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Explosive violence and ‘child soldiers’

After some time, [the violence] became part of me
– An unnamed child soldier who fought with the rebel Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.

At the turn of the century, child soldiers were used in some three quarters of armed conflicts recorded. Since then, the number of children used in wars around the world appears to have increased even more. Figures suggest that child soldiers more than doubled in the last decade, with the UN citing the global recruitment and use of some 7,747 children – some as young as six – in 2019 alone. This short report examines how explosive weapons create the conditions for children to be recruited as child soldiers, as well as examining how children themselves are used to perpetrate acts of explosive violence.

What is a child soldier?
The pervasive image of a child soldier is that of a young boy with blank eyes clutching a weighty AK-47. This representation, however, is often misleading. As defined in the Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, child soldiers are any person below 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity; they can be used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies, or for sexual purposes. A child soldier does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken part in direct hostilities.

Why are children recruited?
Much has been written on why children are used as soldiers. In many instances, the use of children as soldiers is a question of supply and demand. Regions suffering protracted conflict are likely to have high youth populations and a reduced number of fighting-aged males. Children, accordingly, increase the military capabilities of an armed group of security force. Children also ensure the ideological continuation of an organisation, and they are easier to recruit, indoctrinate, and coerce into participating in dangerous situations. A child’s understanding of death might be fractional and thus easier to exploit. There is also a perceived tactical advantage in using children for combat operations and terrorist attacks whereby armed groups gain the element of surprise.

Explosive violence is a determinant of child recruitment
In particular, explosive violence often creates the conditions for children to be recruited by armed groups, especially those who have been displaced in refugee and IDP camps. For orphans especially, the absence of protection mechanisms or familial support, armed groups can fill the ‘childcare’ vacuum.

Where there is heightened explosive violence, there are child soldiers. AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor, shows that, over the last decade, civilians in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya have suffered the most casualties from explosive violence. All of these countries have appeared on the United States’ Child Soldiers Prevention Act list of countries whose armed forces, police, or other security forces, or government-backed armed groups recruit or use child soldiers.

Children used to make explosive weapons
We know that child labour is used to make explosive weapons. When in 2015, ISIS gained control of the city of Ramadi in Iraq, school lessons were replaced by lessons in how to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In Nigeria, the Wall Street Journal reported that a 15-year-old boy claimed he had made 500 bombs since the age of 10. He admitted that he was encouraged to innovate to make suicide bombs more difficult to defuse and to remove.

Making explosive devices is perilous work. In an account of Luìs, a Columbian child soldier, he described how he would carefully break up particles of metal supports from houses and use them to make bombs. And he acknowledged that “it was dangerous work because you cannot mix chemicals… as you prepared the cylinders, they could go off and kill many”.

Children used to operate explosive weapons
The use of children to operate explosive weapons is not a new phenomenon.

On 30 October 1980, a 13-year-old boy was caught in the thick of battle in the Iranian port of Khorramshahr, a trading city that rests along the border with Iraq. Around him lay his dead and dying comrades, Iranian men twice his age and more. Before him approached the enemy: Iraqi troops loyal to the fifth president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.

The boy, Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh, was not even a teenager when he left his Iranian home town of Qom to travel to the front to defend his country against the invading Iraqi forces, but he had seen things no boy should ever see. Caught in fierce house-to-house skirmishes through the town, it was clear the tide of battle was turning and not in his favour. The Iraqi soldiers were crushing their opposition with vastly superior firepower and they had taken a strategically important canal close to where the boy was fighting. The day was almost lost. Faced with defeat, Fahmideh chose a path that would have a profound and global impact, even if he did not know it at the time.

Perhaps driven part mad by the din of battle or perhaps part desperate that the day would end with his own death, he grabbed a hand grenade of one of the nearby bodies and ran towards the nearest Iraqi tank, pulling the pin as he did. He dived underneath the tracks and the explosive went of with a muted flash. The tank was disabled; Fahmideh died instantly. The immediate effect of his death was to slow down the Iraqis. Their commanders, unaware it had been a suicide attack, assumed a minefield had been laid and halted the advance to clear the way. The long-term impact, though, was far more significant.

To his nation, Fahmideh had committed an act of unparalleled heroism, a selfless act that earned the 13-year-old renown throughout Iran. His flawless face, framed by a dark thicket of hair, was to become a symbol of ultimate bravery and honour and in that face a new icon in the Islamic world was created: the suicidal martyr.

Such martyrdom has increased since then, in step with advances in weapons technology that mean that children are more commonly being forced into combat roles. Weapons are becoming lighter, more lethal, and easier for children to operate.

The decline in the median age of child suicide bombers is a reflection of the trend for armed groups to recruit younger, and younger, children. Randy Iljeseni, a bomb disposal expert in Nigeria, told the Wall Street Journal that bombs carried by children in Nigeria are becoming more powerful and tougher to detect. Detonators can be hidden inside books, making the bombers look like schoolchildren

IEDs are the most well documented explosive weapon used by child soldiers. During the Taliban insurgency against the Western presence in Afghanistan, many attacks were carried out by children; those as young as nine have been intercepted on suicide bomb missions. In 2010, British media reported that the Taliban in Afghanistan were forcing children to lay IEDs as they won’t shot by British snipers. These home-made IEDs often detonated before they have even been laid, resulting in child casualties.

Girl soldiering is neglected
As many as 40% of child soldiers are believed to girls, the majority of these are used as sex slaves and taken as “wives” by male fighters. Because girls are largely used in ‘support’ or ancillary roles and kept away from frontlines, they are not often perceived as associated by armed actors or communities. They can fall outside official statistics and go unseen by child protection agencies. Girls, in short, are often silent victims in war. CSI’s research has shown how the recruitment of girl soldiers has risen dramatically in recent years, jumping fourfold in 2019 to 900, although the actual number is likely to be far higher.

Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’adati wal-Jihad (JAS), a faction of Boko Haram, has gained a gruesome reputation for using women girls to carry out suicide attacks. In 2020 the New York Times reported that more than 540 women and girls have been deployed or arrested as suicide bombers in Nigeria since June 2014. Girls have been forced to hide bombs under their hijabs pretending to carry a baby or even strapping actual babies to their backs to conceal explosives. If girls are too young to properly carry out the instructions, the bomb will be detonated remotely by a third party. UNICEF estimates that of the total number of child suicide bombers in Nigeria 75% are girls.

Girls are used due to a perceived tactical advantage; they can pass through checkpoints with ease, blend into a crowd, and they are less likely than boys or men to be searched. The use of girls in suicide attacks inspires a particular terror and increases the international media attention received by armed groups. It creates paranoia among civilians and security forces, with some tragic consequences. For example, in Nigeria in 2015, a young girl wanted to pass a checkpoint and refused to be checked. The girl was consequently beaten to death by locals and set on fire afterwards because the locals believed she was wearing explosives underneath her head scarf. It later emerged that she was innocent and her refusal to be checked was because she was intimidated.

It should, however, be noted that, with the notable exception of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the use of girls in suicide bomb attacks represents an anomaly in combat operations and terrorist activity. And the media spectre of the female suicide bomber is often greater than the reality of threat.

Effects of child soldiering
Children are, horrifically, sometimes used as cannon fodder. This mean they are often more likely to be killed or injured than adult soldiers, as they are often deployed on the frontline and used for more dangerous tasks including laying or clearing mines.

Compared to children who have not been recruited by rebel groups, former child soldiers are more likely to experience economic disadvantages due to a lack of education and an inability to function in a post-conflict environment. Child soldiering expert, Roos van der Haer, told AOAV that child soldiers have it “economically much tougher than other children because of the lack of education, stigmatisation, and not knowing any other trade than fighting”.

Violence begets violence and if children have been involved in conflict, they are likely to be willing to resort again to violence, in turn increasing the likelihood of conflict recurrence. Former child soldiers are at risk of being re-recruited as well because they may be shunned and stigmatized when they return home. Higher levels of aggression have been well-attested in child soldiers. “Violence is a way of communicating and if they have a fight, or if they have a conflict with someone, and the first thing that they often do is grab their gun, because this is what they’ve learned, this is how they solve conflicts”, van der Haer, told AOAV. Without intervention child soldiers will grow up to be adult soldiers and their experiences will go undocumented.

The recruitment and use of child soldiers is one of the UN’s Six Grave Violations against children during armed conflict. and prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. All too often children are detained for their involvement in armed groups, rather than being treated primarily as victims of serious violations of international law.

Research support provided by Duncan Stewart and Luke Unger

[1] CSI, now part of Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative