Not just Turkey: How militant groups exploit children for suicide attacks

  • AP, Beirut
  • Updated: Aug 22, 2016 09:10 IST
In this file photo, young boys known as Islamic State’s "lion cubs" hold rifles during a parade after graduating from a religious school in Tal Afar, near Mosul, northern Iraq. (AP)

The suicide attacker who detonated his explosives amid an outdoor Kurdish wedding party in southeastern Turkey, killing at least 51 people, was a member of Islamic State (IS) 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 their 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 dreaded group and has been used by other militant organisations. Here’s a look at some of these groups:

In this file photo released on Jan. 6, 2015, by a militant website, an Islamic State militant (centre) speaks to youths during a street preaching event at Tel Abyad town in Raqqa province, northeast Syria. (AP)

Islamic State

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 to 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 where he appears to be not 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.

Read | Turkey’s Erdogan blames child suicide bomber for wedding attack that killed 51

Boko Haram

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.

Al Qaeda

The global terrorist 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 the modern day Islamic State.

In this March 24, 2004 file photo, Palestinian youth Hussam Abdo, a would-be suicide bomber, stares at journalists as Israeli soldiers present him to the media, following his arrest at the Hawara checkpoint near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Sappers later detonated the bomb under the jacket. (AP)

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.

During a current 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 organized groups.


In Yemen, home to one of the world’s most heavily armed civilian populations, 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.

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