MOGADISHU, Somalia – For years they were children at war, boys given rifles and training by al-Qaida-backed militants and sent to the front lines of this country’s bloody conflict. Many had been kidnapped from schools and soccer fields and forced to fight.
The United Nations pleaded for them to be removed from the battlefield. The United States denounced the Islamist militants for using children to plant bombs and carry out assassinations.
But when the boys were finally disarmed – some defecting and others apprehended – what awaited them was yet another dangerous role in the war. This time, the children say, they were forced to work for the Somali government.
The boys were used for years as informants by the country’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), according to interviews with the children and Somali and U.N. officials. They were marched through neighborhoods where al-Shabab insurgents were hiding and told to point out their former comrades. The faces of intelligence agents were covered, but the boys – some as young as 10 – were rarely concealed, according to the children. Several of them were killed. One tried to hang himself while in custody.
The Somali agency’s widespread use of child informants, which has not been previously documented, appears to be a flagrant violation of international law. It raises difficult questions for the U.S. government, which for years has provided substantial funding and training to the Somali agency through the CIA, according to current and former U.S. officials.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the issue. But in the past the U.S. government has supported Somali security institutions – despite well-known human rights violations – citing the urgent need to combat terrorist groups such as al-Shabab.
The child informants were used to collect intelligence or identify suspects in some of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods, according to their accounts.
“They took me sometimes in a car and sometimes on foot and said, ‘Tell us who is al-Shabab,’ ” recalled one 15-year-old who said he was held by the intelligence agency. “It’s scary because you know everyone can see you working with them.”
The teenager was one of eight boys interviewed by The Washington Post who described being forced to work as informants after leaving al-Shabab. The boys each spoke alone, through an interpreter, but their accounts were nearly identical. They said they spent years in the custody of intelligence agents and were dragged along on missions, sometimes several times a week. Occasionally, they were told to wear NISA uniforms. They were threatened with violence if they didn’t cooperate, several boys said. Their parents didn’t know where they were.
Somali intelligence agents called the boys “far-muuq,” they said – finger-pointers.
Somalia’s army has long recruited children as soldiers. But for years, U.N. and human rights officials found it difficult to confirm reports about a shadowy government-run center in Mogadishu, which was said to hold children used in intelligence operations. Only late last year did U.N. officials persuade Somali authorities to transfer the boys to a new rehabilitation center, where they would not be accessible to intelligence agents, according to U.N. and Somali officials. That is where The Post interviewed the children.
Somalia’s intelligence chief denied in an interview that the boys were forced to work as informants but said that “high-level” child combatants were – and still are – kept in custody, because they are dangerous and have valuable knowledge. Those boys, he said, sometimes volunteer to go on missions and have yielded “important information” that has helped agents prevent future attacks.
“If a child joins al-Shabab when he is 9, by the time he is 16, he is a lion,” NISA’s director, Gen. Abdirahman Turyare, said in an interview. “They are able to point to someone and tell us, ‘That guy, he fought with me.’ ”
Somalia’s intelligence agency continues to keep such boys for months at a time, Turyare acknowledged, in spite of a 2014 agreement to release children to UNICEF within 72 hours of their escaping al-Shabab or being apprehended.
Although details of the CIA’s operations in Somalia are secret, Somali officials said the two agencies work together closely.
“There’s nothing NISA does that the CIA doesn’t know about,” said a senior Somali official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.