The Rise of the Child Terrorist

The Young Faces at the Frontlines

A Palestinian child fighter of Fatah al-Islam poses with a rifle at a training field in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, March 23, 2007. Jamal Saidi / Courtesy Reuters

On January 15, a video surfaced on the Internet that depicted a 10-year-old Kazakh boy using a gun to execute two Russian members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) who had been accused of being spies. ISIS claimed ownership of the video, although it has not yet been authenticated. Only a few days earlier, twin suicide bombings rocked northern Nigeria, involving three girls, who appeared to have been only 10 years old, all wearing explosives that may have been remotely detonated by members of Boko Haram. A year before, a nine-year-old girl named Spozhmai, who is the sibling of an Afghan Taliban commander, was detained at a border checkpoint in Kandahar. Rather than go through with her mission, she confessed to the authorities that she had been forced to wear a suicide belt.

The exploitation of children by terrorist groups is not new, but groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Pakistani Taliban are increasingly using children to carry out their activities. The move is strategic as it is shocking. It provides heightened media attention and allows terrorist groups to groom more loyal members. Children are easier to indoctrinate and less likely to resist, since they do not yet fully understand their own mortality. Moreover, because children appear less suspicious, using them often leads to more successful missions. On the other hand, the use of children may also indicate that the group is having difficulty in recruiting adults—the fact that Boko Haram has kidnapped children to use them as suicide bombers may be an indication of the group’s weakness, not its strength.

Regardless of motivation, the use of children by terrorist groups is now a global phenomenon, with recruitment efforts cropping up even in developed countries. In August 2013, a recruitment video was released online, featuring three young al-Shabaab members from Minneapolis. One boy named Troy Kastigar said to the camera, “If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here. This is the real Disneyland.

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