I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of use of children as suicide bombers.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, but it is sad, to say the least, that it is in a debate on such a tragic and difficult topic. I welcome the Minister. I am very aware that he has faced a personal family tragedy related to an act of terrorism that included a suicide bombing. I am indebted to him for his willingness to speak in the debate, and I very much look forward to his contribution.
Although, like most people, thankfully, I have not suffered in the same way as the Minister’s family, I have had some contact over the years with situations of conflict. Although those do not constitute a declarable interest, it is perhaps appropriate briefly to establish my own background and interest in the topic. I have worked at times in places that have suffered from serious conflict. At one stage in my career, I was briefly surrounded by heavily armed individuals in Aden in Yemen, fearing that I might be about to be kidnapped. Fortunately, the situation was resolved, but I still remember the feeling of fear and helplessness. I have tutored around eight undergraduate and postgraduate prisoners in the H-blocks of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, including some found guilty of bombings. I have worked in places such as the Namibia-Angola border not long after a major conflict. Perhaps in part because of that background, I am now the chair of the all-party group on explosive weapons.
I have for many years been an observer of conflict. I am drawn to this debate because of my judgment that we have entered a new era that brings with it some horrendous developments, of which child suicide bombers is, for me, the most awful. Although the first recorded suicide bomber was a young Russian called Ignacy Hryniewiecki, who in 1881 blew himself up along with the Russian Tsar, suicide bombings were comparatively rare until very 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. I believe that developments that now mean that some states wage war on terrorist groups with such advanced technological weaponry that it is no longer a case of facing armies or armed groups face to face are a contributory factor to the rise in suicide bombings. Thus, when cruise missiles or drones are used, those on the receiving end increasingly turn to new forms of conflict and new targets.
The 21st century has become the age of the suicide bomber, and suicide bombing is growing exponentially as a chosen form of combat. A recent report by Action on Armed Violence revealed that in 2014 there were no fewer than 3,463 civilian casualties from suicide bombings, but in the early months of 2015, the number was already around 5,000. I would like to acknowledge the work of Action on Armed Violence and of UNICEF, both of which are observing today’s debate, and I hope to do them some justice. The weekend death toll of the attack in Turkey, which appeared to target demonstrators for peace, is a further example of how devastating such attacks can be.
A study by the University of Chicago claims that 36 countries have suffered from suicide bombings, with more than 30,000 people killed over the past 30 years, including in the UK and, of course, in this city in particular. I must, too, acknowledge an attempted suicide bombing at Glasgow airport. The number of failed attempts worldwide is unknown, but even fails can often cause alarm and affect people’s way of life.
What and who are suicide bombers? They are highly effective, 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. Often, these attacks happen far away from a traditional battlefield, if such a battlefield even exists, and 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.
Suicide bombers have often been associated with extremist groups such as Daesh and Boko Haram, but the phenomenon is escalating beyond those notorious groups. Most academic studies of what motivates suicide bombers address adults, which is perhaps unsurprising given that children as suicide bombers is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Such studies that exist, such as those of those of Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago and Professor Scott Atran of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the University of Michigan, can at times draw different conclusions, but they agree that overly simplistic views such as those of ex-President George Bush, who said that the suicide bomber
“hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises dissent”,
are, to quote Professor Atran,
“hopelessly tendentious and wilfully blind”.
Such comforting simplicity is no basis for understanding, let alone for constructing a policy. We need to understand much more about the motives and beliefs of adults before we can understand fully their motives for choosing to use children. One thing seems sure: addressing the problem by military means alone will do little to stop the spread of this horrendous practice.
The escalation in recent years of suicide bombings is happening along with the growth in using children as suicide bombers. The exploitation of children, treating them as mere dispensable tools of conflict, is a development that we do not fully understand. Such details as are becoming known confirm the need for everyone to refocus and do more to understand and address this trend. Examples of the growth in recent times of child suicide bombers are sadly not hard to find. It is claimed that some are as young as seven, although confirmation is often difficult. The youngest UK citizen to become a suicide bomber was 17-year-old Talha Asmal, who in June this year was involved in an attack in Iraq. It seems only a matter of time before even younger children among our own community become involved, unless we can find more effective preventive actions.
The scale of the problem worldwide is truly shocking. Take the case of Iraq. The Iraqi Independent Commission for Human Rights recently estimated that more than 1,000 children have been trained as suicide bombers in the six months up to May 2015. Think of it—1,000 children. In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council found that Daesh was recruiting
“children into armed roles under the guise of education”
and that they were being
“deployed in active combat missions during military operations, including suicide bombing missions”.
In Nigeria since July 2014, the latest information shows that there have been nine suicide bombings involving children between the ages of seven and 17, all of whom were girls. Many of the attacks in Afghanistan are carried out by children. It is reported that some as young as nine have been intercepted. Often trained in Pakistani madrassahs, they are very susceptible to indoctrination. There are reports that in Afghanistan, child suicide bombers are sometimes given an amulet containing Koranic verses, which they are told will protect them from the explosion.
Given the current crisis in Syria, it is instructive to note that Daesh is increasingly using suicide bombings involving children. Indeed, hundreds of children are undergoing training as suicide bombers in camps in Syria and Iraq. Daesh calls these children, “Cubs of the Caliphate”. There are several reports of hundreds of children being kidnapped by Daesh and forced into their camps. In February, a Daesh video was released showing a training camp for children. Renate Winter, a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, claimed that many of the children being used as suicide bombers “are mentally challenged” and will have little or no idea of what is happening to them. It therefore seems probable that some of the young children being used are particularly susceptible to exploitation.
Furthermore, ongoing conflict in Syria and Nigeria is uprooting families and leading to many thousands of unaccompanied and separated children, who then become particularly vulnerable to terrorist groups. Put simply, it is comparatively easy to kidnap children under no one’s care. That is partly why I am particularly keen for the UK to welcome as many unaccompanied child refugees as possible.
However, it is, of course, not only via camps that children can be indoctrinated. The internet is well used by terrorists, radical clerics and others as a means of getting to young people and turning them. Indeed, there are as many channels for indoctrination as there are methods of training and education, yet it seems that the terrorists are ahead of the game in many respects. We need to know more and do more to protect children.
Wider concerns are now being expressed regarding child suicide bombers. UNICEF, for example, is concerned that the trend in child suicide bombers could lead to children increasingly being viewed as potential threats, placing many children at further risk. Furthermore, according to UNICEF, tens of thousands of children are receiving some form of psychological support as a result of the effects of conflict. People in psychological distress may be additionally vulnerable in many situations.
What is to be done? I have four matters to put to the Minster for reflection. First, we need to know much more about this phenomenon. Knowledge is a key requirement for effective action. Do the 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?
Secondly, will the Government take a lead in bringing together existing practice in providing education and psychological services aimed at counteracting the indoctrination of children?
Thirdly, will the Government at least 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?
Finally, will the Government specifically aim to take in unaccompanied refugee children as part of their refugee relief programme?
As a new MP and one from Scotland, it would have been easy to avoid this difficult topic and to seek a debate on some domestic issue that was much less harrowing. Indeed, I know that some people may question whether this should be a political priority of mine; after all, I am not a spokesperson on either defence or foreign affairs. However, I am sure, that the Minister will fully agree at least about the importance of this topic.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Evans, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) on securing it and on giving us chance to participate. As I said to you, Mr Evans, and to the shadow Minister and the Minister, I have another Committee to go to, so I apologise for having to leave early. That does not take away from the debate’s importance.
When we think about this matter, we are aware of the horror of what takes place, as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has outlined. I hope that examples that he has given and others will explain the true horror that comes from using children as suicide bombers. Unfortunately, as terrible as this is, it is a daily reality for hundreds of vulnerable, impressionable children. Understanding why it happens is simple: children are easy targets—they are easily impressed—and the people using children for these horrific purposes have no capacity whatever to care about that.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) on securing this timely debate. The psychological welfare of young people has been mentioned, but how do we deal with the issue of children of Christian families in Syria being taken, with the threat of death to their families if the children do not carry out suicide bombings? I agree entirely that we need to address psychological welfare through education, but how do we deal with that situation?
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for that intervention. I wish I had the answer he wants, but I am not capable of giving it to him. As he knows, however, the persecution of Christians is an issue very close to my heart. In last night’s Adjournment debate, I made the point to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), who secured it, that 600,000 Christian Syrians have been displaced because of their belief. Many of them have been given the ultimatum “convert or die”, and when their children are kidnapped and used for these nefarious purposes, there is all the more reason to be concerned about the situation. This is a big issue and it needs to be tackled.
Like the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, I want to put on the record my sympathies for the people who lost their lives in Turkey over the weekend. They were involved in a peaceful protest. Nothing violent was ever supposed to happen, but they were cruelly murdered and injured. We need to put on the record our sympathies for all those who lost their lives.
I lived through the Troubles; I am old enough to remember them and to have participated in uniform as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, trying to thwart the activities of evil men and terrorists in Northern Ireland. I am also old enough to recall many of the people who died and the funerals I attended, all because of the evil activities of IRA terrorists. Again, perhaps those murders and bombings—indiscriminate bombings against innocent civilians, who were not involved in any way—give us just a wee insight into what happens.
The use of children in wars is nothing new; it is a tactic adopted by many in conflict. We can all conjure up the dreadful images of the child fighters used in Sierra Leone not so long ago, in other parts of Africa and in Burma, to name but a few. Again, children were used simply because they were children. Using them as suicide bombers is simply the next stage. It is a natural progression and means that a small child can be used to cause maximum devastation, while not sacrificing adult fighters who might be of more use elsewhere. That is what this is really all about: it is plainly and simply selfish. It has nothing to do with glory or anything else that fighters try to tell children. Let us not be under any illusion about that. The people who use children to fight or who strap bombs to their chest have absolutely no remorse. They do not care for or value human life; for them, there can be no consideration or distinction given for the innocence of a child.
In July this year, ISIS revealed the name of a young boy who had been responsible for the deaths of 50 Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Omar Hadid al-Muhammadi was just 14 years of age. Most of us sitting here today have children far older than that. Think back, Mr Evans, just for a second, to when your own nieces or nephews were just 14. What were they doing? I suppose that, like my own sons, they were staying out a little later with their friends and spending a little less time with their father and mother and a little more time with girls—having girlfriends one week and being heartbroken the next. That is life; that is what happens. At 14, however, they were still easily influenced. They copied their friends and followed the crowd, as teenagers often do in an attempt to fit in, but that is simple stuff; that is all part of growing up.
Being forced to strap a bomb around your chest is not part of growing up—nor is being told, as young Abdul Samat was, that bombs will not kill you but will kill only Americans. Those are the lies that children are fed, and they are brainwashed to believe them. The saddest thing is that they are also brainwashed to believe that killing Americans or British servicemen is the will of Allah, of God, and that they will be rewarded highly for it.
The children are well chosen. They are often highly illiterate and they are fed a diet of anti-western and anti-Afghan Government propaganda until they are prepared to kill, as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said in his introduction. As has been mentioned, the boys are also assured that they will miraculously survive the devastation that they cause. How can that be possible? A senior Afghan intelligence officer said:
“The worst part is that these children don’t think that they are killing themselves. They are often given an amulet containing Koranic verses. Mullahs tell them, ‘When this explodes you will survive and God will help you survive the fire. Only the infidels will be killed, you will be saved and your parents will go to paradise’.”
It is very clearly brainwashing, a conditioning of young people’s brains and minds.
At no time at all is it acceptable to use children as suicide bombers, and now that is spreading west—certainly the mindset is, anyway. In June this year, we learned that a 17-year-old British boy from west Yorkshire was responsible for the deaths of 10 troops near Baiji. In typical ISIS fashion, images of the boy emerged, in commemorative style, following the suicide attack. More worrying is the circulation of reports claiming that many people are not forced into carrying out these attacks, but request it. That is quite worrying. For someone who is completely committed to the Islamic State ideology, a hard-core supporter of jihadism and the caliphate, killing themselves in a suicide operation is the greatest honour that they can have. In territories controlled by Islamic State, there are even registers on which people can sign up to commit these attacks. The worrying thing is that they are brainwashed; they are conditioned to feel that it is the right thing to do. How do we address that issue?
The whole thing is glamourised. That is done purposefully to encourage easily impressionable children and young people into making dangerous and misinformed decisions. That is the heart of the issue and unfortunately it is not something that is easily resolved. In recent years, many adult fighters have found it increasingly difficult to hit their targets, and children generally prove to be more successful. For many families, there is little choice but to put their children directly in the line of fire, so to speak, in that they have to send them to schools to receive education but often those prove to be key recruitment areas for Taliban fighters. For many poor families in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a madrassa is often the only option to ensure that their children receive free education and safe lodgings; I mean “safe” in the loosest sense of the word. It is safer in terms of location, in that it is not in the streets, directly in the line of fire, but with the ever increasing threat of recruitment by Taliban fighters, the choices that parents are often faced with are extremely difficult.
Just as the fact that they are children makes no difference, nor does gender. A 10-year-old girl, Spozhmai, got international media attention when she was detained on 6 January 2014 in the southern Helmand province. She said that her brother had tried to make her blow herself up at a police checkpoint.
Perhaps the Minister and the shadow Minister will also mention this matter; I hope that I will be here for their contributions, but I may not be. The question is how we address these issues. I think that one thing that we need to do is, obviously, to have direct contact with those who are of the Muslim religion, because we have seen some indication that people with religious viewpoints are trying to persuade children and young people not to get involved.
We need to address the issue of cyber-contact. We need websites that are set up to combat the attractive scenes that they seem to set in ISIS areas. Last weekend, I heard that a group of people of the Muslim religion had set up a specific base to try to combat that. Are we working alongside such organisations to ensure that we address those issues? We have to do that in Britain as well, because the fact that young people are leaving here and going to fight for ISIS elsewhere in the world is an indication that something is not right. How do we address that issue? We need to speak to these young people. We need to be more influential. We need to be on the websites that they are looking at. We need to be telling them the truth.
In 2011, an eight-year-old girl was killed in central Uruzgan province when she carried remotely controlled explosives to a police checkpoint in a cloth bag—an eight-year-old. I ask the question: what did that eight-year-old really know? Cases of girls carrying out attacks are fewer, but they exist and I fear that they will increase as people are less likely to expect young girls to carry out such attacks. We must do more to protect vulnerable children from being recruited, brainwashed and ultimately tricked into sacrificing themselves for something that they cannot even begin to comprehend.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on bringing this issue to the House for consideration. I thank him for giving us a chance to participate, for highlighting such an important issue, for asking for change and for asking us all to use our influence where we can among those who have influence within religious organisations. With regard to websites and whatever cyber-contact there may be, we need to ensure that these people are persuaded that there is not a future in ISIS or in being involved as a suicide bomber and that the repercussions for them and for others are too extreme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, for the first time, at least in Westminster Hall, but undoubtedly not the last. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) on securing this very important and timely debate. I echo his remarks about our condolences to all those affected by the bombing in Turkey at the weekend and our outrage at such terrible events as well as those about the Minister’s experience and commitment to these issues; it is right that that should not be overlooked.
I am not totally certain about the protocol for these things, but I want to commend the House of Commons Library for the substantial briefing pack that it produced for the debate. It was extremely thorough, and I was struck in particular by the historical notes that it included on the role of children in conflict. It looked right back to the middle ages, when boys were used as pages; they would squire for knights and go into conflict. It went right through to the under-age boys and young men signing up surreptitiously to fight in world war two.
Just before the October recess, the Minister responded to a debate in this Chamber about the arms trade. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke in that debate very powerfully about the role of child soldiers in conflict today. Some 250,000 children around the world have been conscripted into conflict against their human rights, as I will go on to say. My hon. Friend said that Governments around the world should be aiming
“to get children out of army uniforms and into school uniforms.”—[Official Report, 17 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 396WH.]
The harm caused to children and the legacy for child soldiers during the rest of their lives is well known and horrific enough, but the use of children as suicide bombers takes the involvement of children to the extreme —an extremity that, sadly, seems to be becoming the norm. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also spoke very powerfully about the complex and horrific circumstances and abuse that children experience, the conditioning that they experience, before they become a suicide bomber. That gives us all something to reflect on.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said, the increasing use of suicide bombing generally and particularly that involving children perhaps reflects the changing nature of warfare today—the increasingly asymmetrical nature of warfare and conflicts around the world. It is important that we consider why that might be. We do not have an awful lot of time to do that today, but I would caution about what might often be seen as a willingness to rush into conflict rather than taking a diplomatic route. The use of indiscriminate and sometimes overwhelming military force, very blunt instruments in very complex situations, perhaps provokes equally blunt and horrific responses. None of that, of course, is an excuse for the use or involvement of children in conflict and particularly not as suicide bombers.
The rights of children are protected under the UN convention on the rights of the child, and over the past year we have marked 25 years since its signing and adoption. UNICEF has described the convention as
“the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history.”
As is often, sadly, the case, ratification and adoption are not necessarily the same as implementation, and there is still a duty on Governments around the world to reflect on how well they are implementing that convention—particularly article 38, which calls on Governments
“to respect and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child…take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities…refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces”
“In accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts,”
“take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.”
The recruitment of children as suicide bombers is in direct contravention of the rights afforded to children under the convention on the rights of the child. Indeed, the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court lists
“conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities”
in international or non-international armed conflict as a war crime. Anyone recruiting or using a child as a suicide bomber is, de facto and de jure, a war criminal under the Rome statute of the ICC. That is reflected in the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflicts, and it brings home to us the gravity of the situation and the seriousness with which we should respond.
I want to reflect on two conflicts that are, perhaps, somewhat overlooked. First, I want to mention the situation in Nigeria, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath touched on, and in particular the use of women and girls as suicide bombers in that conflict. It would be interesting to hear what representations the Government have made, or are prepared to make, to the new President of Nigeria to seek a peaceful end to that conflict and to secure the protection of children.
Secondly, I want to highlight the reports on the worsening conflict in Yemen, into which children are being drawn as soldiers or suicide bombers. The Minister may be aware of reports by Amnesty International of weapons made in Britain being sold to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen; it would be interesting to know how he plans to respond to those reports. He can expect some written questions from me on the matter.
I do not have much more to add to the profound and detailed contributions made by the two previous speakers, but I want to echo the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for information on how the Government plan to increase funding for research into the matter. What support can they provide for educational psychological services to counteract the indoctrination of children, and how will they assess risks posed to young people in the United Kingdom? How will the Government welcome and support unaccompanied refugee children into the UK? What comfort and security can those children expect when they attain adulthood? Will they be granted leave to remain in the UK, having spent their childhood here and grown up here after being taken in as refugees? Those are helpful examples of concrete steps that must be taken as part of a wider global effort to build peace and security, and above all to protect future generations from the horrors of war and conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I offer my genuine thanks to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) for raising this topic. His contributions and those of the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) highlighted the chilling nature of this war crime, which is being perpetrated in many regions of Africa and the middle east, and which, as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath mentioned, sadly also finds origins in the United Kingdom. We need a measured approach to the problem, but we must recognise that it exists, quantify it and look at how the UK Government can support efforts, in-region and across the world, to reduce and stop the crime.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath mentioned several countries—Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chad, to name just a few—where child suicide bombers are now being used. I had not noticed until my preparation for the debate this morning that there was a report only this weekend of women and child suicide bombers killing dozens of Nigerian refugees in Chad. The article states:
“Two women and children were among the five suicide bombers who attacked the village’s busiest markets”
in the Baga Sola region of Chad, where 36 people were killed this weekend. That emphasises the need to quantify, record and assess where, how and when child suicide bombers are used, and to take a proactive response to addressing the problem.
According to recent reports, ISIS has trained more than 1,000 children to become suicide bombers over the past six months, as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath mentioned. Action on Armed Violence and UNICEF have taken a strong interest in the matter. In a report produced in August this year with the title “2015: an epidemic of suicide bombers”, Action on Armed Violence stated:
“Between January and the end of July this year, over 5,000 civilians have been killed and injured by suicide bombings globally. This is a 45% increase from the same period in 2014”.
That can be traced back to the increasing use of suicide attacks by militant rogue elements, such as ISIS/Daesh, which, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is now training people under the soubriquet “Cubs of the Caliphate”. The United Nations Human Rights Council has found that ISIL is recruiting
“children into armed roles under the guise of education”
and that children are being
“deployed in active combat during military operations, including suicide missions.”
The Iraqi Independent High Commission for Human Rights has estimated that 1,000 children have been trained to become suicide bombers.
It is clear from the events in Chad this weekend that Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and southern Chad is using child suicide bombers to a greater extent. In fact, 75% of the suicide attacks in Nigeria in the past 12 months have been undertaken by children, all of whom, as the hon. Gentleman pertinently highlighted, were girls. That says something about the mindset of the individuals who carry out the attacks. Boko Haram is exporting these practices to the neighbouring African nations of Chad and Cameroon, neither of which had experienced suicide attacks before 2015.
The UNICEF representative in Nigeria has made the important point that child suicide bombers are as much victims of the terrorist activity as they are potential perpetrators. We should remember that and look at how we can address the problem. As the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, for Strangford and for Glasgow North have said, it is one thing for an adult over the age of 18 to determine that they will undertake such activity. Throughout history, there have been kamikaze pilots, suicide attacks and suicide protests. However, for children—particularly girls—to be identified, groomed, trained and sacrificed in these attacks is a new and horrific development. We should remember that in our discussions.
This is an international problem. Who would have thought, Mr Evans, when you and I arrived in the House 23 years ago, that there would be a situation such as this? A child has been groomed in Dewsbury, travelled to an area of the world where there is an international terrorist conflict and, in that part of the world, has blown themselves up to support a cause against the interests of the United Kingdom. Who would have thought, 23 years ago, that that would happen?
There are no party divisions on this issue; something has changed and something needs addressing. The difficult question for all of us is: what can that be? If there were an easy solution, we would undertake it. The question is, what could that solution be? I will throw a few ideas on the table, which I hope will help the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. We cannot necessarily solve this problem, but we can play a role in helping to understand and address it.
The first suggestion that the Minister could seriously consider, or at least comment on, was made by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath: do we know how many attacks involving children occur each year? If we see press reports of a suicide attack in a particular country, do we know whether it was undertaken by a child or an adult? Why does that matter? It matters because an attack undertaken by an adult may require a different level of motivation and response than that required in an attack undertaken by a child, which might be due to different circumstances.
All such attacks are treated the same in terms of press reports, news response and the impact on families such as the Minister’s family. We need to differentiate between them and examine which suicide attacks are undertaken by children and why. The UK Government will not make that assessment alone, but I welcome the Minister’s contribution on the idea of getting a proper assessment, through the United Nations and others, of what action is taken and how.
The second thing is a more fundamental issue that addresses not only child suicide bombers, but the development of terrorism and radicalisation generally: the use of the internet, promotional material and social media, and how that is regulated and monitored. Those are sensitive and difficult topics. The Government will look at those matters through Home Office legislation and will continue to do so on an international basis, but there has to be a balance between the freedom to promote ideas, the freedom to say things and the freedom to promote radicalisation via the internet and social media. I welcome the Minister’s contribution on that. We need an assessment of how we can deal with the issue in a positive and effective way. For example, I cannot control what happens in Syria or Chad, but I could influence people’s views on those issues through social media.
Talha Asmal was the 17-year-old from Dewsbury who detonated a vehicle fitted with explosives while fighting for a militant group in Iraq. Farooq Yunus from the Zakaria mosque in Dewsbury said that we have failed these boys. The community said:
“ISIS is running a sophisticated social media campaign and the community is concerned their faith is being used by hate preachers and internet groomers to manipulate their religion.”
It is very difficult for the UK Government to influence remote areas of Chad, where Boko Haram, an essentially fascist terrorist organisation that is not concerned about the rules of international law, captures girls and makes them go and bomb other regions of Chad. However, it is possible for the Minister, with Home Office colleagues, to look at what material comes through the internet to people such as Talha Asmal in Dewsbury. It is possible to try to track that back to see where grooming takes place. We would do that if it were paedophile material or if people were trying to secure individuals for sexual purposes. We approach this in a controlled, libertarian way, but in a way that ensures that radicalisation does not take place using those methods.
We should also look at what we need to do in-region, and that is where the Foreign Office will play its role. The hon. Member for Glasgow North mentioned the Nigerian president and the new Nigerian Government. I confess that they are probably as concerned about what is happening in northern Nigeria and southern Chad as the UK Government are. The question for us is, what can we do to support them to achieve their objectives of cracking down on Boko Haram and on suicide bombings by children and others? How can we help to strengthen community leaders, give advice to Governments and potentially help them with some of the issues of social media and radicalisation? We should look into how we can strengthen responsible community leaders where we can. We are not responsible for Chad and northern Nigeria, but we can help to support the Governments accordingly. It will not be simple but it is important that the Government have a strategy to look at those areas.
I was particularly struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North, which I also wanted to make: that this is clearly and utterly a war crime. Would the Minister give a signal? If we have evidence that a suicide bomb in a particular country—as in the Minister’s own personal case—killed a UK citizen, in respect of war crimes should we not look at those who are potentially radicalising but not actually committing the offence as well as the issue of international murder? Will the Minister clarify what steps he believes we should take with those who are grooming and training, or developing into, suicide bombers who we know, through intelligence or through co-operation with other Governments, are undertaking those activities? There is potential for us to look at how we can help to facilitate those prosecutions and that activity. There is a role for the UK Government, on an international stage, to support the development of tackling war crime issues in international courts.
Finally, I would appreciate the Minister’s support of the suggestion by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath about unaccompanied children. If there are instances where the UK Government can help, a very productive way to assist vulnerable refugees would be for the Government to look at how we can help to take people out of conflict zones and into a place of safety. Children are made into potential suicide bombers for a range of reasons, but it is clear that their being separated from their families and falling into company encouraging such activities is certainly not a positive thing.
I welcome the debate. There will not be much difference between us on the fact that the issue is chilling, horrendous and needs to be stopped. I have mentioned some suggestions that we could look into. The Minister will, undoubtedly, make a contribution in other areas. The key thing is that, although we are not directly responsible for prevention in all spheres, there are things that we can do.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for giving us this opportunity to air the issues. I hope the Minister will be able at least to highlight some concrete potential areas of travel so that we can play our role in helping to end the conflicts that lead to this activity, to take action against the terrorist organisations that are destabilising many areas of Africa and the middle east and, particularly, to do what we can to stop the chilling phenomenon of child suicide bombers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) on securing this important debate and on his measured contribution. He struck the right tone. I also thank him for his personal comments. My family and I are grateful for the manner in which he raised those issues.
I thank other hon. Members for their contributions, and I welcome the shadow Minister to his role. He and I have known each other for some time, although not for 23 years—I have not been here that long. He comes from a Home Office background, and he has huge experience of security matters. I am pleased to see him with a Foreign Office brief. He will have much to contribute.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) covered a number of issues concerning Nigeria and Yemen, which I will address. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a regular contributor to such debates, is unfortunately not able to be in the Chamber, but he highlighted the brainwashing of children, which I will also address. I will focus primarily on the remarks, comments and thoughts of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.
The use of children as suicide bombers is a grave issue, and I am sure the House is united in its condemnation and deep sadness at the practice. As we have been reminded just this weekend in Turkey, any suicide bombing is a tragedy, and the use of children as weapons in that way is truly heartbreaking. Children involved in suicide attacks, as elsewhere in armed conflicts, are first and foremost victims, not perpetrators, as the shadow Minister said. Sadly, the use of children in conflict is nothing new. For example, thousands of children fought in the Napoleonic wars and in many conflicts since, including both world wars. In more recent times, children have fought in conflicts in places such as Cambodia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Uganda, Chad, Burundi, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan and Somalia. There is a long list of countries in which such tragic events have taken place.
What is new is the horrifying way in which children are being used as instruments of violence. As has been said today, it is a chosen form of combat. Children are lured with false promises of paradise in the afterlife, or forcibly coerced by terrorist organisations, into carrying out suicide bombings against both state and civilian targets. The nature of conflict is changing, but the way in which terrorist groups in particular exploit the most vulnerable in society in pursuit of ever more barbaric attacks is both abhorrent and cowardly.
I will set out the need both to work towards resolution of specific conflicts and to seek to address the underlying issue of extremism, which can lead to such appalling acts of violence. I will also address the four measures mentioned by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. The increasing spread of suicide attacks has principally been driven by two armed groups that have been mentioned today—ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram mainly in north-eastern in Nigeria—although we remain deeply concerned about the use of such tactics by other terrorist groups, including groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
ISIL has used co-ordinated suicide attacks as a key part of its military strategy, and we have seen reports of children in isolated areas being forced into military training after the militant group closed their schools, leaving an estimated total of more than 670,000 children without the opportunity to receive a proper education. ISIL bombards the internet daily with shocking images of children with weapons, and even of children being present at executions. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights estimated in May that ISIL may have trained up to 1,000 children as suicide bombers since November 2014. A major step towards eradicating the abuse of children as suicide bombers is to attack the organisations that recruit them. We are utterly clear in our determination to defeat ISIL. The only way to relieve the suffering of children and adults affected by ISIL, and to counter the real and significant threat to the UK and our allies, is to defeat ISIL and establish peace and stability in the region.
Another worrying trend is the way in which ISIL, in particular, is luring young people to Iraq and Syria, as hon. Members have said. More than 700 UK-linked individuals have travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years, and we know of at least six British nationals who have carried out suicide bombings, the youngest of whom was only 17. The problem is not confined to the so-called foreign fighters; we have also been shocked by the stories of young schoolchildren turning their backs on the safety of family and homes in the UK and of parents bringing their infant children with them into harm’s way in Syria.
In response, earlier this year, the Government introduced new legislation in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which provides the police with temporary powers to seize a passport at the border and places the Government’s deradicalisation programme, Channel, on a statutory footing. There will be new powers to add to existing terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and there will be targeted discretionary powers to control the return to the UK of British nationals suspected of terrorism offences. There will be enhanced aviation security powers, too, and insurers will be prohibited from reimbursing payments made in response to terrorist demands.
Internationally, the UK is at the forefront of global efforts to counter ISIL. In the UN, we supported the adoption of resolution 2178 calling on all countries to take appropriate measures to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria. The UK is playing a leading role in the global coalition of more than 60 nations committed to defeating ISIL. Together, we are working to defeat ISIL on all fronts: militarily; cutting off ISIL’s finances; reducing the influx of fighters; challenging ISIL’s ideology, and providing humanitarian assistance.
Boko Haram has regularly used child suicide bombers in Nigeria and neighbouring countries. It deliberately targets the weak and vulnerable, and it aims to sow seeds of unrest between communities. We estimate that more than 20,000 people have been killed and more than 2.2 million displaced by the insurgency. The use of children as suicide bombers is a particularly heinous example of this terrorist organisation’s brutality, but we remain firm in our commitment to Nigeria and its regional partners in their fight against terrorism. We are providing a substantial package of UK military intelligence and development support to Nigeria, which includes increased training programmes and advice on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. We have also provided £5 million to support a regional taskforce against Boko Haram itself. Like ISIL, Boko Haram must be defeated, and we are determined to ensure that it is.
More broadly, as we have seen in conflicts across the world, children continue to be used as soldiers. We are working with the UN, which leads the international response on that issue. The response includes pressing parties listed in the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict to enter into concrete action plans with the UN to verify and release any child soldiers associated with armed groups and forces. We also support the campaign of the Secretary-General’s special representative to end the recruitment and use of children by Government armed forces in conflict by 2016. The UK is providing £150,000 in funding over three years to support the UN office of the special representative, which has served to increase the special representative’s capacity to monitor emerging situations of concern, in line with Security Council resolutions 1612, 1882 and 1998 on children and armed conflict. The UK has also contributed funding to support a child protection adviser in the African Union to strengthen AU policies on preventing child soldier recruitment.
The UK recognises that education is important to preventing recruitment in the first place. We have therefore allocated more than £110 million for protection, psychological support and education under the “No Lost Generation” initiative since it was launched in 2013. Partners include the Department for International Development, UNICEF, the EU and Save the Children. The initiative aims to avert having a lost generation by ensuring that every Syrian child gets a good-quality education and access to child protection and much-needed psychological support. The partners have worked with host Governments in the region in an effort to mobilise predictable long-term finance in support of national educational sector plans with strategies for refugee children to access education through public schools and alternative education provision.
On the four specific proposals mentioned by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in his speech—I was grateful to receive them beforehand, so I have no excuse for not replying to them—he first raised the importance of understanding the entire issue. The Government’s cross-departmental research, information and communications unit conducts research on a wide variety of issues related to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. One such report, issued in February, analysed the use of children in ISIL propaganda, which has escalated in recent months, although we have yet to see an ISIL video that actually includes a child suicide bomber. The Government also continue to draw on the wealth of academic research being carried out in this country and others.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman raised the importance of countering the indoctrination of children. Defeating terrorism is a job for us all, as the Opposition spokesman described. That means that individuals, families, communities and Governments must work together to expose the hateful beliefs of extremists, deny them space in which to operate and protect those who are vulnerable to radicalisation. One aspect of the Prevent strand of the UK counter-terrorism strategy is to protect vulnerable people, including children, from being drawn into terrorism. We are also working closely with international partners to address extremist material online and mobilise civil society to challenge extremism and find more effective ways to counter ISIL’s messaging.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked about creating a taskforce to address the issue. Although there are currently no plans to do so, I reassure him that the Government consult a wide range of stakeholders and experts as part of the policy-making process and will continue to do so as our extremism strategy is announced and rolled out in the coming months to ensure that it is as effective as possible.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the plight of unaccompanied refugee children. Through the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, the UK is helping some of the most vulnerable refugees, including survivors of torture, women and children at risk and those in need of urgent medical treatment. As the Prime Minister announced on 7 September, we will expand the existing scheme to resettle up to 20,000 Syrians in need of protection during this Parliament. I stress that that is in addition to those whom we resettle under the gateway and mandate schemes and the thousands who receive protection in the UK under normal asylum procedures.
On that point, can the Minister shed any light on this? He has mentioned again the figure of 20,000 during the course of this Parliament. Does he have any indication of how many of that 20,000 he expects, let us say, within the next nine months, which will be a critical time given where we are in the refugee crisis?
The Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) to be the Refugees Minister, and he answered questions on that issue yesterday. It is not for us to do the actual selection—it is being done through UN agencies—so I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the specific number, but I will write to him with more details about how the process is forming. Time permits me to cover some of the other points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. He asked how many attacks are being made by children rather than adults. I do not have those statistics to hand, but I will certainly write to him in more detail. He is absolutely right: the approach that we take will differ depending on who is involved, and we will be able to focus in more detail if the numbers prove that in certain areas, children are used in preference to adults.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the use of social media. That is the big difference between non-state violence today and 10 or 15 years ago: a terrorist group based in far-off, distant countries can reach families and individuals here in the UK and in other parts of the world. I was astonished and taken aback when I saw the horrific images on television of the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive, but three weeks after that event, several teenagers made the journey from the UK via Turkey into Syria after seeing ISIL’s barbarity and what it stood for. It reflects, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the work that needs to be done with our communities to ensure that such people understand where they are going and what will happen to them when they join ISIL on the front line.
The use of social media is critical, and it is fair to say that we are only now coming to terms with how it is being leveraged. The information that ISIL produces online does not have to be accurate or legal, but every counter-message that we put out needs to be. I am hosting a summit at the end of this month on online extremism. We are inviting Facebook, Google, Twitter and a number of other organisations whose sites are used as vehicles by extremist organisations to pass along messages to share common practice on how to get the upper hand in countering such messages.
I also co-chair the smaller working group on strategic communications as part of the larger counter-ISIL taskforce, working with the United Arab Emirates and the United States. The Sawab centre has been set up in Abu Dhabi to monitor Twitter feeds and provide replies to some of the messages that we are seeing there, to ensure that there is an alternative view and that when ISIL puts out messages to attract people, there are imams there to say, “This is wrong. This is not how Islam should be interpreted.” It is a major step forward in countering that online messaging. It was launched last month and is already having huge success.
The Prime Minister has also announced £10 million to be spent on a co-ordination cell in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to draw together experiences not only of what we are doing in the UK, for example through the Prevent strategy, but of what other countries around the world are doing to counter extremism and the ability of such organisations—not only ISIL and Boko Haram—to recruit the young and vulnerable in society.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what more we can do in the region. I will probably have to write to him in more detail on that, but I will give the example of Tunisia. The people who attacked Sousse in June were trained by ISIL extremists in Libya. We are now working with Tunisia on a series of levels: first, on first responders, with which he will be familiar; secondly, on gathering intelligence for a better understanding of the networks operating in that country; thirdly, on tackling the ideology itself, which goes to the core of the work that needs to be done on social media and so forth.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman said that this is a war crime. He is absolutely correct; it is. Where it has been possible to track down those who have been grooming and training, via the internet or otherwise, arrests have been made.
It is very important to have this debate, not only for the Government to place on record what we have been doing, but so that we can understand the mood and concern expressed by parliamentary colleagues who want Britain to do more in the face of this immense challenge. As we heard today, children continue to be targeted, coerced and exploited during conflict, and that includes children abused by being used as suicide bombers. We must do everything we can to end those abhorrent abuses, which means degrading and defeating barbaric organisations such as ISIL and Boko Haram and working with our partners in the region and around the world.
We must also continue to use our diplomatic, security and intelligence capabilities as part of the Contest programmes—our counter-terrorism strategy—that we run to pursue and disrupt terrorist organisations where they threaten the UK and our interests overseas. Critically, as the Prime Minister said at the General Assembly of the UN last week, we must
“take away the building blocks of extremism that lead people to an extremist world view, that then takes them to an extremist terrorist view.”
In the appalling cases that we discussed today, that view can lead them to exploit and murder children.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position today and to hear the views of parliamentary colleagues.
I pay tribute to everyone who participated in the debate. I hope that it has been an important opening up of an issue to which we will no doubt return in different settings in the coming months, before we find better ways of moving forward. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for his response to my suggestions. I would like to reflect on a couple of matters.
One is about the need for research. I heard what was said about the Government having undertaken internal reviews and talked to academics and the like, but we need more of what academics call primary research. It struck me that when looking at the emerging numbers and patterns, we are inevitably drawn to make assumptions about motives and the motivations for what has happened, and I am as much at fault as anybody in this debate. However, rather than base our understanding on assumptions made through the prism of our culture and where we are based, we need more primary research to get into the hearts and minds of those involved in these horrendous activities. Such research would be tremendously difficult to undertake. Academics have made a few forays into the field, but we need to consider how more could be done to understand properly the motives and connections that lie behind these activities. I hope that the Government will continue to think about how they can improve their knowledge base.
Secondly, I ask the Government to pay further attention to refugees. I heard and understood what the Minister said about the assessments of who are appropriate refugees coming from other agencies, but the Government provide those agencies with the brief setting out their concerns. I ask the Government to ensure that there is sufficient resource and back-up available in the UK and that those agencies that undertake assessments on behalf of the Government, as part of the refugee programme, pay attention to the problem of unaccompanied children.
In the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to different agencies involved in providing counselling and psychological services in my constituency, including a migrants forum that provides befriending services and the like. I assure the Minister that people in the voluntary sector, as well as the statutory sector, could provide better meaningful support here to some of those young children than can be given in a camp, and I am sure that that is true for many parts of the country. I simply ask the Government to give that matter further consideration.
The main thing that I want to say to everybody is thank you for participating in the debate. It has been important and I hope that we will all charge ourselves with the task of keeping a strong focus on the issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of use of children as suicide bombers.