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Armed and 'innocent'?

- September 11, 2014

An Iraqi child carries a gun next to other children that received medical handouts from a volunteer doctor on the outskirts of Amerli on Sept. 3, 2014. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP photo)
With the anniversary of 9/11 upon us, several stories last week focused our attention on emerging trends in terrorism, what has changed, and what has stayed the same? Islamic State-perpetrated beheadings, the (renewed) recruitment of Somali-Americans in Minneapolis, and British female jihadists using social media to recruit people to the Islamic State and encouraging acts of terrorism at home (mirroring the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich) for those who could not make the journey.
These developments had one unexplored common feature, which portends what to expect in the future:  the central role of children in terrorist radicalization and recruitment.
When Douglas McAuthur McCain became the first American suicide bomber for the Islamic State, and Abdirahmaan Muhumed became the second, questions emerged regarding the Somali community of Minneapolis. Somali adolescents have been especially at risk for manipulative recruitment. Recruiters sell a potent combination of Somali patriotism and pride to engender guilt that can only be redressed through mobilization. Specifically, recruiters explain that those in the Somali Diaspora are a letdown to their countrymen and that there is nobody else who can help save them. One community leader in the Twin Cities, Abdi Bihi, explained that the Islamic State was specifically targeting a young demographic of children between the ages of 14-16, including young women.
A Foreign Policy Research Institute report implied that under slain leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, al Shabaab switched from recruiting the Somali Diaspora to local fighters, perhaps due to the internal rivalries between Godane and other local commanders. Umm Ubaydah, a female European jihadist who tweets from the Islamic State revealed that she initially received some pushback that as a Somali, she went to Syria rather than join Al Shabaab. Perhaps the shift is both a function of Godane’s preference for local men he thought he could control and the Islamic State looking like the “winning team” as it captured more and more territory across Syria and Iraq. Now that Godane is dead, we may see more foreign fighters headed to Somalia.
In the UK, dozens of young girls have flocked to “emigrate” to the Islamic State, routinely without their parents’ permission or knowledge. Online chat rooms present advice for girls on how to discretely disobey their parents and sneak away. When the girls expressed qualms at the financial cost of travel to Turkey, “that’s ok, they are told, just get in touch privately and we can help you out.”
The Islamic State created a special unit of girls aged 18-25 who patrol border crossings and checkpoints to ensure that no men escape in women’s traditional clothing but also to be married off to the foreign fighters. The terrorist organization even established a marriage bureau to facilitate the import of young girls to reward their fighters and help populate the new Caliphal state.
The Islamic State is increasingly defined by the effectiveness of their social media outreach. Some of their videos implore would-be jihadists to come to Syria and bring family, especially children.  Videos such as “Eid Mubarak Greetings from the Islamic State” include images of children laughing and playing. Close inspection can reveal where and when the children were coached with prompts to say that it’s better in the Caliphate. The Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts of individual foreign fighters present a spectacle of their own children carrying automatic weapons, dressed in combat fatigues, and in an image that made front page news around the world, holding up the severed head of one of the Islamic State’s countless victims.
What should we infer from these images of children? One report claimed that these images provided evidence of a deliberate strategy on the part of the Islamic State to refocus on the recruitment of young children. A 13 year old boy [Mohammed] interviewed by CNN claimed: “…at the mosque they taught us that we should enroll in jihad with the (Islamic State). I wanted to go, but my father did not allow me to.” When Mohammed’s father refused, Islamic State recruiters threatened to cut off his head. The boy went, and reported that over time, he and the children were gradually socialized into the movement, being subsequently forced to watch beheadings.
Though shocking, the recruitment of children does not come as a surprise. The average age of many terrorist organizations has been declining for the past few years and terrorist groups are violating previously held norms of not involving anyone under the age of 16.
In my forthcoming book, “Small Arms: Children and Terror,” I’ve found that many terrorist movements have actually institutionalized the recruitment and indoctrination of children. Groups like the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban movements have set up de-facto training camps, schools, and after school programs all designed to groom the next generation of militants. Hamas runs summer camps designed to indoctrinate and train young recruits. Even European terrorist groups have so-called “youth wings.”
What has changed is that in the past, these and other groups would simply wait for the children to grow up. In fact, one Islamic State spokesman, interviewed by Vice News claimed that they did not train children under 16. Yet, as Vice News discovered, Islamic State members proudly hailed the astonishing spectacle of a 9-year old child being trained to use automatic weapons.
Child recruitment is no longer just about ensuring the longevity of a terrorist organization or replacing adult men lost in battle. Increasingly, children are deployed on the front line. Last year, my colleague John Horgan and I traveled to Pakistan and met with a 13-year-old Pashtun child who had been successfully reintegrated into the community from where he was recruited by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Two years before our meeting, the then 11-year old had a suicide vest strapped to him and was aimed at a Pakistani Army outpost. Showing remarkable courage, he stopped at the last minute and told the Army that the TTP had told him to approach them and press the trigger.
To date, responses to child recruitment by violent extremist organization have been neither systematic nor coherent. Children’s increasing involvement in terrorism is completely at odds with any attempts that purport to “counter” violent extremism.
While positive images for Muslim children exist in some graphic novels like The 99, the Indonesian “Kutemukan Makna Jihad” and the Burqa Avenger, the response to release a counter terrorism coloring book may cause more problems than it solves by sowing mistrust of an entire religion and depicting Islam in the most negative light.