Just over one week ago, Pakistani authorities paraded 11 children accused of terrorism in front of the local media. The boys, aged 10 to 16, were apprehended while attempting to plant home-made explosives on behalf of local militant groups operating in and around the city of Quetta, in Balochistan.
The boys' arrest highlights Pakistan's worsening civil strife and underscores how Pakistani terrorist groups continue to exploit children.
This is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly turning to children as operatives.
A few weeks ago, my colleague Mia Bloom and I traveled to Pakistan's Swat Valley to see firsthand how the Pakistani government is working to solve this problem.
Swat District includes the city of Mingora, part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province which borders Afghanistan.
This is the region where 14-year old Malala Yousafzai -- an activist for girls' education -- narrowly survived a Taliban assassination attempt last year.
Renowned for its picturesque vistas, the Swat region fell victim to a brutal reign of terror by the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP in 2008. Faced with an emboldened TTP, Pakistan's national army launched an 18-month counterinsurgency campaign. Law and order were restored and the Taliban forced to retreat.
An emerging success story -- and the reason for our visit to Swat -- is the establishment of "Sabaoon." From the Urdu meaning "the first ray of light from the dawn", Sabaoon is Pakistan's rehabilitation facility for child militants who were formerly recruited by the TTP.
Some of these children were even prepared to become suicide bombers.
Sabaoon's team of psychologists, social workers and military advisers share a principal objective -- to prevent recidivism and ensure that its 'graduates' don't return to the fight.
Sabaoon joins a growing list of similar initiatives that have cropped up around the globe since the mid-2000s. Perhaps the best-known terrorist rehabilitation program is in Saudi Arabia.
Collectively characterized as "de-radicalization" programs, it is more accurate to call them "risk reduction" initiatives. They represent a change in the way counterterrorism campaigns are waged, and share the goal of reducing the risk of re-engagement in terrorism once the program's graduates are allowed to return to their communities.
So far, Sabaoon has had 188 'students' fully participate in its program of risk assessment and rehabilitation.
All of the boys were captured by the army or police in raids on Pakistani Taliban training camps. The boys spend anywhere from six months to two years at Sabaoon. A few have spent as long as three years in rehabilitation.
In Pakistan, the TTP showed no hesitation in their use of children for terrorism. In fact, "recruitment" is hardly the right word. It became clear from our conversations at Sabaoon that these children had little if any say in their induction.
The younger children lacked the capability to refuse the terrorists, fearing their own safety or reprisals to their families. One mother explained to me that she had turned to the Taliban when she could no longer cope with her son's alcohol and drug abuse -- marijuana grows wild throughout Swat.
Targeting children at risk like this provided the Taliban with a perfect opportunity to reach out to parents with an offer to help "save" their children. The militants promised a future involving discipline, belonging, purpose, and meaningful work.
In some cases, families faced a horrible choice -- pay an enormous financial tax (double the annual wage) or surrender a child to the movement.
Deception and manipulation have come to define the TTP's child induction practices such that the prevention of children's involvement in violent extremism in Pakistan can hardly be characterized as counterinsurgency.
It is instead a challenge of basic child protection.
Most of the children recalled overwhelmingly negative experiences at the training camps. After performing menial tasks, they were locked in a 4x5 meter room for the rest of the day. Some reported being repeatedly beaten, and in a few cases, sexually assaulted by senior figures.
One child with whom we spent some time graduated from such deplorable conditions only to be 'allowed' to become a martyr, changing his mind literally at the last second. That boy is now one of Sabaoon's brightest hopes for successful rehabilitation and reintegration, and a potential role model for younger children at Sabaoon. But he remains profoundly traumatized by his experiences.
Other children actually reported having had positive experiences with the TTP. Some became involved through family members already in the movement. For them, adventure, camaraderie, and a sense of purpose proved all too real. Terrorism was the family business, and even if the children didn't want to get involved, how could they refuse?
Nobody knows exactly how old some of the children are. Many don't have birth certificates and don't know their own age themselves.
Abdul (not his real name) is now about 17-18 years old. He is very soft-spoken and painfully shy, but spoke English very well. He has big brown eyes and a wonderful, broad smile. He was very thin, but so shy he wouldn't take the food offered to him at lunch.