/ 7 December 2008

Raid uncovers al-Qaeda network of child bombers

A raid on a major al-Qaeda hideout north of Baghdad has uncovered evidence of a network of child suicide bombers who have been coerced into launching terror attacks across Iraq.

A blueprint for the training and recruitment of children was stored on a computer memory stick found on the body of an emir of al-Qaeda in northern Iraq after he was killed in an assault on his underground hideout in mid-November.

Military and intelligence officials believe Abu Ghazwan, the most wanted man in the Diyala province, 64km north of the capital, was directly responsible for recruiting many children as suicide bombers, including two who detonated themselves during the summer.

Data recovered from the raid reveals Ghazwan was using youth groups to recruit young men. The use of children had been seen as a way to bypass security checks that have gradually become more stringent nationwide.

United States forces have been trying for weeks to disrupt plans to lead children to their deaths. Officials remain convinced that the Abu Ghazwan cell had developed sleeper cells of children who will be directed by his successors to take part in future attacks. Such a scheme is considered depraved even in Iraq, where entrapping the most vulnerable members of society has at times become commonplace throughout three years of insurgency.

Two children did carry out attacks during the summer, with one seriously injuring a sheikh belonging to the so-called Awakening movement, also known as the Sons of Iraq, and the other killing an American soldier. Many more are understood to have been coerced and both US and Iraqi officials are trying to find them.

Last week 18 women who had been recruited as suicide bombers, also in Diyala, handed themselves in to US forces and joined the ranks of the reconciliation movement, which offers offenders pardons for past crimes if they disavow violence. Their surrender followed at least 27 attacks launched by women from the same area over the past 18 months.

A girl as young as 13 was the last to explode herself in Diyala, although a woman exploded at a Baghdad checkpoint last week. The teenager died in late October along with five other Sons of Iraq officials whom she had targeted in Baquba, the regional capital of Diyala.

A boy aged 10 blew himself up in September next to Sheikh Imad Jassem, the joint leader of the Sons of Iraq in Tarmiya, seriously wounding him. The boy had been stalking him for three days, masquerading as a flower seller across the road from the sheikh’s house. The child assassin sprinted towards the sheikh as he stepped from his front gate, but tripped and exploded his bomb prematurely. The sheikh lost one leg and is recovering in a US hospital.

His father, Sheikh Sayed Jassem, was threatened directly by Abu Ghazwan before he was killed in the shoot out in November. Sheikh Jassem and other Iraqis in town believe Abu Ghazwan recruited the child who tried to kill his son.

”We know who sent the child,” he said, hinting that the boy’s handlers were connected to the police. ”They are a gang and we have arrested some of them … We know their history; they were in full cooperation with al-Qaeda and shared all their equipment and arms. No one would dare go to the police station.”

In a statement released this week Major Al Hing from the 2nd Stryker Brigade 25th Infantry Division said: ”Beginning around March/April, we started to see a conglomeration of cells … associated with the recruitment and implementation of youth suicide bombers. In Tarmiya we saw the Lions’ Club, Fatah al-Islam, Youth of Heaven and Youth of Paradise. In the Taji area, we saw reporting related to the Youth of Heaven and in Falahat we saw the initial reporting of the Fatah al-Janna cells under Haythum Sadun.

”There were multiple reports that indicated there was a suicide cell operating in Tarmiya under the guise of Fatah al-Janna and they were … ‘brainwashing’ [young children] to conduct these types of operations.”

But within weeks the attack against Sheik Jassem was launched. ”This event suggests the suicide bomber was cognisant and aware of his actions,” said Hing. —