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. You need to come here and join us.” Between 2007 and 2008, 22 Somali American adolescents and young men disappeared from Minneapolis, some of whom later turned up as suicide bombers for al Shabaab. In September 2014, several Somali girls left Minnesota to join ISIS in Syria. 

Although the terrorist recruitment efforts are often likened to the process of obtaining child soldiers in places like Africa or Latin America, there are key differences, which must be recognized when trying to develop solutions to stop this growing problem. Child soldiers are predominantly orphans that the group subsequently takes in and “adopts.” Since these child soldiers are largely coerced into joining, they undergo more rigorous training and are indoctrinated through violent group activities to build their loyalty to the group. Recruiting child soldiers also typically involves the use of force, kidnapping, or narcotics, whereas terrorist organizations employ a more gradual process of indoctrination, so that the children appear as willing participants. In addition to establishing youth chapters and training camps, many terrorist organizations create targeted propaganda to lure children to join their cause, subsequently using them in support roles, such as cooks, cleaners, porters, and even weapons smugglers, until they are “old enough,” usually 16 or 17, for frontline battle.

When training young children for suicide missions or frontline engagement, ISIS tries to desensitize them to violence by exposing them to actual beheadings or videos of them. In August, Khaled Sharrouf, Australia’s most wanted terrorist, shared an image on Facebook of his very young son holding a severed head with both his hands. In January 2014, the terrorist group posted a photo on Facebook of their “youngest mujahid” in Aleppo, balancing an automatic weapon against a set of barricades.

Family units also remain intact in many of the terrorist organizations, as many men who join ISIS take their families along with them. Within these networks (in ISIS’ case, the so-called Islamic State), members are encouraged to train their children to become the next generation of jihadists. When recruiting children from outside their own family units, particularly online, the terrorist groups use methods that are similar to those employed by sexual predators: gaining trust and establishing rapport, fulfilling emotional needs, and then isolating a victim from family and friends. Eventually, the terrorist group begins to shift the victim’s moral viewpoint. In ISIS’ case, terrorists subject the children to violent videos, as sexual predators would expose their victims to pornography. In both scenarios, the child is made to think that violent or abnormal sexual behaviors are normal. If the victim resists or a family member intervenes, ISIS uses blackmail or coercion to maintain control.

In 2014, ISIS lured a 14-year-old Syrian boy named Usaid Barbo into joining its ranks. Barbo’s parents tried to stop their son, but an ISIS member appeared at their home and threatened to behead the father. After Barbo left home and began training with ISIS, he realized that the group was more committed to violence than to following the religious doctrine they preached to recruit him, so he volunteered for a suicide mission in the hope of using it to escape. As he approached the Shiite mosque in Baghdad that he was supposed to bomb, he surrendered to the guards. According to Usaid, ISIS had brainwashed him: “They planted the idea in me that Shiites are infidels and we had to kill them.”

The process of reintegrating boys like Barbo back into society is not easy. For the past two years, we have been researching children’s involvement in terrorist groups in Pakistan and the process by which they are rehabilitated. During our most recent visit this January, we met with social workers and mental-health staff who are currently treating more than 900 children under the age of 16. Over half of the children were kidnapped and trained by the Taliban for both support and frontline terrorist activities, such as armed fighting and suicide bombings. The children we met, some of who claimed that they chose, as early as age six, to become a suicide bomber, did not have an understanding at that age of what that entailed. They simply parroted Taliban religious and political propaganda, such as a hatred for America.

Stemming the tide of this complex and rising phenomenon will require a creative approach that addresses the psychological damage inflicted upon the children, how to deprogram them ideologically, train them vocationally so they do not drift back into these activities, and, most important, how to reintegrate them back into society. The Pakistani rehabilitation facilities are taking a multipronged approach to address the psychosocial needs of children who have been traumatized by what they have seen, and, often, by what they have been forced to do. Another such program is Sabaoon, a rehabilitation facility in the Swat valley that provides psychological treatment for post–traumatic stress disorders, which affect most of these young victims. Additionally, Sabaoon offers significant post-rehabilitation treatment, caring for children after they are reintegrated back to their villages and families.

It is important to recognize the nuances in the recruitment of children by terrorist organizations. Doing so allows the proper development of countermeasures, which need further and more significant research and attention. Otherwise, the vicious cycle of recruiting child terrorists will only continue to grow. Many of these children are targeted, recruited, indoctrinated, and deployed until they are caught by authorities and have a chance at rehabilitation and, possibly, a normal life.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MIA BLOOM is a Professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Dying to Kill: the Allure of Suicide Terror and Bombshell: Women and Terror.
  • JOHN HORGAN is a Professor of Security Studies and Director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His most recent book, The Psychology of Terrorism (2nd Edition), was published in June 2014.
  • Bloom and Horgan are currently working on a book called Small Arms: Children and Terrorism for Cornell University Press.
  • More By Mia Bloom
  • More By John Horgan