Al-Qaeda is using a false brand of Islamist ideology as a brainwashing tool to recruit children for suicide operations, a leading expert on children's issues in Yemen said.
Ahmed al-Qurashi, director of the Seyaj Organisation for the Protection of Children in Yemen, said child recruits constitute up to 40% of all al-Qaeda recruits in Abyan province.
Al-Qurashi attributed al-Qaeda's ability to use children in terrorist operations to the ease with which they can be misled, adding that children recruits offer no objections to the operations they are assigned.
The Seyaj organisation was founded in 2008 to protect child victims of violence, monitor and document crimes committed against children, and provide legal support for them in the courts.
Al-Shorfa met al-Qurashi and talked to him about al-Qaeda's recruitment of children.
Al-Shorfa: What is your assessment of the status of children in light of the armed confrontations between al-Qaeda and Yemeni forces in Abyan province?
Ahmed Al-Qurashi: An absurd war is raging in Abyan between all sides, and children are the most affected by it, whether they are child soldiers who die during armed confrontations, especially those recruited by al-Qaeda, or civilian children.
According to data compiled by Seyaj teams in the region, more than 50,000 displaced families left behind empty or near-empty villages and cities. In Abyan, a group that calls itself "Ansar al-Sharia" is fighting inside cities in what resembles street battles in which children are being used as soldiers in the conflict.
Al-Shorfa: Does Seyaj have data on the number of children al-Qaeda has recruited?
Al-Qurashi: No one can provide a specific number for al-Qaeda's recruits among children or adults because of the great danger involved, but we are certain that the percentage of child soldiers under the age of 18 is not less than 40% of the overall number of recruits. The recruits are tied to the organisation more on ideological grounds than as a source of livelihood, as opposed to boys younger than 18 who join government forces as a source of livelihood.
Al-Shorfa: Does this mean that al-Qaeda does not exploit families' impoverished state to recruit children?
Al-Qurashi: No not really. The majority of al-Qaeda recruits are poor and simple people, but their obedience to [al-Qaeda] leaders is tied to an ideological and religious aspect based on the premise that religious involvement in the organisation is part of worship or jihad.
The organisation does not only recruit children of poor families, since it sought to recruit Anwar al-Awlaki, who is not from a poor family. It also recruits the sons of tribesmen and important social figures and exploits that fact to persuade poor families to allow the recruitment of their children, being mindful of how the sons of sheikhs or important figures are at the forefront.
After [al-Qaeda] took control of Jaar and Zinjibar and imposed its own rules, it became the strongest presence in the region, which allowed it to recruit whoever it wanted, especially as no one can dissent against its teachings. Whoever dissents is subject to punishment prescribed by the organisation in its own court. All of these actions are crimes against humanity and against children in particular.
Al-Shorfa: Can you explain those violations?
Al-Qurashi: The organisation is committing the most heinous crimes against humanity and violations of human rights in Abyan province, and the people there are helpless.
Al-Qaeda's practices, and those of the "Ansar al-Sharia" group, created discontent among citizens. They include the execution of a person accused of killing a member of the group and execution of a 15 year-old boy after a summary trial in the group's own court that lacked the minimum standards of a fair trial. The problem lies in the intense fear and reticence on the part of families, which prevents them from objecting.
The group also cut off a 15-year-old boy's hand on charges of theft of electric cables and cut off the hand of another person who later died of his wounds.
These practices are similar to what happened in Afghanistan. I want to emphasise that the recruitment of children is a crime against humanity and a war crime under prevailing international norms, so what about the execution of a child or cutting off his hand by a terrorist organization that does not have the right to do so
We are also not ruling out cases of sexual abuses against child soldiers. However, their families and Yemeni tribal communities cannot disclose such crimes because according to the traditions and customs of [Yemeni] society the disclosure of such crimes is taboo and they bring shame on the tribe.
Al-Shorfa: Why does al-Qaeda recruit children?
Al-Qurashi: Children and adolescents under the age of 18 carry out operations they are assigned with without complaints or objections, and al-Qaeda uses ideological and religious tactics that are drawn from a highly accepted value system within society in its recruitment of children. The organisation targets children because they are more acquiescent to implementing directives and are more enthusiastic. We have information confirming that many of those who carried out suicide attacks did not press the detonation button and were merely carriers of the explosive devices. The operation was carried out from a distance by someone else, or through a telephone signal. So we can say that the child suicide [bomber] may not be aware of what he is about to do.
Add to that that the organisation bestows on child suicide bombers the names of companions of the Prophet Muhammad as nicknames, such as Abu Dujana or other nicknames to increase the level of enthusiasm so that the child does not back out of executing a suicide operation.
The families of those soldiers are often unaware that their son is involved with an armed group. They observe his behaviour and perceive it to be devotion to religious practices and performance of rites, and they are unaware of the unknown fate that awaits their son.
Al-Shorfa: Will al-Qaeda's crimes and violations be included in Seyaj's report this year?
Al-Qurashi: All the crimes that we are talking about and are being monitored by the organisation will constitute the content of the organisation's report for this year. Seyaj publishes annual reports, and the reports have gained global attention. Information included in the 2009 and 2010 reports about the exploitation of children in armed conflicts and battles of the Saada war were included in the report of the Secretary General of the United Nations.
I am asking the international community to help Yemen so that a state of law and stability can be established because if the situation continues as it is, Yemen will become worse than Afghanistan was, and al-Qaeda will be the biggest beneficiary of current events.