Terror groups exploit Iraqi homeless

The Baghdad Provincial Council issued a warning Sept. 15 about street beggars being used by gangs to commit crimes and armed groups to carry out terrorist operations. The problem is not limited to Baghdad, and the council in Karbala announced Oct. 7 that it is coordinating with security agencies to get beggars off the holy city’s streets. 

Begging has spread in the streets of Baghdad and the southern cities, particularly among teenagers of both genders. The phenomenon was first brought about by the wave of displacement that started when the Islamic State took control of Iraqi territories in June 2014, and worsened by the harsh economic situation in the country. 

Security officials have warned about beggars being exploited for criminal objectives, including being used as a means of communication in certain areas, to plant explosives and to secure locations for terrorist operations. 

Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the security committee in the Baghdad Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor about the serious security consequences of the growing problem of young beggars, saying, "They are the easiest age group to be attracted by extremist groups and turned into ticking time bombs." 

He stressed the need to develop effective solutions to protect children and teenagers from an uncertain future, pointing out that silence around the issue of young beggars and a lack of attention and appropriate government solutions will lead to heavier security and societal burdens. Matlabi spoke about several cases of beggars being recruited by armed groups. 

"Several have already been arrested. They were involved in planting roadside bombs and performed other terrorist acts," he said. On April 24, an Iraqi court's investigative arm in Karada announced the trial of groups working in Baghdad malls; group members allegedly were begging as a cover to perform acts of terrorism. 

An independent human rights commission in Iraq has confirmed that street children have become vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist groups, reporting in February 2015, IS enlisted about 77 child beggars and used them as suicide bombers. Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan told Al-Monitor that during the past few months, many beggars have been arrested near security sites. 

He said, "The investigation has shown that some of them were involved in armed networks to gather information. The police and security forces are constantly conducting raids on hotels where beggars — including children, teenagers and women — are located in al-Bataween in central Baghdad, an area known for the sex trade and a heavy presence by beggars." 

Maan said that the beggars are working in an organized fashion and that they are being guided, overseen and protected from the security services in various ways. He added that teenagers have been arrested and that the security agencies monitor the beggars on the streets and intersections and warn them against approaching security barriers. 

Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and the absence of deterrence measures and government solutions are contributing to the spread of this group, which is getting more visibly involved in violent crime, including bombings, according to security investigations. Some beggars have been shown to be involved with armed groups and to have provided them with security information. 

The Ministry of Human Rights and the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights have been criticized for doing nothing to rescue the boys and girls from a life of crime despite being aware of the spread of begging and of that population's being dragged in dangerous directions. 

Shirin Rida, a member of the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, told Al-Monitor, "The committee has not held one meeting in this regard and has submitted no proposals to the government to address the matter.” She blamed the parliament's Security and Defense Committee for the problem and claimed to have sufficient information to be certain of its responsibility. 

Hassan al-Bassam, a researcher in sociology for the youth department of the Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs, told Al-Monitor, 

“The spread of begging and its involvement in terrorism and organized crime is a product of desperation. [Teenagers] are the most prone to be adventurous and are less fearful than others about the consequences of their actions because of their impressionable minds and recklessness at this age. 

They are more influenced by ideas. Because their life experiences are incomplete and because they do not have the maturity to evaluate ideas, they are being exploited by extremist groups. In their hearts they blame society for the mistakes and the crimes they may commit." 

The current state of lawlessness, corruption and a tragically common absence of family and educational ties have alienated young people, including girls, increasing the burden not only on religious institutions and civil society organizations, but also on the government that many hold responsible for the problem. 

Sara al-Qaher is an Iraqi journalist and writer who is currently a student in the Faculty of Media at Baghdad University. She has worked for a number of local and international media organizations.

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