The boy looked scared and younger than 16 when Iraqi police grabbed him on the street in the northern city of Kirkuk. Pulling off his shirt, they found a two-kilogram bomb strapped to his skinny frame.
That was last Sunday. Less than a day earlier, Turkey was less fortunate: a teenage bomber detonated his suicide vest among dancing guests at a Turkish wedding party, officials say, killing 51 people, nearly half of them children themselves.
Saturday’s attack at the wedding in Gaziantep marked not only Turkey’s deadliest this year, but also the first time in Turkey that militants may have deployed a child bomber in a way already used to deadly effect in wars from Africa to Syria.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has long used children. One 14-year-old bomber on a bicycle hit the Kabul NATO base in 2012 killing six people; two years later a teenager blew himself up at French cultural center in the Afghan capital.
Researchers and officials say ISIS and other militants are now increasingly using the same tactics, perhaps to build ranks depleted by losses, preserve adult fighters or simply catch security forces off guard.
In West Africa, Boko Haram has preyed on displaced children or young girls it kidnapped to force them to become bombers. In Iraq and Syria, activists say ISIS took in children from towns it captures or recruited families to its territory, and indoctrinated their children in its schools and camps.
ISIS in particular, highlights its child recruits for its “Cubs of the Caliphate” brigades, publishing images and videos on social media of children receiving training and indoctrination, and carrying out bombings or executions.
“Child recruitment across the region is increasing,” said Juliette Touma, a UNICEF regional spokesperson. “Children are taking a much more active role …, receiving training on the use of heavy weapons, manning checkpoints on the front lines, being used as snipers and in extreme cases being used as suicide bombers.”
Little has been publicly released about the attacker in the Gaziantep bombing. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that the bomber was between 12 to 14 years old, and said Islamic State was probably responsible.
The blast tore into celebrations at a Kurdish wedding on the street late at night. As many as 22 of the dead were under the age of 14. No one claimed the attack, but Islamic State in the past has targeted Kurdish gatherings to stir ethnic tensions.
Turkey’s prime minister was more cautious on Monday, saying it was too early to say who carried out the attack, though security sources say witnesses reported the bomber was a child.
Turkish authorities are also investigating whether militants may have placed the explosives on the suspect, without his or her knowledge before detonating them long distance.
That tactic has been used before in Iraq, where children or even mentally disadvantaged adults have been dispatched as unwitting bomb couriers into markets and checkpoints before they are blown up from afar.