BAGHDAD // A new generation of Al Qaeda militants recruited from Iraq's overcrowded orphanages is posing a formidable challenge to security, intelligence officials in Baghdad say.
Neglected and often brutalised by war, some of Iraq's orphans have grown up to become today's most dangerous and committed insurgents, according to the Iraqi security agencies tasked with tracking them down and interrogating militant prisoners.
"We are dealing with a new, young Al Qaeda leadership. They have often committed thousands of crimes. They believe they are doing God's work and they are very strong mentally," said an Iraqi intelligence officer involved in investigating insurgent attacks and questioning detainees.
The officer said those who had left orphanages as teenagers between 2003 and 2005 were playing a key role in Al Qaeda-inspired insurgent groups.
He described one case in which a former orphanage resident had been recruited by militants and sent to Afghanistan for religious and martial training, before returning to Diyala in 2006, after which he was instrumental in a string of atrocities. The eastern Iraqi province has long been one of the country's most dangerous and a heartland for violent extremists.
"This man had committed every crime you could think of - bombings, shootings, assassinations, kidnapping - but he was happy, he was full of joy and at peace over what he had done," the officer said. "He was very intelligent and convinced he was doing something righteous. We couldn't get any useful information from him because he was too strong mentally."
Estimates suggest that as many as 3 million Iraqi children have been orphaned as a result of the war and its aftermath. A fragile ad hoc national network of poorly funded care facilities has been unable to cope in the face of such overwhelming need.
While many dedicated staff and charities have made efforts to help, there have also been numerous scandals about the treatment of orphans in care homes, including sexual abuse by the workers charged with looking after them.
Social workers and psychiatrists have long warned that failure to properly rehabilitate and care for traumatised children, particularly those who have lost their families, would eventually result in rising crime and violence.
“A lot of the people involved in terrorist and criminal activity now were themselves victims in the past,” said Colonel Jabber Al Beyati, an officer in Baghdad’s family protection department. It was set up last year to tackle domestic abuse and help prevent those traumatised by conflict from becoming perpetrators of it.
The unit offers free counselling to anyone who wants it, with a focus on helping young people and women suffering from domestic abuse, groups considered particularly susceptible to militants looking for recruits.
“Many of the militant and Al Qaeda leaders that are creating such problems for us now were recruited from orphanages,” Col Al Beyati said, describing conditions of poverty, neglect, loneliness, violence and untreated psychological trauma that made them particularly vulnerable to extremist ideologies.
“You must understand a lot of these orphans have a very bad feeling towards society. They feel wronged. They have a grievance against everyone,” he said. “There was despair and hatred and that was all a gold mine for Al Qaeda and they exploited it very skilfully.”
With US forces poised to withdraw from Iraq at the end of this month, officials in Washington and Baghdad have been keen to stress their successes in weakening Al Qaeda’s once vice-like grip on large areas of the country.
But as deadly attacks, including bombings, assassinations and assaults on army, police and civilians continue, fears remain that factions inspired by Al Qaeda were making a resurgence and would seek to exploit any security vacuum that may arise once US troops pull out.
“Al Qaeda has planned well. They were preparing for this moment years ago and by recruiting people filled with anger and hatred from orphanages they have a new generation of leaders and fighters who they have been able to mould,” said Mutlaq Al Jabouri, a tribal leader and Iraqi security analyst specialising in Al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda has this strong new generation and it will be a big problem for the Iraqi government and the Americans in the coming months and years,” he said.
“I would not be surprised if it is able to regain control over parts of Iraq, for example Anbar province, Diyala, or rural areas around the capital.”
The Iraqi intelligence officer in Baghdad underscored the scale of the challenge that security forces would continue to face, and warned that Iraq may not be fully equipped to cope.
“You break these Al Qaeda prisoners by showing them they are wrong under Islam, by proving they have misinterpreted the Quran for example,” the officer said.
“But our interrogators don’t have that kind of training. We just ask questions and because we can’t convince them [the prisoners] they are wrong, we get no useful information from them.”
The US eventually established detention camps for hard-core militants in Iraq that sought to re-school them in a more moderate interpretation of Islam, with scholars on hand to debate prisoners over details of Sharia and convince them extremist ideologies were not part of the religion. Prisons in Saudi Arabia have similar programmes, designed to rehabilitate militants.
The Iraqi system however has no such facilities, those working inside it say.
“We miss that expertise, the ability to pick apart prisoners who have very strong faith or who think that Christians and Shiites should be killed,” the intelligence official said.
“At the moment we are not able to get inside Al Qaeda and prevent it from becoming stronger and that will be a huge problem for us in future.”