BAGHDAD / Aswat al-Iraq: Assa’ad and Omran are almost the same age of eighteen. They share a cell at the Juveniles’ prison in Baghdad, away from their families that live in Dawrah, south of the capital. Both boys joined armed groups and participated in bloody acts of violence in 2006. What distinguishes them is that they are members in opposing groups that kill based on identity.
Prison may be the best destiny for the two boys. Hundreds of their peers were killed in battles or were blown to pieces in suicide bombings for which they were recruited by armed organizations.
Asa’ad Husam Eddin prefers to stay in jail so that he does not become subject to a tribal judgment that condemns him to death for participating in four members of one family. During his childhood, Asa’ad was known by the name “Al-‘Allas”, a term in Iraqi dialect describing children recruited as informers for armed groups. Among his duties was to select a target and monitors its movements so that the armed group could abduct and execute him.
According to his confessions, Asa’ad was active in monitoring people in his neighborhood, and informing Al-Qa’eda elements about their moves, in return for $200 per person.
Omran Abbas has a similar record, except that he used to work for the opposing group. He is spending a sentence of 15 years in jail after being convicted of committing acts of violence in Abu Dsheir area, one street from Al-Daourah. Residents of the two areas belong to two different confessions. Abbas was fourteen when he joined armed groups opposing Al-Qa’eda. He participated in acts of violence during the peak of confessional violence in 2006. Shortly before that, his father was kidnapped by Al-Qa’eda, and was later found beheaded in the ‘no-man’s-land” separating the two “fighting” areas.
As an act of revenge for a lost relative, or to follow in someone’s footsteps, many boys whom we met at the Juvenile Prison, such as Nathem Jabbar, Mahdi Hassan and Sa’doun, and hundreds of others, fell victim to the phenomenon of recruiting children by armed groups that emerged after the battles of the spring and summer of 2004 in Al-Fallujah and Al-Najaf.
A number of armed groups emerged in Iraq after those brutal battles, and spread between Sunni and Shi’ite affiliations. Most of these organizations, however, participated in battles over time, but the major part ended after the spring of 2008.
The most dangerous organization, which continued practicing violence with a steady methodology, was Al-Qa’eda that concentrated its operations after 2003 in Al-Anbar region. It then managed to control a number of cities and governorates such as Salaheddin, Ninewa, South Kirkuk, South Baghdad and North Babel.
The phenomenon of recruiting children by Al-Qa’eda developed form training them in monitoring, collection of information and transferring messages among combatants, to planting explosive devices and participating in killings, to carrying out suicide bombings, in the peak of sectarian violence between 2006 and 2007.
Suicide, Revenge and Kidnap
Before that, recruiting children in suicide bombings was rare and rather erratic. The first operation was carried out by a child of ten years in the fall of 2005, targeting the chief of Kirkuk police (250 kilometers north of Baghdad). After about two months, two children carried out two suicide bombings against the American forces in Al-Fallujah, Al-Anbar province (110 kilometers northwest of the capital, and Al-Huwijeh of the Kirkuk governorate. In the summer of 2008, a child of ten years, disguised as a peddler, followed one of the most prominent leaders of Al-Sahwah in Tarmiyyeh area, Sheikh Emad Jassem, for three consecutive days, after which he succeeded in detonating himself near the Sheikh, whose leg was amputated as a result of the explosion. In the same year, a girl of thirteen carried out a suicide bombing in Ba’quba, the central city of Deyala governorate (57 kilometers east of Baghdad) resulting in the death of a number of Al-Sahwah followers.
The military leader who investigated that operation, as well as a number of child suicide bombings in Deyala, points out that most operations carried out by children are “revengeful” in nature and mostly take place in areas where Al-Qa’eda influence has subsided in favor of Al-Sahwah.
The Media official in Al-Anbar police headquarters, however, sees that “some suicide bombings were not vengeful in nature. The last of these operations were carried out by two children, one of whom had been sedated and the other was mentally unstable.” The two children were fit with explosive belts and sent to checkpoints. However, a mistake in the timing of the explosive belts enabled the security forces to dismantle them, according to the media official. He further explains that “fitting explosive belts around children’s bodies is a tactic used by Al-Qa’eda over the past years.” Another method used was to send closed explosive packages by hand with children, and to detonate them from a distance the minute the children are in close proximity to security forces or when they board civilian cars or arrive in markets.”
The father of the mentally deranged suicide bomber child says that his son Ghazi was kidnapped from in front of the family house in Al-Khaldiyyah area of Al-Anbar, a former stronghold of Al-Qa’eda. His fate was unknown until he was found near the checkpoint with an explosive belt around his waist. Ghazi’s father is now very worried because his younger son was also kidnapped at the beginning of last October, and might be used in the same manner unless he pays the ransom the kidnappers demand.
Dirgham, a mongoloid child was booby-trapped by elements from Al-Qa’eda after he was tempted to buy sweets from a shop near a security center where elements from the police force shop during their break. The child was killed, and with him a number of policemen and shoppers. Despite this, the child’s father refuses to criticize Al-Qa’eda in fear that they might return one day.
Fathers Fear Children
Fear from Al-Qa’eda’s revenge is not restricted to Dirgham’s father, but extends to many people with whom this report-writer talked. They refrained from telling their experiences with the process their children were recruited.
A high-ranking officer from Al-Anbar says that sleeping Al-Qa’eda cells become active during certain periods, then go back to sleep, which indicates that risking the exposure of details may not be liked by the organization, and may mean paying with lives. This officer tells the story of three children who burnt their father to death. The father was a moderate religious man. They placed him between old rubber tires and set them on fire, simply because he criticized Al-Qa’eda.
We asked one of the fathers if he had made any effort to prevent his children from joining Al-Qa’eda. He answered: “I lived for years hesitating to take any step such as this, afraid that they may kill me if I went too far.”Although the son left Iraq to a neighboring country after the defeats Al-Qa’eda received, the father continues to be careful that the son may one day return.
Faris Al-Obeidi summarizes children’s motives in joining armed groups in two words: “poverty” and “revenge.”
An official in research at the Juveniles’ Prison, however, believes that “unemployment and family disintegration” are the main reasons, in addition to some sort of “ideological thought” that prevails at home, as the first incubator that attracts children to the circle of violence. Iraq is “eligible for its children to pursue violence, because it lived for decades in a state of conflict and continuous wars.”
Fawwaz Ibrahim, the social researcher relates this phenomenon to the period preceding 2003; the date of the American invasion of Baghdad. Years before that date, “children, named ‘Saddam’s Cubs’ participated in operations of killing and cutting hands and tongues in many areas. Militarization of children was part of the militarization of society which the last century witnessed.” At that time, “Al-Tala’e organization, which was part of the Ba’ath party used to recruit children in groups affiliated with the authority, to monitor the neighbor, street, the school and even the home, reporting periodically about anybody suspected of opposing the regime.”
The researcher connects between the practices of the followers of Al-Tala’e and the specialty of most recruited children in reporting to armed organizations about all details going on in their vicinity.
He is joined in this rhetoric the researcher Al-Obaidi: “For a person to be a hero in an ideological army is something like a dream that children have when living in a society dominated by violence.” Hence, Al-Obaidi sees that “recruitment will not be difficult in a society where children boast about flaunting their power, that starts with carrying plastic toy weapons and forming groups to launch imaginary attacks from one street to another, declaring allegiance to armed groups that have a strong grip on areas, attending their events and military parades.”
Going Along with the Party in Power
Ali Al-Massoudi, the activist specializing in armed groups’ thought has documented a number of the features of children joining armed groups. He sees that recruitment depends basically on “the recruited child’s environment”. In most cases, the child gets carried away with the prevailing beliefs prevailing in his home, street and neighborhood where he lives. Al-Massoudi divides this phenomenon into four levels: Information collection or monitoring (less than ten years), carrying firearms, participating in guard duties and checkpoints (13 – 18 years) and getting involved in violent operations such as kidnapping, killing and participating in street fights (15 – 18 years). The more dangerous level, according to Al-Massoudi, is carrying out suicide operations, normally connected to Al-Qa’eda organization.
The first level prevails in “areas that are closed ideologically, especially during the period of confessional violence when armed groups enjoyed the sympathy of the area residents.” Children grouping t crossroads were active in informing armed men about the arrival of American troops, preparing to detonate explosives near them.
One specialist at the Ministry of Interior says that recruiting children is not restricted to one armed group and not the other, “despite variation in the level of their concentration.” This specialist saw for himself large numbers of children carrying arms at the “Jund El-Sama’a (Soldiers of Heaven) camp in the Zarka area, 13 kilometers north east of the holy city of Al-Najaf, holy to Shi’ite Muslims (160 kilometers south of Baghdad), during confrontations that took place between them and Iraqi forces in early 2007. But he believes that the more dangerous organization for children is Al-Qa’eda, which established organizations specializing in enticing children under soft names like “birds of heaven, youth of heaven and cubs of heaven.”
The expert mentioned that the “Birds of Heaven” organization, which was active in Al-Anbar and Deyala when Al-Qa’eda controlled them was for the “children of the leadership and elements of Al-Qa’eda in Iraq.” The Cubs and Children of heaven organizations were used to “lure children with certain specifications that qualify them to indulge in battles and carry out suicide bombings.”
Camps for Brainwashing
After a raid in November of 2006 on a ‘hideout’ for Al-Qa’eda north of Baghdad, the American forces discovered an electronic storage device that had information on children’s sleeping cells, in addition to details regarding recruiting them and training them for armed operations.
The Director of Operations at the Ministry of Interior Colonel Abdul Kareem Khalaf asserts that Al-Qa’eda organization is “the major party that depended on child recruitment from poor families, and those who were subjected to intellectual changes towards extremism through religious training courses organized in mosques without censorship.”
The most important areas where Al-Qa’eda trained children on armed operations is Al-Mukhaiseh remote area, which falls within the Humrain hills band in Deyala governorate, according to Colonel Khalaf. “Hundreds of children from both genders were exposed to brainwashing and continuous training under the supervision of experts from Al-Qa’eda, some of whom arrived from outside Iraq for this purpose.”
According to Colonel Khalaf, recruitment did not target poor families and those transformed to extremism only. There were remnants from those who were known as Saddam’s Cubs. These form a large group that entered continuous training camps until 2003.
The most dangerous children who were involved in armed operations and the most vicious were the children and brothers of activists in Al-Qa’eda. All these, according to Colonel Khalaf, were trained in areas with winding roads and orchards with thick trees and vegetation that are difficult to access, in addition to the remote areas extending deep into the desert.
Child training camps spread in areas under the control of Al-Qa’eda for years. There are camps in Deyala, Al-Anbar and Al-Mada’en south of Baghdad, in addition to border areas adjacent to Syria in the west and Iran in the east.
A New Generation of Al-Qa’eda
One of the former Al-Qa’eda theorists told the report writer at a detention center run by the Ministry of Interior that recruiting children “is carried out
A New Generation of Al-Qa’eda
One of Al-Qa’eda’s former theoreticians tells the report writer from his Interior Ministry prison cell that the recruitment of children is “done under the direct supervision of Al-Qa’eda leaderships.” The first step begins by “encouraging the children to take Quran memorization classes,” especially those who have specific characteristics, such a good build and excessive obedience. Hikmat adds: “We take into consideration the family they belong to, whether it is known for radicalism or not. Then we join them to groups older of age to nourish them intellectually in preparation for giving them assignments, like moving cash and publications for the organization’s members.” After that, “they are assigned to transport explosive devices and sometimes planting them in certain areas, then we put them in armed operations that sometimes require them to engage in direct confrontations.”
One of the dissents of Al-Qa’eda gives an expanded description of the stages of building the children’s networks by specialists in Al-Qa’eda who succeeded in brainwashing the brains of a large number of children whose fathers or brothers had been killed. Abul Waleed is a nickname that a man in his late forties gave himself who previously worked with Al-Qa’eda, then moved to Al-Sahwah forces before he ultimately abandoned both and secluded himself in a house he rented in a area on the outreaches of southern Baghdad. Abul Waleed says: “The first cells specializing in child recruitment launched after the battles of 2004 south of the capital city and included nearly 100 children who were carefully selected to ensure that they fulfill dangerous duties, foremost suicide bombings.”
Abul Waleed summarizes Al-Qa’eda’s strategy for recruiting this youth by saying that children are registered in religious classes that focus on “Quranic verses and sayings by the Prophet that encourage fighting the enemies, the infidels and the renegades.” After that, says Abul Waleed, they are shown videos of suicide operations previously executed by the organization’s members in Iraq and Afghanistan against foreign forces. Experts seek to convince the youth that they can do this to preserve the faith and that they will be heroes of Islam and remembered by future generations. This thought in particular “was the obsession that the experts use to influence the thoughts of most of the youth and ensures that the spirit of bravery and courage is raised within them.”
The majority of those selected for the child recruitment cells, Abul Waleed discloses, are the offspring of Al-Qa’eda members or who known for their hard-line tendencies at an early age. Some “begin the recruitment stage with enthusiasm but soon try to backtrack, and therefore Al-Qa’eda is forced to make them continue by threatening to tell their parents or the authorities about their participation in the training or threaten to kill them or liquidate their families if they change their minds.”
The most dangerous, says Abul Waleed, are “those that have lost their parents at the hands of the American or Iraqi forces or even as a result of internal strife.” These “do not need much effort to be encouraged to execute combat and even suicide operations. It is enough to concentrate on the idea that they will be avenging their murdered family if they execute suicide operations.”
Child recruitment serves four purposes:
- Ensuring that there are new combatant generation that expand the presence of the organization, increase its power and assault and make up for the deficit of combatants, which the organization suffered from after losing the areas near Syria to Al-Sahwah forces and the security forces.
- Taking advantage of children’s easy movement and that the security authorities do not pay attention to them or doubt them when they cross check points.
- Maintaining the momentum of suicide operations that kill more people and give the organization attention in the media, thus increasing the terror it spreads.
- Bring in more combatants by promoting the idea that children are braver than men who failed to join Al-Qa’eda to fight for the sake of God.
Abul Waleed states here that the leader of Al-Qa’eda in Iraq, Abu Mos’ab Al-Zarqawi, who was killed in American air raid in mid 2006, addressed an audio message chastising the men who did not join the organization after a woman executed a suicide operation in Deyala (see link 2).
The Young Instead of the Old
A high level security source in Al-Anbar province adds a fifth reason that he says he had seen up close and personal. The majority of children’s suicide attacks were directed at Al-Sahwah men, which means that Al-Qa’eda wanted to terrorize the Al-Sahwah men and tell them they are “killed at the hands of their children.”
Researcher Faris Al-Obeidi confirms what Abul Waleed says and adds that Al-Qa’eda did not keep the recruitment of children secret, but rather promoted them and featured trainings on websites and YouTube.
Al-Obeidi refers to a videotape of children between 10-12 years of age wearing black clothes and covering their faces with masks as Al-Qa’eda members do, and training on weapons, make-belief kidnapping, breaking into a house after climbing its walls. The videotape was shown extensively (see link 3) after Al-Qa’eda lost much of its popularity in its home environment, believes Al-Obeidi, and after the process of recruiting local combatants became difficult and bringing in foreign combatants even more difficult because of the control of the Iraqi forces on most of the border line with Syria.
The sheikh and speaker of one of the mosques in the city of Ramadi in the center of Al-Anbar province pointed to a “jurisprudence dispute about the dividing line between childhood and manhood”, and believed that “this dispute helped Al-Qa’eda penetrate into the minds of targeted people and facilitated the consideration of children’s recruitment as a legitimate matter.”
The sheikh, who is considered one of the leading moderate men of religion in Al-Ramadi city, reminded that Islam “banned the use of children and women in the execution of any acts that anger God and their recruitment for the purpose of executing suicide actions that lead to the killing of innocent people, whether civilians or even policemen, and it is prohibited.”
While religious scholars agree that Jihad is a duty of every Muslim, but it is “within conditions specified in the Islamic Sharia Law, most important of which that it must be based on wrong jurisprudence, such as rendering another an apostate or deciding that he has violated religion because he disagreed on jurisprudence issues, as Al-Qa’eda does and which has rendered everyone an apostate, including the followers of the Sunni sects that do not support it.”
The sheikh expresses regret that hard-line ideas calling for killing are spreading mostly in the rigid tribal communities, where the level of education is low and the culture of violence is prolific, unlike the moderate environment that is considered strongholds for moderate men of religion who cannot guarantee the security of their lives if they propose their ideas outside of this environment.
The word “Jihad” captivated the young boy, Yaser Thanoun, and encouraged him to work with Al-Qa’eda. His elder brother was killed in Al-Fallujah battles in 2004. Yaser completely believes that resisting the occupation is a duty for every Muslim, and says: “I did not join Al-Qa’eda in search of money, as some of my friends have.” He settled for an income of 70,000 to 100,000 Dinars (around $80) to cover his expenses after blowing up every explosive or carrying out a combat operation against the government forces. After the death of his combatant brother, Yaser had to join the organization on a full time basis and left his work as a smith that was providing for his family. “The money was not my objective, but rather the Jihad against the occupiers,” says Yaser, who was captured after he engaged in battle against Iraqi police personnel in Fallujah in 2008.
The situation is different for Nuseir. His belief in the necessity of Jihad was not the thing that pushed him to join the armed groups. His friends were the ones that convinced him to take part in the armed operations with them under the command of Al-Qa’eda.
Nuseir’s father spoke proudly with a tone of sadness of his son. After Nuseir trained to use weapons and launch rockets, his father says, “he participated in the bombing of American forces in Al-Mazra’a area in the east of Fallujah, then the joint check point at the city’s entrance.” After that, Nuseir joined the armed factions in battle in the city, and was arrested in 2007 and was transported to Boca prison. He remained in prison for one year and a half until he was released under the general pardon. He was soon killed by an unknown group when he was walking in the city.
The bereaved father refuses to talk about his son’s movements after he got out of prison. Yet he confirms that “he received threats from groups that the opponents of the group he belonged to,” in an indication that he was back with his initial group.
The mourning father criticizes “the government for releasing so many of the prisoners before they were able to reform them and convince them to abandon the violence.” He demands the government to monitor “the mosques which have become in their majority lairs that attract the youth.”
The responsibility of the family
Senior Secretary General of the Interior Ministry, Adnan Al-Asadi, however, accuses the children’s families of being the first to bring harm to them because they left them unobserved.
Al-Asadi says: “The boys who got involved in armed groups found the easy money and social influence an earning worth the risk by working with Al-Qa’eda members.” Al-Asadi however believes, and according to the results of investigations with a large number of the “Birds of Heaven” children and “the boys of heaven”, that the number of suicide operations executed by children is “small” compared to other types of operations such as “monitoring and logistical support for the militants.”
The idea of killing, believes Al-Asadi, “is no longer receiving response from the children, especially after the decline of the influence of Al-Qa’eda’s and the armed groups that have lost their strongholds in Al-Anbar, Deyala, Salaheddin, Ninawa and areas south of Baghdad.”
Researcher Faris Al-Obeidi believes that rehabilitating hundreds of children who engaged in militant work requires “a great deal of social and government effort and this is difficult to achieve in view of the economic, security and political instability in Iraq.”
In the final outcome, these are part of a mobile social system, and if they do not have a sound environment to help them integrate in their societies, “they will definitely go back to the armed groups that had provided them with a sense of belonging.”
Juvenile rehabilitation plans currently adopted are not convincing to the prison director, who complains that the building cannot accommodate “the large number of juveniles, given that the current building is a temporary alternative for the original prison that was overtaken by refugees refusing so far to leave it despite all official attempts.”
The juvenile prison building is similar to an elementary school. It is nothing more than a yard surrounded by four prison cells and a few small rooms for the guards, as well as a caravan for the prison director to do his job.
The research unit chief in prison that the lack of entertainment facilities and training workshops have not helped the prison staff to lower the number of medical cases that usually accompany imprisonment, such as the depression that many prisoners suffer from because they feel neglected by their own families.
The research chief believes that terrorism prisoners are inherently “good” people, but have been exploited and taken advantage of because of their difficult life conditions.
A field study by a researcher in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs indicates that family disintegration is responsible for half of the reasons that lead children’s integration in registered organizations.
Field study shows the reasons behind children joining armed groups.
“Family disintegration was the cause that led to the recruitment of 47% of child prisoners into armed groups.” The researcher attributes this to their residing outside the family home with relatives or friends or in workplaces. The study found that 63% of those convicted of terrorism have engaged in armed work under influence of friends.
The study, which was based on a sample of 80 prisoners convicted of terrorism according to Article 4, indicates that murder represents 56% of the types of crimes committed by children, while 18% of the sample planted and exploded explosive devices, and 15% executed kidnappings.
The low educational level was prevalent among the sample. Half of them did not pass elementary education, and 55% of the sample justified their engagement in armed operation with their belief in the resistance. Meanwhile, political convictions and affiliations were the cause of 28% joining the armed groups.
More than half of the children convicted of terrorism according to Article 4 and are imprisoned in the juvenile prison were sentence to more than ten years. These are “major” sentences, believes the researcher who criticizes the fact the judges rely on Law number 111 for 1996, which places terrorism crimes under the definition of crimes, stipulating sentences to be five or more years.
Indications however show that the rate of children’s engagement in armed groups receded a great deal in the past two years because of improving security conditions in many areas that were previously considered “hot zones.”
This improvement, according to researcher Faris Al-Obeidi, “led to economic movement in the country, which in turn contributed to the movement of the majority of youth towards profitable professions and abandoning armed organizations where the work has become dangerous with the increase of the power of security forces. Moreover, the ideas on which the armed groups were based “receded in a major way and do not have a standing except with religious hard-liners.”
Interior Minister Jawad Al-Bolani confirms that Al-Qa’eda’s influence in Iraq was “broken and it has lost control over its old strongholds, which put it in a critical situation that prevents from continuing to recruit children in the manner it has been doing in past years.” The stage of recruiting children, Al-Bolani says, “is over now, and although there are a few sleeper cells, the intelligence efforts will continue to pursue them and eliminate them in the end, sooner or later.”
Researchers Al-Obeidi, Fawwaz Ibrahim, and Al-Massoudi, along with the research chief at the juvenile prison and the researcher in the Labor Ministry, believe that the receding phenomenon of child recruitment is not the end of the story, and that intelligence efforts, no matter how strong it is, will not be able to eliminate this phenomenon completely. There is always a chance for it to come back if rehabilitation plans that can fortify children and protect them against extremist thinking, which continues to look for an opportunity to prevail once again in Iraq, are not implemented.