jihadist faction walked into my home and offered me Rs. 100,000 (US $1,176),” said Juma Khan, a resident of a small village in Charsadda District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “They told me that my son had successfully carried out a suicide bombing and had killed 14 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.”

Juma’s son Abdur Rauf, 15, had disappeared in February that year. “The group congratulated me that my son had earned Paradise,” Khan said. “I returned the money and kept silent because any hue and cry would have made the lives of my other three sons worse.”

“He was not the type to kill innocent people,” Rauf’s older brother Jehan Dad said. “Rauf was a class 10 student, but poverty always haunted him. He might have been lured by militants by (with money) and subsequently brainwashed.”

Taliban militant Qari Hussain, believed killed by security forces, once claimed that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have more than 250 suicide bombers ready to sacrifice themselves. Most of them are teenagers, experts say.

 Parents feel powerless

“Several children have been picked up from schools and off the streets in Malakand, Dara Adamkhel, North and South Waziristan and Bajaur tribal agencies by militants but their parents cannot do anything against the powerful Taliban,” Mehmood Shah, the former FATA security secretary, told Central Asia Online. He knows many families with missing children who are afraid to tell police, he said.

“On August 8 last year, some unknown people kidnapped my 13-year-old brother (Jangriz), a class 8 student, while he was returning from school in Tank District,” said Mamraiz, a schoolteacher from Tank. “We knew that he had been kidnapped by the Taliban, but we stayed silent because we can’t challenge the powerful extremists. In January this year, we were informed by the Taliban that Jangriz had killed several policemen in a suicide attack in Hangu District.”

Taliban misled him, teenage militant says

JALALABAD, Afghanistan – The lone surviving suspect in one of Jalalabad's worst terrorist crimes is talking – and repenting.

On February 19, a group of seven armed men entered the Jalalabad branch of the Kabul Bank, killing at least 40 people and injuring 70 others. Among the dead were at least 21 police officers who were collecting their pay.

Police arrested lone surviving suspect Zara Jan Khan, a Pakistani teenager from North Waziristan, as he allegedly tried to escape. Khan is now charged with the killings, and President Hamid Karzai has publicly called for his execution.

In an exclusive interview in prison, Khan told Central Asia Online how he came to be in the bank that day in February. The Taliban misled him, and he now regrets the killings, he said.

Like many youth recruited by the Taliban, Khan had little education.

 “I went to school in childhood, but then quit,” he said. “We were poor. My father has a grocery shop, and my brothers work with him. I was working in the mountains and helping my father in the shop.”

He does not know his own age. Prison officials estimate he is between 16 and 18 years old.

His cousin’s friend, Abdul Rahman from Paktia Province, Afghanistan, was a member of the Taliban and recruited him, Khan recalled.

“He would often come to our house,” Khan said. “I was introduced to him in Barmal District of Waziristan. Abdul Rahman once told me we should carry out jihad against infidels in Afghanistan. I agreed.”

Training in Miranshah

Rahman arranged for Khan and two other young men, Saifullah and Sharifullah, to go to a Taliban training camp in Miranshah several months before the attack.

“In Miranshah, we were living in a compound in a valley. … One day planes bombed the area where we were living, but we survived,” he said. “After the air strikes, we went back to Miranshah, this time to another compound known as Khalifa Centre. There were 25 other boys training at the same centre.”

Khan said an Uzbek militant instructed the trainees on firing weapons and carrying out suicide bombings daily. “His name was Farooq,” Khan said. “He would instruct us on almost everything. He not only trained me but also everyone in the camp. Most of the boys were younger than me, but some were older.”

One day a man named Nazar Gul met Khan, gave him some money, and said he and his friend Shahidullah were being sent to Afghanistan to carry out suicide attacks.

They were taken to Peshawar, where someone named Qari Nazir took them to a madrassa for a 20-day stay.

Afterward, Nazir took the pair to Jalalabad.

Plotting the attack

One afternoon, “a man named Mahmood … showed us the (Kabul Bank branch). He told me, ‘Do you see all these people who enter the bank? All of them are infidels.’”

Khan expressed some doubts.

“I told him: ‘But they are all wearing regular clothes.’ He said they were actually infidels but were wearing regular clothes. Since I was in Afghanistan for the first time, I could not differentiate between infidels and common people. Then I told him, ‘Those wearing burqas are women.’”

The man was unequivocal, Khan recalls.

“Kill them, for they are all infidels,” Khan recalled the man telling him.

After a few days Khan went to Peshawar and spent two weeks in Qari Nazir’s house before returning to Jalalabad, where he spent five days in Mahmood’s house.

“The next day, Mahmood drove us to Jalalabad and bought us some clothes and other things. One day Mahmood came with uniforms. When I went into the other room to put on the uniform, I saw another person who was placing bombs in a motorbike.”

Khan learned the bombs and gunpowder were for the attack and that they would wear the uniforms to prevent suspicion.

“In the morning, after we ate breakfast, Mahmood came and took the motorbike,” he recalled. “A green car came and took us (to the city). The AK-47s were also in the car. On the way, another person gave us bullets.”

Authorities halted their car at a checkpoint, but since they were wearing police uniforms, nobody searched them. Their handler dropped them off near the bank and told them to attack.

“My friend Shahidullah carried out the first attack, and I followed him,” Khan recalled. “I went inside the bank. The bank guard was killed by my friend’s shots. I was told to kill everybody who was wearing green as well as regular clothes. I, too, shot at people and killed them one by one. My friend was injured, and I was also wounded in the face. I do not know whether Shahidullah is alive.”

Khan called the man who had brought them to the bank, who told him to change into his own clothes and escape with the bank customers.

“I did so, but when I came out, the police arrested me,” he said.

He was misled

Asked if he now thinks he was killing infidels or innocent Muslims and human beings, Khan admitted he had been misled.

“I was wrong. I killed all innocent Muslims. I now regret what I did,” he said.

“I was deceived,” he continued. “I was told I would go to Paradise, but by killing innocent people, no one can enter Paradise. Those who coerce others to kill Muslims are infidels themselves.”

Khan has a message for other young men who are considering joining the militants – or are already training as suicide bombers.

“I want to tell all youth and people to avoid evil acts; they should be really careful so they do not kill innocent Muslims as I did. They should not be deceived by those who want to send us here (Afghanistan) under the name of jihad. They make us kill Muslims,” he said.

“I ask all Afghans to forgive me,” Khan concluded. “I have committed a sin and (ask) them to forgive me.”


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