Taliban extremists have kidnapped more than 100 children from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last year to use for suicide missions against government officials and U.S. troops still fighting in the region, U.S. and Pakistani sources told TheBlaze.
It's a resurgence of old tactics to indoctrinate child suicide bombers, and means suicide training in extremist schools are once again a threat to Western civilians and troops, a U.S. counterterrorism official said.
Afghan boys pray during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a mosque in the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 20, 2013. (AP)
“Extremists in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan are on their heels, but recruitment and radicalization in the region pose a long-term challenge," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of their work. "Radical madrassas and other extremist training centers continue to prey on and poison young minds—in some cases encouraging violence against local and Western interests.”
The kidnappings and establishment of extremist madrassas, or religious schools, in Pakistan's remote Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) signal a revival in the Taliban's power base just as the U.S. is preparing to withdraw from the region next year.
Several Pakistani sources told TheBlaze that one of the training camps is in northeastern Afghanistan's dangerous Kunar province, while the other children are taken into Pakistan's lawless FATA borderland.
The exact number of children kidnapped or even purchased by the Taliban may vary, as Pakistani citizens and nonprofit groups working in the region cannot confirm with accuracy the exact number out of fear for their safety. Additionally, some parents refuse to report their children missing, and others who have sold their children fear retribution from local authorities, as well as from the Taliban.
Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution scholar who spent more than 30 years as a CIA analyst and has worked with the National Security Council and Pentagon, said the Taliban has become more emboldened in recent years and continues to threaten the stability of Pakistan and the rest of the region.
"The Taliban have a well-established track record of using the most vulnerable in society to carry out terrorist attacks," said Riedel, who also headed President Barack Obama's original Pakistan and Afghanistan strategy.
In 2009, U.S. military and Pakistani officials confirmed to this reporter that Pakistan's then-top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was buying children ages 7 to 16 to serve as suicide bombers against American, Pakistani and Afghan targets. In a nation where the per capita income is $2,600 per year, the children could be sold for $7,000 to $14,000, Pakistani officials confirmed at the time. Mehsud was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2009.
Afghan boys pray at a mosque in the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 20, 2013. (AP)
Pakistani individuals who work closely with groups in the FATA region said abducted children are not only being taken to extremist religious schools in Pakistan but that some are sent to militant training camps in Afghanistan's Nuristan and Kunar provinces. The training camps are comprised of Pakistani and Afghanistan Taliban members, as well as some foreign fighters, and prepare kids for suicide attacks.
A U.S. military official who has conducted operations in the region confirmed to TheBlaze that extremist religious schools have been targeted by U.S. security forces in the Kunar province in the past but "most military operations avoid targeting the religious centers where we know a lot of the training is taking place." The official could not say whether religious schools in Kunar are presently being used as training for suicide attacks.
Oscar Seara, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said International Security Forces Assistance (ISAF) personnel in Afghanistan "are still trying to track the veracity of the allegation."
A village resident in Kunar province who became a Taliban fighter in 2009 told TheBlaze he fled the training camps this year because he disagreed with the tactics used by the religious leaders in the encampment. His own son was taken from him and sent to one of the madrassas.
“I will never forget what I saw during last three years and will never forget my son when I lost him,” the resident, Muhammed, said through a Pakistani translator familiar with the region and who worked with TheBlaze for this story.
A soldier of the 10 Mountain Division U.S. Army 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry Regiment walks with a sniffer dog at Afghan National Army Forward Operating Base Muqor in Ghazni province on May 28, 2013. (Getty Images)
More than 70 children under the age of 18 from both Pakistan and Afghanistan are still in Taliban camps in Kunar and in the difficult-to-reach eastern mountains of Nuristan, Muhammed estimated.
Muhammed said at least 10 children have been used in various suicide attacks inside Pakistan in the last year. He noted that some of the children were sent to Afghanistan's dangerous Kandahar province "for an unknown mission."
A total of 34 suicide attacks took place in Pakistan in 2012, killing 333 people and injuring more than 500.
“There are several camps (run) by militants in Kunar and I think more than 800 Pakistani national militants are present in Kunar and Nuristan camps," Muhammed said. "Some are belonging to other countries as well.”
Militant leaders keep abducted children separated, providing them food and facilities to keep them content, and allowing very limited access, he said.
“I saw some children who (were) weeping and requesting ... to go to their home but (they) never allowed anyone to go back," Muhammed said.