KABUL, Afghanistan – The orders from their religious teacher were clear: Go to Afghanistan, strap on a suicide vest and kill foreign forces.
With that, 9-year-old Ghulam Farooq left his home in Pakistan with three other would-be boy bombers and headed into eastern Afghanistan.
They were told there would be two members of the Taliban waiting for them at the Torkham border crossing in Nangarhar province. Instead, members of the Afghan intelligence service who had been tipped to the boys' plans arrested them at the border.
"Our mullah told us that when we carried out our suicide attacks, all the people around us would die, but we would stay alive," Farooq said Saturday, sitting inside a juvenile detention facility in the Afghan capital.
He was one of five alleged suicide bombers — all boys in adolescence or even younger — whom the Afghan intelligence service paraded before reporters, photographers and cameramen at a news conference on May 7 in an effort to turn public opinion against the Taliban.
Farooq and the other boys are being held at a detention facility that resembles a vocational training center. There are no armed guards, and the facility has classrooms and playgrounds. During a visit to the center, Farooq was smiling and said he was going to school and that he and the other boys were being given the opportunity to learn carpet weaving, carpentry and other handicrafts. The facility has dozens of boys, most detained in criminal cases.
Afghan intelligence officials say the Taliban turns to young boys because they are easier to recruit than adults and tend to believe what recruiters tell them.
"The Taliban are recruiting children in their ranks and using them to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan," Latifullah Mashal, a spokesman for the Afghan intelligence service, told reporters. "These innocent children have been cheated and sent to Afghanistan."
The Taliban denies the accusation. In a statement issued a week ago, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the insurgency's code of conduct prohibits young people from staying in military centers with fighters. Instead, he alleged that the youths were working for the Afghan police and public and private security companies.
"These children have joined the ranks of the enemy on the enemy's luring, taking advantage of their ignorance and lack of knowledge," he said.
In fact, the use of children to conduct suicide bombings is not a new tactic in the nearly decade-long war, Afghan officials say.
Confirmed cases are rare, and it's difficult to identify the bodies of bombers who blow themselves up. But Mashal said there had been a recent increase in the use of children.
In the past two months, he said, child suicide bombers executed two deadly attacks. The arrest of Farooq and three other boys allegedly heading toward suicide attacks came earlier this month, and Mashal said authorities are holding a fifth child who was about to carry out a bombing but then decided against it.
Farooq, clad in a dark green Afghan-style shirt, said he was persuaded to become a suicide bomber by a mullah in a mosque near Peshawar, Pakistan. His story could not be independently verified.
"He told us that there are infidels in Kabul and we must carry out suicide attacks against them," the boy said. "We were taught how to use a suicide vest in the Spin Mosque in Kher Abad near Peshawar where we live."
"I want to go home," he added. "I miss my family."
Ten-year-old Fazel Rahman, another member of the foursome, corroborated the story at the news conference, even using similar phrasing to Farooq's.
"The mullah in the mosque told us that the infidels were in Kabul and everyone should go for jihad" and that the bombers themselves would survive, Rahman said.
He said he was happy to be alive but wanted to return home. "Our families don't know where we are," he said.
Afghan authorities are discussing whether to charge or release the boys.
The most recent suicide attack carried out by a child occurred on May 1. Police said a 12-year-old blew himself up in a bazaar in the Barmal district of Paktika province in the east, killing four civilians and wounding 12 others.
Among the dead — and the likely target of the attack — was Sher Nawaz, head of a new district council in the Shakeen area of Paktika province, the provincial governor's office said.
On April 13, a 13-year-old suicide bomber detonated his explosives vest in Asmar district of Kunar province. The blast in eastern Afghanistan killed 10 people, including five schoolboys and an influential tribal elder, Malik Zareen, who was a former military commander who supported the Afghan government.
Police said the target of the attack, which occurred at a local meeting of tribal elders was Zareen, a leader of Afghan forces during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
The Afghan Ministry of Education called the suicide bombing an "anti-Islamic and inhumane act." Afghan President Hamid Karzai also condemned the bombing, saying that by killing tribal leaders, the attacker was trying to silence the voice of the Afghan people.
Earlier this year, under the direction of a mullah in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, 14-year-old Noor Mohammad donned an explosives vest and traveled to a coalition outpost in Andar district. But he backed out.
He, too, was among the youths brought before reporters and photographers in Kabul.
"The Taliban taught me how to use a pistol, how to push the button of a suicide vest and drive a motorbike," the boy told reporters. "On the day that I had to carry out the suicide attack, I decided not to. I joined with the (pro-government) forces and I didn't carry out the attack."
He never explained why he changed his mind.
There have been other cases. On Feb. 26, the intelligence service announced the arrests of a Pakistani boy and two teenagers — one from Afghanistan and the other from Pakistan — who claimed they had been coerced into becoming would-be suicide bombers.
Akhtar Nawaz, 14, from South Waziristan in Pakistan, said six men in a vehicle nabbed him off the street while he was walking home from school.
"They told me that I had to carry out a suicide attack," Nawaz told reporters. "I told them I didn't want to, but they forced me to go with them. They told me that there were foreigners in Afghanistan and if I carried out a suicide attack, I would go to heaven."
Nawaz said the men took him to various locations and taught him how to shoot a pistol and detonate a suicide vest. His mission, he said, was to shoot guards at an Afghan military compound in Khost province, then to ride inside on a motorcycle and detonate his explosives. He said he was told that if the detonation button on his vest didn't work, he should detonate the explosives by shooting himself with the pistol.
He said he was driven to Khost and shown the target but decided not to go through with the attack at the last minute, turning himself in to Afghan security forces instead.
Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.