The suicide attacker who detonated his explosives amid an outdoor Kurdish wedding party in southeastern Turkey, killing at least 51 people, was an Islamic State group child as young as 12 years old. The extremist group has a history of using children as weapons, sending them to their death strapped with explosives and putting them on front lines in Iraq and Syria.
The group maintains an army of child soldiers, which it calls “cubs of the caliphate,” and seeks to re-educate children at IS-run schools, indoctrinating them with the group’s own radical version of Islam and exposing them to violent acts, including beheadings, as part of a concerted effort to build a new generation of militants. IS videos have shown boys killing IS opponents through beheadings and shootings.
But the practice is not restricted to the Islamic State and has been used by other militant groups in various ways. Here’s a look at some:
Islamic State group
The group has deployed child suicide bombers to stage attacks in both Iraq and Syria. Among the most deadly attacks was a bombing at a youth soccer game at a stadium south of Baghdad on March 25, 2016. A bomber - believed be a teenager - detonated his explosives as officials were handing out trophies to players after the tournament, killing 29 and wounding 60. IS claimed responsibility and released a photo of the attacker in which he appears to be no more than 16 years old. Nearly half of those killed were also children, participating in the soccer game or cheering from the stands. The UN’s children’s agency, Unicef, said in a recent report that thousands of children have been abducted in Iraq. Girls, the group says, are at greatest risk of being sold into sexual slavery while boys are often forced into becoming combatants or suicide bombers.
Human Rights groups and Unicef report a dramatic increase in Boko Haram’s use of children as suicide bombers. In a report earlier this year, Unicef said one in five suicide attacks claimed by the militant group across Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad are now carried out by children. In Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said that since Boko Haram began its attacks in 2009, it has recruited hundred, and possibly thousands, of youngsters and used dozens, mostly girls, as suicide bombers.
The global terror network has a history of recruiting children and training them to be suicide bombers. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, used teenagers as suicide bombers to fight the American occupation in Iraq before he was killed in a US airstrike in 2006. Al-Qaeda in Iraq eventually developed into what today is the Islamic State group.
Radical Palestinian groups
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups run summer camps that seek to indoctrinate Palestinian children with violent anti-Israel ideologies. These groups have not sent young children on suicide missions, though during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, several Palestinians as young as 16 carried out suicide bombings. In the current, months-long wave of violence, dozens of Palestinian teenagers have carried out or been accused of carrying out stabbing attacks on Israelis, with the youngest perpetrator just 11 years old. The attackers are believed to have acted individually and were not sent by organised groups.
In Yemen, home to one of the world’s most heavily armed civilian population, boys often learn how to handle weapons from an early age. In the country’s current conflict, irregular forces from both the pro-government and rebel sides have incorporated teenagers into their ranks.
Child recruitment and use
Hundreds of thousands of children are used as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. Many children are abducted and beaten into submission, others join military groups to escape poverty, to defend their communities, out of a feeling of revenge or for other reasons.
Combat and support roles
In many conflicts children take direct part in combat. However, their role is not limited to fighting. Many girls and boys start out in support functions that also entail great risk and hardship.
One of the common tasks assigned to children is to serve as porters, often carrying heavy loads, including ammunition or injured soldiers. Some children act as lookouts, messengers, cooks or other routine duties. Girls are particularly vulnerable. They are often forced to serve as sexual slaves. Moreover, the use of children for acts of terror, including as suicide bombers, has emerged as a phenomenon of modern warfare.
A long healing process
Regardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being. They are commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many are forced to perpetrate these atrocities and some suffer serious long-term psychological consequences. The reintegration of these children into civilian life is a complex process.
Prohibition under international law
Human rights law declares 18 as the minimum legal age for recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited under international humanitarian law – treaty and custom – and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
Sources - AP, UN Office of the SRSG Children and Armed Conflict