QUETTA -- Militants affiliated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are kidnapping children from Balochistan and other remote parts of Pakistan to use them as suicide bombers, intelligence officials revealed in a report submitted before the federal government.
"The report filed by the counter-terrorism desk of a premier intelligence agency disclosed that Jamatul Ahrar's Fidayeen faction has been given the task of kidnapping children in remote areas [of Pakistan]," said Islamabad-based senior intelligence official Muhammad Imran.
Children in remote areas are easy targets for militants because they often travel away from their homes for work or play, leaving them unsupervised by their parents, he said.
Afghan refugee children are also prime targets because they are "undocumented", he said.
Investigations with TTP militants in custody of security forces "revealed that in the past couple of months militants abducted more than 60 children from different parts of Balochistan," Imran told Pakistan Forward.
The arrested militants revealed the TTP's strategy to the authorities, he said.
The militants and their supporters operate undercover in local towns in Balochistan, he said, and after kidnapping the children, they move them to militant hideouts in other areas where the children undergo special training.
"They are extensively brainwashing the kidnapped children and preparing them for suicide bombing," he said.
Taliban 'on the hunt' for children
The on-going war against terrorism in Pakistan has largely eliminated the capacity of Taliban militants to re-emerge as a striking force, but suicide bombing is still one of their biggest weapons, said Mamoon Syed, a senior defence official.
"Previously in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and in tribal areas of Balochistan, militants were recruiting madrassa students to turn them into human bombs, but due to madrassa reforms and registration process in the country, the militant groups are now changing their recruiting policy," he told Pakistan Forward.
Extremist scholars indoctrinate the abducted children, he said, adding that the children go through six or seven months of training and brainwashing before being deployed as suicide bombers.
Because the militants are losing ground against the Pakistani military, the "kidnapping of children for now is their most effective war tactic," he said.
"During investigations, our special teams have come to the conclusion that the Taliban and other militants involved in religious extremism are now largely on the hunt to abduct children for their survival because they received a massive setback in Pakistan's ongoing war against terrorism," Syed said.
Raising awareness on Taliban recruitment methods
"Authorities are closely working in the tribal belt of Balochistan to raise awareness among local people about the militants' strategy and their possible existence in their areas," said Nasir Mehmood, a Ministry of Interior official.
"We have informed local people via concerned security officials that they must be vigilant and keep an eye on their children," he told Pakistan Forward.
"In southwestern Balochistan, the state sponsored public awareness campaign is succeeding and proving positive results as several militants have been arrested red-handed with the help of local people when they were trying to kidnap children in Surkhab, Saranan, Tora Shah and some other areas of Pashin and Qilla Abdullah districts," he said.
"The militant groups employ various methods to recruit children ... [because of] the impression that children are less likely to arouse suspicion," he said.
"The militants often operate child bombers via handlers to ensure they don't back out," he said. "In some cases, if a child bomber attempts to escape the scene, the handler has blown up the child via remote detonator."
The emerging trend of kidnapping children and their use for suicide bombing is a serious concern that needs prompt and proper attention from the security establishment, Maj. (ret.) Muhammad Umar, a senior defence analyst, told Pakistan Forward.
"The government must view this matter in the context of widespread poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of access to education," he said. "Those tribal areas where militants are engaged in kidnapping of children are less developed than in the rest of Balochistan."
"For militants, kidnapping of children is an easy task in remote areas because there they have a strong support network and local collaborators are helping them by choosing their desired targets," Umar said.
"Teenagers are easier to recruit for suicide missions and child suicide bombers have proven to be the deadliest weapon used by militants," he said. "The rising radicalisation is fueling anarchy and providing support to the cause of militant groups."
"The government must ensure a visionary strategy to eliminate the sophisticated network of militants in the tribal belt," he said.
Busting kidnapping networks is 'top priority'
"Balochistan government has directed all the relevant security agencies to take strict action against militants and their supporters," Minister of Home and Tribal Affairs Balochistan Mir Sarfraz Bugti said October 10 during a speech to the Balochistan Provincial Assembly.
"It is our top priority to bust those groups that are involved in the kidnapping of children," he said.
"We are very concerned over the rising incidents of children's abduction in different areas of Balochistan," he said. "Our law enforcement agencies are taking every possible step to counter militancy in our region. The local public is also providing us the desired support."
Bugti highlighted a number of recent successes in the on-going operations against militant groups.
"Security agencies have broken up several militant groups," he said. "We are closely working to eliminate the capacity of TTP and other militant groups involved in suicide bombing and other anti-peace activities to re-emerge," he said.
"Several key militant commanders have also been killed in strikes," he added.