Pakistan's top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, is buying children as young as 7 to serve as suicide bombers in the growing spate of attacks against Pakistani, Afghan and U.S. targets, U.S. Defense Department and Pakistani officials say.
A Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said the going price for child bombers was $7,000 to $14,000 - huge sums in Pakistan, where per-capita income is about $2,600 a year.
"[Mehsud] has turned suicide bombing into a production output, not unlike [the way] Toyota outputs cars," a U.S. Defense Department official told reporters recently. He spoke on the condition that he not be named because of ongoing intelligence efforts to catch Mehsud, a prime target for a U.S. and Pakistani anti-Taliban campaign.
An apparent U.S. effort to kill Mehsud last week failed. On Sunday, the Pakistani government offered a reward of about $615,300 for information leading to the capture of Mehsud, dead or alive. The U.S. State Department has offered a bounty of $5 million for Mehsud, who is thought to be hiding in the tribal areas near the Afghan border.
Suicide bombings have become frequent in Pakistan in the past year, including high-profile attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners, as well as on Pakistani police and military installations. There has also been a spate of such attacks directed at U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. official said the price depends on how quickly the bomber is needed and how close the child is expected to get to the target.
"[Mehsud] produces these suicide bombers, which are sold or bartered, which can be used by [Afghan Taliban leader Mullah] Omar's Taliban or ... other groups," the U.S. official said.
In some cases, he said, the children are kidnapped and then sold to Mehsud.
Using child suicide bombers "is the grim reality of the Taliban Frankenstein that now threatens to overwhelm the Pakistani state," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution scholar who chaired a review of Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy for President Obama.
Efforts to reach a spokesman for Mehsud were not successful.
The use of children in war is not unusual in Afghanistan or the tribal regions of Pakistan. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, many pre-adolescent boys became mujahedeen or freedom fighters.
There is a different cultural perspective here about the age at which a boy becomes a man, said Sher, a former Afghan freedom fighter who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect himself against Taliban retribution.
"Fighting is not the issue," Sher, who took up arms against the Russians at age 13, told The Washington Times by phone.
"What is unusual is making these young fighters into suicide bombers," he said. "That was not common in Afghanistan, not even in the past. These children are brainwashed to believe things that are not even true. It is a crime against God."
In other conflicts, such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, suicide bombers are generally older, at least in their late teens or early 20s.
Suicide attacks mounted by Mehsud have killed prominent officials and politicians, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and hundreds of civilians. The attacks have begun to shift sentiment among Pakistanis against the Taliban. The government has mounted an offensive to clear militants from areas close to the capital, Islamabad, although Pakistani authorities have failed to catch local Taliban leaders.
Pakistani officials have said their next target is the rugged region along the Afghan border where al Qaeda and the Taliban fled after U.S.-led forces toppled the Afghan Taliban government in Kabul in 2001.
Last week, Mehsud narrowly escaped a U.S. drone attack that killed approximately 80 people who were attending a funeral in South Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal region. U.S. officials were watching the funeral by video feed from the drone, which flew high above the scene, concealed by clouds. The drone strike was the closest the U.S. had come to killing Mehsud in the past year, U.S. officials said.
Pakistani officials told The Times that Taliban commander Qari Hussain, who was a close aide to Mehsud, was killed in the attack.
Hussein was one of the main trainers and recruiters of suicide bombers, a Pakistani government official said.
"He was a very important figure to Mehsud," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of his work. "However, Mehsud escaped the attack. Believe me, there will be no tears for Mehsud in Pakistan when he is killed."
The Taliban is a formidable enemy to the Pakistani people and government, Mr. Riedel said.
He said the Pakistani government's current military strategy against Mehsud is promising, but only time will tell whether it will succeed.
A second U.S. Defense Department official with expertise regarding the Taliban told reporters that al Qaeda and other Pakistani militant groups created by the Pakistani government to fight rival India have helped Mehsud stage suicide attacks.
The official, who also asked not to be named because of the nature of his work, said there had been a "convergence" of militants based in the tribal areas "supplemented, financed, probably trained, inculcated, by al Qaeda elements" and also "Punjab-based Pakistani terrorist groups."
"It's the relationship between the three elements that is producing effective suicide bombers and sustaining a suicide-bomb campaign inside Pakistan," the official said.