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On a recent Sunday morning, a mother walked up to a church with her two daughters. Moments later, they became Indonesia’s first female suicide bombers, raising questions about whether the children were unwilling victims used as decoys, or young extremists actively involved in the attack.
Terrorism is increasingly becoming a family affair. The growing use of child suicide bombers and the return of orphans and families from Islamic State-held territory raises the prospect of similar attacks in countries with limited experience of children’s involvement in conflict. On Thursday, June 14th, I’ll be discussing the growing threat of child radicalization on a panel of experts at the Heritage Foundation. You can RSVP to join us or watch online, here.
The issue of child radicalization raises pressing questions: If children can be used as a weapon of war, then how should we treat the families of violent extremists? Should children involved in terrorism be treated as its victims or as enemy combatants?
Children as a weapon of war
While child soldiers have fought in civil wars in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, among others, child suicide bombers have more recently emerged as a Taliban tactic that has spread to Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
Children have been used by terrorist groups for a variety of reasons. Strategically, they can signal both the brutality of the group and its resolve to win. Practically, it is easier to forcibly recruit children through kidnappings or outright violence. Children are also better at evading security, another tactical advantage.
In Nigeria, groups of child suicide bombers have proven particularly lethal as they blend in with other children in public markets. Boko Haram, best known for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls, has deployed girls as young as seven as suicide bombers. Between January and August 2017, 83 children committed bomb attacks in northeastern Nigeria. Women and girls make up the majority of suicide bombers in Boko Haram, and one in five is a child.
Islamic State has also made remarkable use of children, who fight alongside adult males. While Islamic State has preyed on orphans, they have also targeted children with parents and disseminated children’s last will and testament videos as propaganda. As Mia Bloom, terrorism expert and lead investigator of the Preventing the Next Generation project, argues, “Islamic State has gone from using children to inspire adults, to manipulating children and their parents to fight alongside adults, to targeting children instead of adults.”
As Islamic State loses more and more territory, foreign fighters and their families are beginning to trickle back to their home countries. Returning foreign fighters and their children are emerging as a problem for developing countries, like Tunisia, Morocco and Indonesia, and for the West as well. There may be more to come: Roughly 1,400 foreign wives and children of Islamic State fighters are still being held in Iraq.
While returnees who engage in terrorist attacks at home may be a relatively small percentage overall, they can play a key role in facilitating the expansion of terrorist networks. And, as recent attacks show, they may also be raising a new generation of young attackers.
How international responses fall short
By and large, children with links to terrorist groups have been treated as radicalized civilians. This is because, under international law, it is a war crime for an armed group to recruit or use children under the age of 15. The Nigerian government has been quick to place young women who have escaped Boko Haram in rehabilitation programs where they are kept away from their home communities, families and, often, the children they had while part of the group. This is the wrong approach. It impedes reintegration and cuts off from society a group of individuals who are already deeply stigmatized by their association with terrorism, whether they have perpetrated attacks or not.
At the same time, a growing body of research suggests some US-funded development programs are actually increasing support for violent extremism amongst at-risk youth rather than decreasing it. A UN Development Programme study found that more than 50% of the surveyed members of violent extremist groups in Africa were introduced to the group by a friend. Another 8% were introduced by a family member. Yet, the United States has so far tried to stem violent extremism among youth abroad by offering graffiti art workshops, soccer tournaments, and poetry slams.
Keeping young people busy is not an effective way to fight terrorism. A better approach would be to stop ignoring that children are being used as a weapon of war, take the threat they pose seriously, and develop an effective policy to address the problem.
Revisiting strategies to combat youth radicalization
To start, we need to address why the material support clause of the PATRIOT Act means that NGOs who educate children returning from Iraq and Syria could be charged with supporting terrorism. We need to engage with these children the most. There is a way to deal with violent extremist youths as both victims and potential perpetrators: The lessons of demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers need to be adapted for this new context.
Disillusioned families that have fled Iraq and Syria need to be reintegrated into their home communities while also being held accountable for any crimes. Given the conditions they face in Iraq and Syria, orphans should be repatriated whenever possible. Hundreds are expected to be brought to Russia and Germany. And governments need to acknowledge and address the lack of freedom or opportunities, as well as the marginalization, that drove many to join Islamic State in the first place.
In total, eight children died alongside their parents in recent terror attacks in Indonesia. We need to wake up to the fact that for the foreseeable future, whether as victims or assailants, children will continue to play a central role in terrorism — at home and abroad. We cannot be complacent in the face of a phenomenon that is at once a sinister threat and a human tragedy.
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