Many contemporary conflicts are characterised by the use of suicide bombers. In recent years, these attacks have taken a disturbing turn, with women and children increasingly being used to deliver bombs. As a parliamentarian, Roger Mullin pushed for greater political engagement with the issue of child suicide bombings. A recent trip to Northern Iraq – and an imminent return – has prompted him to highlight the issue once more. 

On the morning of Tuesday 28th March 2017, I entered Mosul under the protection of Optima Group personnel, who were stationed in Iraq to help deal with the removal of landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As we motored into the devastated city, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri could be glimpsed in the distance. But it was a large crater, left by a suicide bombing some two days earlier, that caught my immediate attention. The crater’s location showed that, like most suicide missions, the bomber had specifically targeted a busy street market to create the maximum human suffering. There have been hundreds of suicide attacks in Mosul over recent years. The rise in suicide bombings in recent years has been noted in many parts of the world (including the attack on London underground, and the unsuccessful suicide mission at Glasgow airport). But I would argue that the character and sophistication of these attacks has changed.


The first recorded suicide bomber dates to 1881, when a young Russian called Ignacy Hryniewiecki blew himself up along with the Russian Tsar. However, suicide bombings were comparatively rare until recently. During World War Two, the Japanese military at times used suicide missions, but it was never a regular, or major, feature of large-scale armed conflicts.

The nature of contemporary conflict has changed much. In conflicts between state militaries and terrorist groups, there are no set piece battles. States wage war with such advanced technological weaponry; cruise missiles and other guided weapons systems are used to pinpoint targets with little risk to those firing them. It is thus little surprise that those on the receiving end increasingly turn to new forms of conflict and new targets.


In the 21st century, suicide bombing is growing as a chosen form of combat. Suicide bombers are highly effective instruments of war, because the perpetrator functions as a sophisticated guidance system for the weapon. Whereas advanced states can use technological guidance systems, terrorist groups increasingly use human beings, either on foot or in vehicles. Suicide bombers therefore operate as part guided weapons system, part weapon. They strike at the heart of civilian life, including religious or ethnic groups and economic and cultural targets. Their impact is psychological as well as physical, causing fear and disruption to daily activity. Some of the most horrific attacks appear to have simply targeted as many civilians as possible in urban areas, such as the example cited above in Mosul in March of this year.


Suicide bombers have often been associated with extremist groups such as Daesh in Iraq and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, but the phenomenon is much more widespread. The increasing use of children and women for these acts has been noted by UNICEF, Action on Armed Violence, and others.

Many recent attacks in Afghanistan have been carried out by children, with some as young as nine having been intercepted. Often trained in Pakistani madrassahs, the young are very susceptible to indoctrination. UN sources report that in Afghanistan, child suicide bombers are sometimes given an amulet containing Koranic verses, which they are told will protect them from the explosion.

Daesh has often used child suicide bombers. It has trained hundreds of children for this purpose in camps in both Syria and Iraq. Daesh calls these children ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’. Renate Winter, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, has claimed that many of the children used as suicide bombers “are mentally challenged” and will have little or no idea of what is happening to them.

Daesh has often used child suicide bombers. It has trained hundreds of children for this purpose in camps in both Syria and Iraq. Daesh calls these children ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’.

Suicide bombings sometimes attract media attention in the West, but such is the frequency of these events in many parts of the world that they regularly go unreported. In recent weeks, as the battle for Mosul neared its end, the frequency of Daesh suicide bombings increased to the point where multiple suicide bombings were happening every day. Many of Mosul’s suicide bombings were perpetrated by children and women, many of them teenagers.  One report by AP on 3rd July documented an incident where seven women strapped with explosives tried to approach Iraqi troops, only to be repelled.


The scale of the problem is truly shocking. Back in 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that Daesh was recruiting children into armed roles under the guise of education, that they had ‘specifically recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions’. In 2015, the Iraqi Independent Commission for Human Rights reported that more than 1,000 children had been trained as suicide bombers in the six months leading up to May of that year. I deliberately cite these reports from a few years back to emphasise that this issue has been well-known for several years. Despite this, the issue has failed to elicit any great response from international governments.

More recent sources – see for example, UNICEF’s 2017 report entitled Silent Shame which reflects upon the three years which have passed since the 2014 abduction of Chibok girls by Boko Haram – report that in the conflict between the countries of the Lake Chad region (Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad) and the militant group Boko Haram, a defining feature of the conflict has been the increasing use of children in suicide attacks. Since 2014, 117 children have been used in attacks across all four countries in the crisis – 27 since the start of 2017. And in July 2017, The Independent carried a report of how a women cradling a baby in her arms in Mosul had blown herself and her baby up in a suicide bombing, with the child used as a simple decoy.


My recent visit to Mosul reinforced established concerns I have had over children being used as suicide bombers. In my previous role as an MP, I managed to 2015 to get a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate on the motion that ‘This house has considered the matter of use of children as suicide bombers’.

Sadly, from my perspective, it was a sparsely attended debate. I subsequently commented on the issue during other debates, but the issue gained little traction, either in parliament or in the media.  Why is this? It is difficult to say. On reason may be that this is such an abhorrent practice that it is difficult to believe that it actually goes on. One MP I spoke to on the issue put it to me that I must be exaggerating or it would have been receiving much more attention from governments across the globe. If only that were so.


Amidst this growing carnage, what are we to do?  As a first step, we should stop ignoring the existence, and enormity, of the problem.  Given the reports of recent years, it is clear that we only vaguely understand the key motivating factors involved, amongst the recruiters, trainers, those being trained, planners and organisers of suicide missions.

There has been a growing perception amongst groups such as Boko Haram and Daesh, that women and children make useful suicide bombers.  But we do not fully understand the variety of networks involved and the various factors at play. Even the small number of suicide missions we have seen in the UK have shown how difficult it can be to identify and prevent this activity.

I therefore continue to stand by my four calls I made to the to the UK government back in 2015. In calling for greater action, I asked:

– Given that knowledge is a key requirement for effective action, does the UK government have any plans to increase funding for research in this area, and will they take a lead internationally in calling for and co-ordinating a much better resourced and focused investigation into the patterns and causes of suicide bombing involving children

– Will the UK government take a lead in bringing together existing practice in providing education and psychological services aimed at counteracting the indoctrination of children?

– Will the UK government consider putting together a taskforce, which may include cross-party membership as well as an appropriate range of professional experts, aimed at assessing the risks posed to young people in the UK and making recommendations to government?

– Will the UK government specifically aim to take in unaccompanied refugee children as part of their refugee relief programme?

I regret that at the time, I did not place more emphasis on the plight of the many women who are victims of this terrible phenomenon. Indeed, such has been the growth in threats to women and children since the 2015 debate, I feel even more strongly about the need for intervention.  We cannot wait any longer. As has recently been observed, the systematic use of education systems to indoctrinate young minds is even more pervasive and intense now than when I raised concerns in Westminster back in 2015.

Some of the most vulnerable young minds include the large numbers of children who have been orphaned by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq but also places like Libya. Engaging with these conflicts requires that far greater emphasis is placed upon the rebuilding of educational infrastructures and the professional training and support given to teachers and support workers. We in the UK should also be much more generous in welcoming unaccompanied refugee children. They are acutely vulnerable and deserve far greater protection than we are currently offering them.

The author pulls on a protective vest whilst travelling with OPTIMA in Northern Iraq, March 2017. © David Pratt, All Rights Reserved

The UK government should look at the possibility of putting together a task force aimed at addressing this issue. This grouping could bring together expertise from the education and humanitarian communities, and others, to facilitate targeted activities in post-conflict arenas such as Mosul. Such as task force should be at the centre of long-term programmes aimed at counteracting terrorist indoctrination and its legacy.

A key priority is the need to raise the profile of this issue and help the public understand why it is in our interests to intervene and counteract the continuing exploitation of women and children by terrorists.  And this is not an issue for one government or one parliament. We in Scotland have an obligation: the Scottish government and parliament could engage more with the issues raised in this article, most obviously by ensuring that these matters are part of a ministerial portfolio, and that appropriate support is given to appropriate international action.

In a few weeks, I shall be returning to Iraq. When I do so, I hope I can take a message that real practical help is on its way which can contribute towards rebuilding safe and sustainable communities in areas devastated by conflict.

Roger Mullin is the former SNP MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. He was chairman of the cross party group in parliament that focused on landmines and IEDs. He was recently appointed as Special Envoy for the new Westminster cross party group for “Explosive Threats”. He is an Honorary Professor at Stirling University and prior to becoming an MP undertook 27 international assignments, mainly in the developing world. He writes in a personal capacity.

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