FIGHTING TERROR

Militants' use of child recruits on the rise

Iraqi security forces removing a suicide vest from a boy in Kirkuk on Sunday. Less than a day earlier, a child suicide bomber in Turkey had killed 54 people at a wedding - the first time in Turkey that militants may have deployed a child bomber in a
Iraqi security forces removing a suicide vest from a boy in Kirkuk on Sunday. Less than a day earlier, a child suicide bomber in Turkey had killed 54 people at a wedding - the first time in Turkey that militants may have deployed a child bomber in a way already used to deadly effect in wars from Africa to Syria.PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL • The boy, who looked younger than 16, seemed scared when police grabbed him on the street in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Pulling off his shirt, they found a 2kg bomb strapped to his skinny frame.

That wasSunday. Less than a day earlier, Turkey was less fortunate: A bomber, said to be a teenager, detonated his suicide vest among dancing guests at a Turkish wedding party, killing 54 people, nearly half of them children themselves.

Saturday's attack at the wedding in Gaziantep marked not only Turkey's deadliest this year, but also the first time in Turkey militants may have deployed a child bomber in a way already used to deadly effect in wars from Africa to Syria.

The Taleban has long used children in Afghanistan. One 14-year- old bomber on a bicycle hit the Kabul Nato base in 2012, killing six people; two years later a teenager blew himself up at a French cultural centre in the Afghan capital.

Researchers and officials say Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militants are now increasingly using the same tactics, perhaps to build depleted ranks, preserve adult fighters or simply catch security forces off guard.

In West Africa, especially Nigeria, Boko Haram has preyed on displaced children and the young girls it kidnapped, forcing them to become bombers.

ISIS in particular highlights its child recruits for its "Cubs of the Caliphate" brigades, publishing images and videos on social media of children receiving training and indoctrination, and carrying out bombings or executions.

"Child recruitment across the region is increasing," said Unicef regional spokesman Juliette Touma. "Children are taking a much more active role... receiving training on the use of heavy weapons, manning checkpoints on the front lines, being used as snipers and in extreme cases being used as suicide bombers."

Little has been publicly released about the attacker in the Gaziantep bombing. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that the bomber was 12 to 14 years old, and said ISIS was probably responsible.

Turkey's prime minister was more cautious on Monday, saying it was too early to say who carried out the attack, though security sources say witnesses reported the bomber was a child.

The blast tore into celebrations at a Kurdish wedding late at night. As many as 22 of the dead were under the age of 14. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but ISIS in the past has targeted Kurdish gatherings to stir ethnic tensions.

Yesterday Turkey pounded ISIS in Syria with new artillery strikes as expectations grew of a major Ankara-backed offensive against the militants after the attack.

In the failed attack in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk a day later, local television images and photographs showed the boy crying and screaming as he was grabbed by Iraqi security forces near an interior ministry building.

Security officials said the boy is 16 years old, though local media reports said he is much younger. He is an Iraqi from Mosul - the largest urban centre still under militant control, which Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces backed by US air strikes are moving to liberate.

Mr Hisham al-Hashimi, an analyst and author who advises the Iraqi government on ISIS, says militants this year had reactivated their Heaven's Youth Brigade, in reaction to the group's battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria.

"Teenagers are easier to recruit for suicide missions, especially in moments of suffering or despair having lost loved ones," he said. "They also attract less attention and less suspicion than male adults."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Militants' use of child recruits on the rise '. Print Edition | Subscribe