An alarming number of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan believe immortality is at their fingertips -- provided they're pressing a button detonating the bombs strapped to their bodies.
And while most people associate a bomb blast with the finality of the grave, one young would-be suicide bomber told RFE/RL that he associates it with "heaven."
A 15-year-old Afghan who was educated in a madrasah, or Islamic religious school, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, he says he was encouraged there -- he does not say by whom -- to travel to Afghanistan's northern Konduz Province and participate in a suicide mission to blow up the local airport.
"They told us how beautiful it would be" in heaven, he says. "And that's why I said 'OK,'" adding, "I was deceived this one time and I will not do it again."
A Konduz security official told RFE/RL that the 15-year-old was arrested on April 5 along with fellow student Mohammed Fareed and their guide before they were able to receive their explosive vests.
Suicide attacks have increased dramatically in the region in recent weeks, including a bombing attempt
in Afghanistan by a child as young as 9 and a deadly attack
in Pakistan carried out by a 12-year-old boy.
Afghan officials have been quick to blame the Taliban. Earlier this month, Afghan intelligence-service spokesman Latifullah Mashal accused the Taliban
of "recruiting children in their ranks and using them to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan." Scotland's "Daily Record
" quotes 9-year-old Ghulam Farooq, currently in a juvenile detention center in Kabul, as saying that he and others were "taught how to use a suicide vest in the Spin Mosque in Kher Abad, near Peshawar, where we live."
A recent video circulating on the Internet shows a group of young children simulating a suicide-bombing mission, playing what the video calls a "suicide-bomber game." The origin of the footage is unknown, but the children's appearance suggests Afghanistan or Pakistan. One of them, dressed in black, hugs the others and then moves away from the group until children throw sand in the air around him to simulate an explosion.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but more than 25 would-be suicide bombers under the age of 18 are currently being held in Afghan juvenile custody
. Afghanistan's task forces on monitoring and reporting cites 23 incidents of recruitment and use of children by armed groups in 2010, a figure that is likely underreported and looks to have shot up significantly in 2011. (See page 12 of report
What drives these young people to take their own lives is far from clear. A United Nations report
released on May 11 goes some way toward corroborating the Afghan government's claims that the Taliban is responsible. It details the experience of a 15-year-old boy who was captured by the Taliban when he was 13 and kept in captivity in Pakistan, where he was forced to join a militant Taliban group. He escaped during combat and found his way back to Kabul, where he was arrested on charges of violating national security. He is currently in jail.
The recent spate of suicide bombings has once again prompted Afghan officials to raise concerns about the role of madrasahs throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under particular scrutiny are madrasahs in refugee camps along the restive border between the two countries, where extremists are most active.
But madrasahs themselves defy easy categorization. Some provide a strong humanities-focused education within the context of religion. Others serve as little more than mouthpieces for violent Islamist propaganda.
Afghan officials claim that many students in madrasahs in Pakistan are being taught extremist ideology under the guise of religion, including a violent interpretation of "jihad," the Islamic term for holy war that is used by some extremists to justify attacks.
A recent report in "Newsweek
" sheds light on a large Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan known as Shamshatoo, with one resident, a 20-year-old who calls himself Waliullah, explaining that the "reason God brought our family to Shamshatoo was that he wanted me to become a jihadi."
However, Abdul Ghani-Hidayat, an Afghan government representative for education in Pakistan, calls such allegations "absolutely false."
"They are not taught jihad in Pakistani schools," he insists. "They are under constant surveillance. There is nothing like this going on. It has not happened, will not happen. No crime such as this has happened."
Ghani-Hidayat also declines to use the word "madrasah" when repeatedly asked about the issue by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Noor Mohammed Sahim, instead using the more secular term, "school."
Others, such as Mullah Rahm-Daad, also refute the idea that madrasahs are responsible for child suicide bombers. "We clerics have heard about such suicide bombers, but this information came from the government," the cleric says. Rahm-Daad teaches in Pakistan's Dir district, which is in the turbulent Khyber Pukhtonkhwa border region.
He says religious clerics are "against" suicide bombing, arguing that bombers are "uneducated people" and "should be stopped."
"We are against this," Rahm-Daad says. "They are tainting the name of Islam and are not true Muslims."
The notion that suicide bombers are galvanized by radical Islam has also been challenged by new studies. The 2010 book "Driven To Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism" by Tel Aviv University psychologist Ariel Merari suggests
that many bombers are clinically depressed and take their lives for similar reasons as people who commit other forms of suicide. Other experts, such as political scientist Robert Pape, theorize
that countries subject to foreign intervention tend to develop the societal stimulus specific to such attacks.
Many children simply may have no choice. The May UN report on children and armed conflict cautions that many young people are forced to carry arms or have explosives packed onto them unawares. In addition, those caught are often kept in adult prisons in poor conditions, increasing the chance of recidivism.
of more than 10,000 people in rural Pakistan released on May 30 by the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad, Pakistan, shows a majority of respondents (79 percent) believing economic hardship is a factor leading to suicide bombing. Others say they believe suicide bombers are the victims of overly strict parenting. About half of respondents hold peer pressure to be a determining factor.
Fourteen-year-old Mohammed Fareed was also arrested April 5 on charges of attempting to blow up the Konduz airport.
Despite being educated in Peshawar's Ehya-ul Ulum madrasah, Fareed says religion had nothing to do with his reasons for pursuing violence.
"I don't have a problem with the Afghan government, but I don't like foreigners," he explains. "I mastered making land mines so I could blow up their tanks."
For Fareed, it's the foreigners. For others, it's the enticements of paradise. However different their reasons may be, the lives of children who turn to terrorism -- or are forced into it -- share an anguished existence that has long been ignored.