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Afghan would-be child suicide bombers attend a ceremony to mark the release of 20 would-be child suicide bombers in Kabul, 24 August 2011.

Martyrdom’s Children: The Tragedy of Child Suicide Bombers in Afghanistan

by Andrew Fraser

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Andrew Fraser is a graduate of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. He holds graduate degrees in History and International Affairs and has previously published articles on Afghanistan, the Korean War, and the fall of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala.


On 16 May 2008, Canadian soldiers operating in Afghanistan came under attack from a suicide bomber for the 35th time since 2004. A combined group of Afghan and Canadian soldiers were on a foot patrol in the village of Nalgham in the perennially dangerous Zhari district, west of Kandahar City. The bomber approached the patrol on foot, moments later a bomb affixed to his body detonated, killing an Afghan soldier and slightly injuring two of the Canadians. Those who lived through the attack reported that the bomber was no more than 11 years old. It appeared that he had positioned his hands away from his body prior the explosion, leading to speculation that someone else may have detonated the device by remote control.1 For their part, the Taliban denied having killed a child, professing instead that they had employed the services of an adult suicide bomber. Press accounts described this as a new turn in the horrific saga of suicide war in Afghanistan. Tragically, this was just the latest incident in an extensive pattern of minors being used as suicide bombers in the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Peter Andrews/Reuters RTX5XVD

A soldier from the 3rd Battalion PPCLI (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) walks by a poppy field in the Zharey District of Afghanistan, 20 May 2008.

This article will examine the reasons for the shocking rise in the use of child suicide bombers in Afghanistan. Cases surveyed for this monograph illustrate how Pakistan’s faltering education system forces families to send their sons to madrassas and other boarding-type schools. Once away from home and isolated, these children are vulnerable to the predatory advances of cold-blooded recruiters who often act with the forced or willing assistance of community authority figures. The recruiters use a combination of manipulative trickery and terrifying threats to elicit cooperation from their child victims.

REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo H206BW

Foreign Islamic students in a madrassa, 4 August 2005.

As the problem relates to the internal dynamics of Pakistan, a country with a long history of allowing boys and young men from its poorer classes to be recruited for regional wars, the solution to child suicide bombing will mainly have to come from inside Pakistan where local pressure from families has been successful in repelling the recruiters. The central course of action that the West can take at both the government and non-governmental organization (NGO) level is to invest in the unique challenges faced by boys in the region, particularly those who are poor and must navigate a broken school system that often leaves them isolated and at the mercy of predatory forces.

A Disturbing Pattern

Numerous accounts have emerged charting the actions of recruiters who ruthlessly exploited isolated and vulnerable children by cajoling and manipulating them into becoming suicide fodder for the war in Afghanistan. As is often the case with events in Afghanistan, most roads eventually lead back to Pakistan. The tales of the suicide children almost invariably begin in or near the tribal areas of western Pakistan, often with the arrival of militant recruiters at schools and madrassahs. The recruiters launch an aggressive sales pitch, promising virgin brides and paradise to those who volunteer their lives, and pontificating about the terrible consequences that will befall those who do not offer themselves up as martyrs. Sometimes money is promised; at other times, the prospect of adventure is dangled in front of Pashtun school boys to lure them into the grip of the militant recruiters. The recruiters employ a ruthless ‘carrot and stick’ approach, with some of the child recruits describing death threats being levied upon them by militants if they do not go through with an attack.

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Pakistani investigators collect evidence at the site of a suicide bomb explosion outside a police training centre in Hangu, 19 July 2007.

The recruitment of children also reflects the position of boys and young men from Pakistan’s poorer classes in the country’s brutal and amoral power game. Pakistan spends less of its GNP per capita on education than either Nepal or Bangladesh.2 Education for lower class Pakistanis is frequently so out of reach that many rural districts have abysmal literacy rates. The failure of public education in Pakistan drives many poor families to enroll their sons in madrassahs, which charge little or nothing and offer room and board where they incessantly memorize the Quran.

REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo GFPC2Y

Afghan President Karzai embraces a would-be child suicide bomber during a ceremony to mark the release of 20 detained would-be child suicide bombers in Kabul, 24 August 2011.

It is here where the boys are away from home, usually for the first time. Those who are shyer and more reticent will experience the fear and discomfort of being away from their parents, sisters, and cousins, and will have the difficult task of fitting in to a new and unfamiliar social order. Those who are bolder and more assertive will live the exhilaration of being on their own with their friends, looking for adventure and mischief. This newfound remoteness, away from home for the first time, makes these boys particularly susceptible to the charms and the menace of the ruthless militant recruiters. That sense of isolation is one of the principal tools that the militant recruiters exploit when they ensnare the young boys they will exploit as suicide killers.

In the West, there has been extensive press coverage and government concern about the plight of women and girls in the region, particularly the difficulty of receiving an education in a rigidly patriarchal and often reactionary society. The plight of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, and her efforts to advance the cause of education for girls while under threat from the Taliban caused a global sensation.3 At the same time, there has been little concern about the plight of boys and the unique educational challenges they face. This includes the risks of being recruited at school as either a child suicide bomber or combatant who exists as little more than an object to be used and killed in the service of the Taliban.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters RTR4HI1V

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai flashes the ‘V sign’ from the balcony of the Grand Hotel, Oslo, 10 December 2014.

It is unlikely that children would be recruited in such circumstances unless Pakistani authorities had at some level had ‘turned a blind eye’ to the actions of the recruiters. The presence of aggressive recruiters at madrassahs and other educational institutions with the support of the authorities has a frightening history in Pakistan. In the mid-1990s, when Islamabad decided to massively invest in the emergent Taliban rebellion in Southern Afghanistan, thousands of Pakistanis were recruited to fight in Afghanistan on the side of Mullah Omar and his men. This included extensive recruitment from madrassahs, some of which were closed so that their students could go and do battle in Afghanistan.4 Previously, the Pakistani government and its powerful intelligence apparatus sponsored recruiters who targeted boys and young men to go and fight the Indian Army in Kashmir and before that, to wage war against the Soviet invaders in 1980s-era Afghanistan.5

Stringer Pakistan/Reuters RTX4VE6

Residents sit next to a wall which displays a slogan for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in the Pakistan-Afghan border town of Chaman, 19 December 2007.

Suicide bombing was almost never a part of warfare in Afghanistan prior to the fall of the Taliban regime, and the tiny number that did occur, including the one that killed Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in September 2001, were attributed to foreigners.6 The adoption of suicide bombings in Afghanistan occurred slowly in the era of post-Taliban governance, beginning in Kabul and expanding outward. Three attacks followed in 2004, and in 2005, there were at least twenty. The phenomenon was now spreading outward from the capital to provinces that included Kandahar and Helmand in the south.7

Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters RTXKRT4

A man hangs up a portrait of legendary leader Ahmed Shah Massoud at the entrance to the Afghan embassy in Dushanbe, 21 September 2001.

A tremendous increase in the phenomenon in 2006 saw at least 115 bombers blowing themselves up throughout the country.8 Estimates for the number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan in 2007 run as high as 160.9 Between 2008 and 2015, the number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan fluctuated between 83 and 131, before abruptly dropping to 27 in 2016.10

The shattered bodies of those who blow themselves up are rarely identified with any certainty. A United Nations report found that 20 boys blew themselves up in suicide attacks between September 2010 and the end of 2014.11 As the occurrences of suicide bombing were swelling in mid-2007, details began to emerge of bombers being recruited from among the ranks of children at educational institutions in the Pashtun tribal belt in Pakistan.12

In every case that appears in the sources, the would-be bombers maintained that their families had no knowledge of activities in which they were involved. As highlighted, the fact that many of the boys in question were living away from home for the first time while attending schools or madrassahs appears to have made them particularly vulnerable to the influence of the pernicious recruiters. Another recurring theme is the alleged role of respected community figures in recruiting child suicide bombers. Some of the would-be suicide bombers purport that local Mullahs and madrassah instructors played important roles in facilitating their recruitment.


Perhaps the most well-known case concerns a 14 year-old Pashtun youth named Rafiqullah from South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The admitted child bomber was the beneficiary of a presidential pardon in Kabul in mid- 2007 before being returned to his parents in Pakistan.13 According to Rafiqullah’s family, his father was too poor to pay for the teenager’s education, so he opted to send his son to a madrassah in another part of South Waziristan.

By Rafiqullah’s own account, a small group of militant recruiters arrived at his pro-Taliban madrassah and gave a presentation to a group of about 150 boys. They also screened a video depicting the glory of suicide warfare. Rafiqullah stated that he and two other boys from the group volunteered, although he offered no explanation as to why. The militants instructed him on how to drive a car and even afforded him the thrill of riding a motorcycle.14

When the time came to act in June 2007, Rafiqullah claimed to have walked for eight hours from his militant training camp to reach Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, where his handlers had destined him to make an attempt on the life of the governor. Once across the border, he met his militant contact, who gave him an explosives laden vest, and reportedly, told the boy at gunpoint that if he did not go through with the attack, he would be killed. At some point shortly thereafter, Rafiqullah was apprehended while riding a motorbike in Khost City.15

Rafiqullah was a member of the Mehsud tribe, whose leadership is well-known for their pro-Taliban outlook. Around the time of Rafiqullah’s pardon, reports emerged from South Waziristan that a number of children from his tribe had recently gone missing in the wake of militant attempts to procure suicide bombers in the area. In response, angry parents in the area reportedly protested to tribal leaders against the actions of the recruiters, prompting the militants to scale back their recruitment efforts in the area.16 This appears to have been the most effective solution to the recruitment of child suicide bombers: pressure from within a community indicating that they would not tolerate the actions of the recruiters.

Associated Press/Musadeq Sadeq/Photo 3295303

The failed Pakistani child suicide bomber, Rafiqullah, with his father, Matiullah, in Kabul, 15 July 2007.

Abdul Quddus and Farmanullah

The New York Times interviewed two other failed attackers held in detention in Kabul. Both were 17 year-old Pakistanis who were apprehended in June 2007.17 One of them, Abdul Quddus, reported that he was the son of a Peshawar businessman. He had graduated from a respected private high school before going on to study at a madrassah in the vicinity of the Afghan border.

Although vague on his motivations, he reported that he volunteered to be driven, blindfolded to a distant training camp for suicide bombers. There, he spent 40 days training in the company of 20 aspiring suicide attackers. His friend, Farmanullah, reported that recruiters had visited his school in the village of Lodhikhel in Hangu district, in the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan and boldly proclaimed that those who did not offer themselves for martyrdom would be condemned to hell.18 In a subsequent interview, he stated that although not well-versed on religious matters, he was enthralled by the prospect of a rapid ascension to heaven.19

He also reported that he was influenced by extensive exposure to scathing anti-American propaganda during his many visits at the invitation of the recruiters to a Taliban camp in the region. Farmanullah claimed that his visits to the camp were made without the knowledge of his family, who were led to believe his spurious tales of visiting distant relatives in Peshawar.20

According to Farmanullah, the recruiters warned him that there would be no brides waiting for him in paradise unless he died as a martyr.21 It was an ethereal threat that left a deep impression, and one that was evidently discussed at length by his trainers. “Even before you blow yourself up, virgins come to the site of the explosion and wait to take you to Paradise,” he effused during another interview with author and former CIA agent, Robert Baer.22 The familiar association of martyrdom with the highly idealized quenching of sexual desire is among the tools that recruiters and trainers manifestly use well to their advantage when targeting, in the words of one Pakistani witness to the recruiters called, “youth with raw minds.”23


In the spring of 2008, Afghan intelligence agents showed off their latest prize to a succession of visiting journalists; a Pashtun boy of about fourteen named Shakirullah, who had reportedly been apprehended in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, while on his way to carry out a suicide attack.24 He related that he was a farmer’s son who hailed from a village in Jandola district in South Waziristan. His family had scattered well beyond the Pashtun tribal areas with one of his three older brothers finding work in the United Arab Emirates, and another taking a job in Karachi. He reported that he had never been educated until his family had enrolled him in a madrassah in another part of their district the previous year. The earnings that his brothers sent home made the family reasonably prosperous relative to the rest of the village, and it easily covered Shakirullah’s modest tuition and board.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

Failed child suicide bomber Shakirullah.

Shakirullah’s madrassah was guided by an aggressively pro-Taliban ideology. He claimed that after six months, his instructors appealed for him to become a suicide bomber. They professed that the Americans and the British had offended God, and that becoming a suicide bomber would grant Shakirullah eternal life in paradise, and it would achieve justice for all of those who had been killed in Afghanistan. He reported that one instructor would come to his room every night and lectured him about his duty to wage holy war against the infidels. They also told him that his family would be paid a substantial amount of money if he carried out a suicide attack.

Shakirullah reported that there were about 50 boys studying at the madrassah, but his story indicates that he was specifically singled out. He missed his family terribly. As his teachers pressured him to sacrifice himself, Shakirullah pleaded with them to let him go visit his parents. His instructors promised him that if he went through with the attack, he would come back, at which time he would be reunited with his family. Although apparently uncertain, the Pashtun teenager went along with the orders of his teachers. He claimed that it was actually one of those teachers who gave him the vest that would be used to conceal the explosives.

They drove him to Miran Shah, an important town in North Waziristan where he was introduced to his militant handlers, including one referred to as The Doctor, who was in charge. They took him to a location across the border in Afghanistan, where they spent two days instructing him on the skills he would need for what they claimed would be an attack on foreign soldiers. Most of that time was invested in giving him elementary driving lessons so that he could deliver his explosives by vehicle. He was eventually taken to Khost City in eastern Afghanistan, where The Doctor purportedly informed the boy that his mission had changed, and that he was now destined to set off his bomb in a market during the celebration of the Afghan New Year. In March 2008, Afghan authorities apparently arrested Shakirullah near a checkpoint in Khost City, discovering that his bulky jacket was stuffed with explosives.

Based upon what he claimed, it would appear that the hatred of the foreigners in Afghanistan that his instructors tried to instill in him had a rather limited impact upon the boy. As he explained, he had never seen a foreigner before, either in person, or even in a photograph. Prior to setting off for the madrassah, he had never even left his village. With their underling not being fired up with militant rage towards the international forces in Afghanistan, Shakirullah’s testament indicates that the militants moved on to other incentives, such as offers of money for his family, and the promise that he would survive the bombing and then be permitted to see his parents. This illustrates that the child bombers are not necessarily motivated by Islamic fundamentalism, and that sometimes they have little understanding of the concepts with which the recruiters are trying to entice them.

Zarak Khan

Another case concerns one Zarak Khan, a 16 year-old who lived in the Kohat area of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. Like Rafiquallah, his family could not afford to send him to school so they opted to enroll him in a local madrassah. As it was nearby, Khan was not isolated from his family to the same extent as some of the students in the other cases. His parents reported to journalists in the region that in early 2007 they were horrified about some of the instruction that he was receiving. He came home talking about suicide bombing and the heavenly afterlife that was reserved for those who perished while in the act of attacking their enemies. Fearing that his instructors were nudging him along the path to becoming a suicide bomber, Khan’s family withdrew him from the madrassah and fled the area, relocating to the relatively- sedate setting of Lahore in Punjab province.25 This again underlines the importance of family intervention in forestalling the recruitment of child suicide bombers.


United Nations/Jenny Rockett/Photo 171564

Kai Eide, Special representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), briefs media on the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, 12 March 2008.

As part of an extensive study on suicide bombing in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) interviewed nearly two dozen suspects held in custody outside Kabul who were accused of either attempting to carry out suicide attacks, or of facilitating them. Some maintained their innocence, while others conceded their involvement. At least two of those who admitted to being aspiring suicide attackers were minors. One was a young Waziri identified pseudonymously as Ghulam. He reported that he was sixteen. However, the story he told implies that he was even younger. He recounted that, like Shakirullah, he had received no formal education until his father enrolled him in a madrassah when he was thirteen. His newfound education was curtailed by his inability to understand what was being taught.

Upon leaving the madrassah, his father arranged a spell of employment for him at a nearby inn. Just before he was about to start his new job, two mysterious ‘Afghans’ introduced themselves to the teenager and invited him to visit Afghanistan. Along with the headmaster of his former madrassah, the duo visited his parents and dangled before them the prospect of a job for Ghulam in Afghanistan, which they said would avail him with more money that he could send back to his family. At the insistence of the headmaster, his parents reluctantly agreed to send him into Afghanistan.

Once Ghulam had left his village in the company of the two men, they revealed their true intent. They commanded that he was to carry out a suicide bombing and threatened to cut off his head if he did not obey. The militants reportedly told Ghulam that killing foreigners would bring him favor with God, and would grant him access to paradise. They were concepts of which Ghulam admittedly had little understanding. Furthermore, unlike his militant handlers, the boy cared nothing about the presence of international forces in Afghanistan. By his account, the militants serenaded their unenthusiastic pupil with a new proposal. They told the boy that he would survive the bombing, as God would never permit an innocent to die, and upon his return, the militants proclaimed that they would pay him 10,000 Pakistani rupees.26 The prospect of collecting such a princely sum, amounting at the time to the equivalent of just over 160 American dollars, left Ghulam enthralled, and motivated him to continue along with the plot.27

His handlers instructed him on the basic skills required to carry out a suicide bombing, particularly how to work a detonator. Ghulam confessed to his UN interviewers that he really didn’t understand most of it. When the time came to act, his handlers equipped the boy with explosives, and dropped him off near a group of coalition soldiers. Ghulam reported that he tried to blow himself up, but was unable to get his detonator to work. He specified that the attack occurred in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, meaning that the targeted soldiers were very likely American. He ended his tale to the UNAMA investigators by stating that both he and his handlers, who remained nearby in a vehicle, were apprehended immediately.

Among the most striking aspects of Ghulam’s tale are the incessant clues that he was, to some degree, mentally handicapped, and that his handlers manipulated his disability in their effort to turn him into a suicide bomber. The UNAMA interviewers reported that Ghulam had considerable difficulty following their questions. Two foreign correspondents in Afghanistan who investigated the issue of suicide bombing in 2007 have separately concluded that a significant number of the bombers who have killed themselves in the Kabul area were people who suffered from either physical or mental disabilities.28, 29 However, they presented no specific evidence that any of the attackers were minors.

A rough timeline that Ghulam offered indicated that his failed attack took place around January 2007, about three months prior to the interview. One aspect of his story that also appeared in previous testaments is the purported obliviousness of his family to the drama that was unfolding. The alleged collusion of his old madrassah headmaster with the men who were trying to recruit him highlights another familiar theme, the role of trusted community figures in the bombers’ recruitment. By Ghulam’s account, the intervention of the headmaster would appear to have been pivotal in his parents’ decision to let him leave for work in Afghanistan.


The other youth who told his story to UNAMA was a 15 year-old identified by the pseudonym Amir. He related that he had been born to an Afghan family in Pakistan, and spent half his life in Pakistan, and the other half in his family’s native Gardez province, in eastern Afghanistan. He reported that he had never received any schooling, except for two days at a madrassah. His father had ordered him out, so the boy could take a job. He claimed that he had been heavily influenced by the proclamations of a Mullah in Gardez, who had told him that foreigners had come to occupy Afghanistan, and that if he went to Kabul and killed a foreigner, he would be sent to heaven. Amir reported that he desperately wanted to go to heaven. He offered no details about any of the training that he might have received in preparation for the attack. He said that he traveled to Kabul by bus. He was issued a suicide vest, but his account is unclear about exactly when in his journey it was given to him.

He related that when he arrived in Kabul, he went to a mosque to pray. At some point, he aroused the suspicions of a local Mullah, who queried the boy about what he was doing. Amir said that he showed him his jacket lined with explosives. The Mullah tried to disarm him, and a scuffle ensued. A guard intervened, and Amir tried to set of the bomb, but the detonator failed. The guard opened fire, wounding the boy, and ending his journey.30 In a familiar refrain, he claimed that his family never knew what he had done. He fretted that if they found out the truth, his father would be deeply ashamed of him.

His tale indicates a particularly strong naiveté on his part, though the question of his mental health would appear to be far more opaque than in Ghulam’s tale. His deep susceptibility to the proclamations of a venerated community figure and its subsequent role in his recruitment, is very familiar in the sources. It would also appear that it was his trust of another venerated figure, the Mullah in Kabul, that led to the demise of his suicide mission. It is worth noting that this is the only case where the aspiring bomber was alleged to have been recruited in Afghanistan by a man who was apparently an Afghan.

Few examples are available that detail the training of suicide bombers prior to their deployment in Afghanistan. However, in early 2007, a writer from Newsweek was given access to a Taliban hideaway in eastern Afghanistan and introduced to three men who identified themselves as would-be suicide bombers. One of them was a Pakistani who spoke of how he had been trained with a large group of others at a militant camp, apparently somewhere in Waziristan, before their instructors had asked for volunteers for martyrdom operations. He reported being one of about 15 who volunteered. They were then given a second round of training on driving, operating detonators, and packing jackets with concealable explosives.31

The training described for the child bombers in the sources differs in that it was far more individualized, with emphasis exclusively upon ‘one-on-one’ instruction from the handlers. None of the boys who described their training indicated that they ever encountered any other trainees. A one time Pakistani brick layer, who, in 2005, was found guilty in Karachi of recruiting suicide bombers for a domestic militant group, commented in an interview that when he would entice a “boy” into becoming a suicide bomber, it was important that the recruit be isolated throughout the entire process.32

Stringer Pakistan/Reuters RTR2G8Y3

A soldier holding a rocket launcher asks residents to move away from the site of a suicide bomb blast in Pakistan’s Mohmand ethnic Pashtun tribal region, 9 July 2010.

Tank City

In June 2007, a correspondent from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) visited the much-troubled Tank City in a small Pakistani tribal area on the border with South Waziristan. He was investigating a series of startling rumours spreading through the region that the Taliban had kidnapped a number of local children and forced them into joining the fight in Afghanistan. The terrible story of what had occurred in the volatile town of about a quarter-million inhabitants was revealed over the course of often whispered discussions with fearful local school officials. They confirmed that although there had been no abductions, armed Taliban recruiters had been entering area schools and telling the students thrilling tales about the grand adventure that awaited them in Afghanistan. One school official commented morosely that for quite a few students, the promise of adventure was all that it took to reel them into the clutches of the recruiters. He estimated that a total of about 200 students had been recruited from the town’s four government schools. Others had also signed up from the various private schools and madrassas in the area.

School officials professed to the visiting reporters that their acquiescence with the Taliban recruiters was not voluntary. When the police tried to stop a group of recruiters from entering a school in March 2007, it resulted in a shootout, followed by a protracted militant rampage. This prompted the authorities to adopt a more tolerant approach to the militant recruiters. According to school officials, they were certain that they would be killed if they obstructed the recruiters. One teacher commented that it was well-known that martyrdom operations were very much a part of the curriculum that the Taliban were teaching to their student recruits from Tank.33

The information unearthed by the BBC about the disturbing events in Tank City represents a larger-scale example of recruitment efforts at madrassas described in the other cases. It is also the only case where administrators at an educational institution offered a version of events about the actions of Taliban recruiters. Although their claim that they cooperated with the recruiters only as a result of coercion is self-serving, it should be noted that the violent tendencies of the recruiters in Tank City have been thoroughly documented in the Pakistani media, particularly the violence that ensued from the police attempt to block the recruiters from a Tank area school in March 2007.34 This led to a series of gun battles on the streets of Tank.35 It is also important to note that according to local school officials, a great many students were recruited from government and private schools in the area, and not solely from madrassas.

When it comes to stopping the recruitment of young boys as suicide bombers, efforts by the outside world are fraught with peril. These are often deeply reactionary areas where outsiders are viewed with suspicion. The figures who were implicated in facilitating the recruitment, such as local Mullahs, are deeply venerated, and outside opposition to their efforts might have little influence. An obvious solution is to markedly improve the poor quality of education in poor areas of Pakistan. Given the rampant corruption prevalent in Pakistan, outside efforts, such as those by foreign donors and NGOs to update Pakistan’s educational system, could fall victim to local graft and corruption. Yet, international stakeholders would nevertheless be wise to craft programs that recognize the unique challenges Pakistani boys face at the hands of a dysfunctional education system that leaves them away from home and vulnerable to predatory recruiters. At the very least, international pressure should be brought to bear against Islamabad to encourage it to make advances in the area of basic education.

Many of the stories profiled indicate that the families of the boys were unaware that they were being recruited. The recruitment only worked because the prospective child suicide bombers were isolated from their families and their communities, often for the first time, as they attended madrassahs. It was ultimately pressure from Pakistani villagers themselves that was able to curtail the recruiters. In the meantime, the outside world must recognize that the recruitment of child suicide bombers is a form of systemic child abuse and human trafficking that now exists as a largely-unrecognized war crime.


The stunning emergence of suicide bombing in Afghanistan has included a revolting pattern of recruitment of child suicide bombers in Pakistan. Recruiters target young boys when they are at their most vulnerable, at schools and madrassahs, usually when away from home for the first time. They employ familiar aggressive tactics, based upon the notion of ‘carrots and sticks.’ They tempt the boys with wondrous promises of sex, paradise, and adventure, and they brutally threaten those who do not want to go along with their plans. There is also evidence that in some cases, children with mental disabilities were manipulated into partaking in plans for suicide attacks. Community leaders were often instrumental in facilitating the recruitment of child suicide bombers. Mullahs and teachers either stood by or actively facilitated recruitment.

Pakistan has a long history of government-sanctioned recruitment of boys and young men to fight in regional wars to advance the interests of Pakistan’s rulers. What is new is the recruitment of naïve and impressionable boys to become, not just battlefield fodder, but suicide bombers. Given that the recruiters are often, although not always, unopposed, it is unlikely that the recruitment would be taking place without at least the tacit complicity of the authorities.

The conservative order that holds sway over tribal areas and other parts of rural Pakistan limits the influence of outsiders. A first step would require vast improvements to Pakistan’s haphazard educational system, which fails to reach many of its most vulnerable in any meaningful way. Poor families have few options but to send their young sons to madrassahs, where they are away from home and susceptible to the predatory advances of recruiters. Cases where the recruiters were forced to scale back their operations typically involved pressure from local villagers for them to stop. The outside world, including the NGO community, must recognize the unique challenges faced by young boys in the region, and champion them with the same concern it showed for girls’ education in the region by pressuring Pakistan to improve its often ramshackle education system that leaves children isolated and at the mercy of murderous terrorist recruiters. Otherwise, the next crisis in the region will elicit yet another cycle of dangerous men showing up to schools and madrassahs in rural Pakistan looking to prey upon the children inside.

Stringer Pakistan/Reuters RTR2G8US

A policeman covers his mouth to protect against dust as rescue workers and residents view the aftermath of a suicide bomb blast in Pakistan’s Mohmand ethnic Pashtun tribal region, 9 July 2010.


  1. Murray Brewster, “Child used in suicide attack on Canadian troops,” The Canadian Press, 16 May 2008.
  2. John Schmidt, Pakistan in the Age of Jihad (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), p.42.
  3. The Nobel Peace Prize 2014, “Malala Yousafzai – Biographical,” at Accessed 28 January 2017.
  4. Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), pp.43-45.
  5. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
  6. Jean-Pierre Stroobants, “Vie et mort des assassins de Massoud,” Le Monde, 19 April 2005, at Accessed 23 April 2008.
  7. Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST). 2016. Suicide Attack Database (12 October 2016 Release). [Data File]. Retrieved from 28 January 2017 at
  8. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007),” 9 September 2007, p.17.
  9. Louis Charbonneau, “UN reports sharp rise in Afghanistan attacks,” Reuters, 11 March 2008, at Accessed 11 March 2008.
  10. Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST). 2016. Suicide Attack Database (12 October 2016 Release). [Data File]. Retrieved from 28 January 2017 at
  11. Priyanka Boghani, “Why Afghanistan’s Children Are Used as Spies and Suicide Bombers,” Frontline 17 November 2015, at Accessed 7 March 2017.
  12. Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST). 2016. Suicide Attack Database (12 October 2016 Release). [Data File]. Retrieved from
  13. Sonya Fatah, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” Sonya Fatah weblog: Afghanistan, 10 October 2007, at Accessed 15 October 2007.
  14. Jason Straziuso, “Afghanistan Frees Teen Trained As Bomber,” in The Washington Post, The Associated Press, 15 July 2007, at Accessed 5 April 2008.
  15. BBC News on-line, “Karzai pardons ‘suicide bomb’ boy,” 15 July 2007, at Accessed 5 April 2008.
  16. Sonya Fatah, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” Sonya Fatah weblog: Afghanistan, 10 October 2007.
  17. Barry Bearak, “Bomber’s End: Flash of Terror, Humble Grave,” in The New York Times, 1 July 2007, at Accessed 3 July 2007.
  18. The Northwest Frontier Province was subsequently renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).
  19. Sonya Fatah, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” at Accessed 15 October 2007.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Bearak, “Bomber’s End: Flash of Terror, Humble Grave.”
  22. Robert Baer, “There is no defence against these children of death,” in The Times, 8 October 2007, at
    . Accessed 3 April 2008.
  23. Riaz Khan and Matthew Pennington, “Mixed Emotions Greet Taliban Recruiters,” in Washington Post, The Associated Press, 28 January 2007, at Accessed 23 May 2007.
  24. BBC News on-line, Mark Urban, “My Brush with a Suicide Bomber,” 3 May 2008, at Accessed 30 May 2008.
  25. IRIN News “PAKISTAN: Child suicide bombers ‘victims of the most brutal exploitation,’” 12 February 2008, at­victims-of-the-most-brutal-exploitation.
  26. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007),” 9 September 2007, pp. 77-79.
  27. Owais Mughal, “Pakistani Rupee’s Record Slide Versus US Dollar,” in All Things Pakistan, 25 May 2008, at Accessed 23 July 2008.
  28. Sonya Fatah, “Why the disabled do Taliban’s deadly work,” in The Globe and Mail, 7 May 2007, at
    Afghanistan/home/?pageRequested=2. Accessed 17 May 2007 and now available at
  29. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, “Disabled Often Carry out Afghan Suicide Missions,” National Public Radio, 15 October 2007, at Accessed 27 October 2007.
  30. UNAMA, “Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007),” p. 69.
  31. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, “Suicide Offensive,” in Newsweek, 16 April 2007, at Accessed 23 May 2007.
  32. Owais Tohid, “Who are the suicide bombers? Pakistan’s answer,” in Christian Science Monitor, 17 June 2005, at Accessed 8 March 2017.
  33. Syed Shoaib Hasan, “Recruiting Taliban ‘child soldiers,’” BBC News on-line, 12 June 2007, at Accessed 1 September 2007.
  34. The Dawn, “Jihadis try to recruit students; 3 killed in clashes,”27 March 2007, at Accessed 6 December 2007.
  35. Alamgier Bhitani, “Clashes in Tank leave six people dead,” in The Dawn, 17 May 2007, at Accessed 31 October 2007.