QUETTA -- Militant groups are resorting to kidnapping and brainwashing children to carry out suicide attacks in Balochistan, officials say.
"The militant groups are losing ground in the ongoing war against terror in Balochistan, and now the 'martyrdom' missions are their only source of revenge," said Muhammad Rizwan Khalid, a senior intelligence official in Quetta.
"The use of child bombers has grown dramatically because the radical groups are trying to seize the attention of state and society," Khalid told Pakistan Forward.
"Law enforcement is taking every possible step to foil the re-emergence of radical groups," he said.
Authorities have seen grim instances of children turned into bombers in Balochistan.
Last November, a teenaged boy blew himself up in a Sufi shrine in Khuzdar, killing at least 52 people.
"Extremist groups are involved in kidnapping children whom they brainwash into carrying out suicidal attacks," said Khalid.
"Missing children in different parts of the province are a serious concern for us," Shoaib Wajid, a senior Interior Ministry official, told Pakistan Forward. "We suspect that militant groups might be involved."
Authorities in Quetta recently stopped a 10-year-old local girl from emulating the Khuzdar bomber, said Wajid, citing her arrest by the Frontier Corps' February 1.
Saima, the girl, "said she was being forced to blow herself up in a crowd [someday] by her militant abductors", said Wajid. "The authorities are still looking for her parents."
Alarmed by the prospect of more Saimas, "various intelligence agencies in Balochistan are working closely to destroy the operational capability of those militant groups involved in suicide bombing", said Wajid.
Looking for vulnerabilities
Militants take advantage of various situations that they can exploit, both to save money and to find vulnerable children, authorities say.
For example, militants who have been known to pay the parents of child suicide bombers feel no need to pay the parents of a kidnapped child who has disappeared and whose whereabouts are unknown, Maj. (ret.) Mohammad Omar, a senior security analyst in Islamabad, told Pakistan Forward.
"In such cases, they feel freed from compensating the [bomber's] family," he said.
Meanwhile, the "sympathisers of militant groups play a key role in choosing children for suicide missions", said Omar, adding that they consider child labourers more vulnerable to recruitment.
Child labourers, who are trapped in poverty, are responsive to the promise of some money in the present and of big rewards in the afterlife, he said.
"Security agencies must keep a sharp eye on such children," advised Omar, citing the "absence of proper attention to the matter".
He urged "concrete and visionary steps" to protect vulnerable children.
"Suicide terrorism is one of the biggest challenges to our national security," warned Quetta-based defence analyst Muhammad Hanif. "It's essential to curb the operational capabilities of terrorist groups."
Fighting the misuse of Islam
Challenge the extremists' message, urged Hanif.
"Without countering the propagation of extremist narratives, fighting terrorism can't achieve positive results," he said. "It's very important ... to involve civil society, religious scholars and tribal leaders in foiling the militants' propaganda war."
"Religious scholars can play a significant role in curbing suicide terrorism because they have great influence on the general public," Moulana Abdul Rauf, a religious scholar in Pashin District, told Pakistan Forward.
The voice of religious scholars matters in places like the Balochistan tribal areas, where "radical elements have strong roots and where their supporters ... normalise their anti-peace activities", he added.
Rauf denounced militants' misuse of Koranic verses.
"Nothing in the Holy Koran justifies suicide attacks," he said, adding that the Koran warns of strict punishment in the afterlife for suicide. "The Koran says that if you kill someone 'unjustly', it is tantamount to killing all of humanity."