WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The photos are horrific. The most recent shows children in Fallujah, Iraq, dancing gleefully while teen-agers tear at the immolated bodies of four murdered American aid workers. In another set, circulated earlier this week by The Associated Press, 16-year-old Hussam Abdo, a Palestinian youth, is shown at an Israeli military checkpoint in Nablus. The youth's hands are atop his head. Around his torso is a vest containing 18 pounds of high-powered explosives. The child isn't simply transporting the bomb, he is the bomb. Young Abdo is the fourth Palestinian child rigged with explosives to be detected by Israeli soldiers and police in the past week. The youngest was just 11.
Using children in armed conflict is hardly a new idea. It's a brutal reality of war that has been employed for centuries -- dating back to before the Crusades. Around the world today, it is believed that upward of 500,000 children have been drafted, captured or enslaved by government or rebel forces to kill or be killed. In places like the Congo, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to name just a few, children as young as seven years old are forced to facilitate or carry out unspeakable variations of torture and murder.
But in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Chechnya -- indeed much of the Islamic world -- radical Jihadists have perfected the process of turning out child killers. In madrassas -- so-called religious schools -- all over Islam, young boys are "educated" to hate, kill and kill themselves. They are promised that if they die the right way -- as a martyr killing a Christian or a Jew -- they will reap spiritual rewards for themselves and financial rewards for their family. For youngsters ill-equipped with life skills -- ignorant of math, science, chemistry, biology or physics -- and indoctrinated in how to die -- it's a short step to suicide terrorism.
Hussam Abdo, the 16-year-old Palestinian bomber, is described by his family as "gullible." He'd be dead today but for an alert Israeli soldier suspicious about why, on a warm day, the child was wearing a heavy, oversized coat that fell to his knees, with long sleeves concealing his hands. Despite claims by Palestinian terror leaders that they "condemn the use of children under the age of 18 for attacking the Zionist enemy," Israeli security officials believe that bomb-rigged children may have been used to perpetrate as many as a half-dozen terror attacks in the last three years.
Jihadist propaganda campaigns, sermons by local imams and speeches by radical political leaders routinely promise "hero status" to those who martyr themselves. Eyad al-Sarraj, a psychiatrist in Gaza, told USA Today: "At the age of 12, children start to look for role models. In the States, you have celebrities and athletes. In our part of the world, it is the martyr."
Wafa Idris, the first known female suicide bomber, killed herself and one Israeli, and wounded 140 others on Jan. 27, 2002. The Al Aksr Martyr's Brigade extolled her as a "true child of Palestine." Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the recently killed head of Hamas, proclaimed Wafa to be "a model" for Palestinian women. But her mother, Wasfiya Idris, told Western reporters: "If I had known her intentions, I would have hidden her under the bed. Whoever says a mother is happy when her child becomes a martyr is lying."
This week, Hamas and Hezbollah announced they are setting up shop in Iraq to recruit young men -- meaning children -- for terrorist operations against the "occupation forces." They are apparently concerned that, to date, all the suicide terrorists who have blown themselves to pieces in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had to be recruited elsewhere.
And therein lies an opportunity for the Iraqi people. Thus far, despite the horror of what happened this week in Fallujah, all the suicide terrorists in Iraq have apparently been outsiders -- young men from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Palestine. In part, that's because Saddam did not permit radical clerics to open madrassas in Iraq. And since the fall of Baghdad, Coalition forces have worked overtime to open secular schools that offer an alternative to radical jihadism -- schools that teach life skills rather than hatred and death. Every military unit in Iraq -- U.S. and allied -- has adopted a school. And now they are getting help themselves.
After traveling to Iraq with the USO and witnessing the great affection Iraqi children have for young Americans in uniform, actor Gary Sinise decided more needed to be done to offer a real education to the next generation of Iraqi leaders. He teamed with Laura Hillenbrand, author of "Seabiscuit," to launch Operation Iraqi Children (www.operationiraqichildren.org). They are collecting school supplies for Iraqis struggling to get a real education -- largely without the benefit of books, pencils, notepads, rulers or even clothes.
I was with Sinise on one of his trips to Iraq, and he told me that one of the schools he visited didn't have a floor, windows or a toilet. "It was just a cinderblock building with a dirt floor," he said, "but with the help of American troops, the school now has these things."
Though you won't hear it from the mainstream media, the Iraqis, especially the children, are extraordinarily appreciative of American troops. "I've seen the smiling faces of Iraqi kids," Sinise explained, "and they tell the soldiers, 'I love you,' in broken English." He continues, "These children and their parents have hope in their eyes and gratitude in their hearts for what was done for them." In fact, in one school the actor visited, a plaque dedicated to the Coalition Forces is displayed on the wall.
Sinise sums it up well: "Every time a book or a box of school supplies is delivered by our troops, it's another small victory for them in helping win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. Generous Americans are making it possible for a generation of forgotten children to have the tools they need to learn, grow and pursue futures of limitless possibility. Iraqi classrooms, once barren and squalid, will be joyful, bountiful places of learning. The American soldiers who bring these gifts to them will win the Iraqi people's goodwill, admiration and trust."
What Gary Sinise has helped launch is the ultimate weapon against Jihadist terror: an alternative to the radical Islamic message of hatred and death. He's helping to give Muslim children a reason to live, instead of a reason to die.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.