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Weaponizing the Weak: The Role of Children in Terrorist Groups

By Professor Mia Bloom, Georgia State University Atlanta, Georgia


In recent years, non-state violent extremist organizations, also known as terrorist groups, have increasingly mobilized children. This provides such organizations with advantages, notably the element of surprise and increased media attention in what is seen as the breaching of a previously unbroken psychological barrier. This Chapter discusses children’s involvement in such groups. Although this Chapter focuses on ISIS, it offers readers an array of comparative insights and impressions from a multiplicity of groups. This Chapter unpacks the many stages of ISIS’ use of children: recruitment, socialization, desensitization, schooling, selection, training, specialization and stationing. Particular attention is given to social media and the cultivation ofcultures of martyrdom. Many children are forced into terrorist movements: they become victimized and traumatized by their experiences in this process. In turn, however, they themselves exploit and harm others, thereby calling into question the binaries of victim and perpetrator.

Keywords: terrorism, children, ISIS, socialization, gender, social media

Violent extremist organizations have increasingly mobilized children into their ranks. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for example, has trained hundreds, if not thousands, of young children for front-line military engagement. (1) As ISIS has lost control of significant territory, it has come to refocus its efforts on affiliates in the AfPak (Afghan-Pakistan) region and the Sinai. In doing so, the group continues its exploitation of children in their Khorasan Wilayah (The ISIS Province (Wilaya) for Afghanistan). In the past three years, ISIS has sent over 400 children to their deaths in a variety of roles, from suicide car bombers (including children as young as 10 driving the vehicle) to propagandists, to commandoes in joint operations with adults.(2) In October 2013, the Taliban kidnapped 100 Afghan and Pakistani children to train them as suicide bombers.(3) In January 2014, the group posted a photo on Facebook showing their youngest Mujahid balancing an automatic weapon on barricades in Aleppo. That same month, the younger sister of an Afghan Taliban commander admitted to being forced to wear a suicide belt at a border police checkpoint in Kandahar.

By exploiting children, terrorist groups gain what they see as comparative advantages, notably the element of surprise and increased media attention for breaching societal norms and psychological barriers. The exploitation of children represents an alarming new development, both tactically and strategically. These groups are grooming the next generation of terrorist operatives.(4 )Throughout the Middle East, children’s soccer teams, streets, parks, and summer camps are routinely named after suicide bombers.(5) Recruitment efforts have been uncovered in diaspora communities in the United States and United Kingdom. Perhaps the most well-known case was the disappearance of 17-year-old Burhan Hassan and six of his friends (Somali-American adolescents from Minneapolis) between 2007 and 2009 who were eventually found to have travelled to Somalia to serve as suicide bombers.(6) In an October 2013 ISIS recruitment video that targeted young boys, some youthful al-Shabaab members from East London (UK) were featured with their infamous tagline: ‘This is the real Disneyland.’ (7)

Attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan involving child suicide bombers have shocked the world. The median age of suicide bombers continues to decrease.(8) A noticeable trend in the past three years has been the involvement of not only adolescents but also prepubescent children. Terrorist groups employ 12-year-olds and occasionally children as young as seven as suicide bombers. Schools specifically dedicated to training bombers have been established in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and the Sudan. The growth of child soldiers in Africa has also been well documented (including by many of the contributors to this volume), and the broader exploitation of children by organizations such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has garnered international condemnation. Yet, our knowledge of how, why, and when children become involved in terrorist movements has been limited. This chapter aims to help redress this gap.

This chapter contrasts child soldiers and children recruited by militant terrorist organizations. While some literature draws parallels between child soldiers in armed groups and child soldiers in terrorist groups, I prefer to maintain these distinctions. Also, with regard to terminology, I prefer not to search for totalizing vocabulary or phraseology to define ‘terrorist groups’. This means I recognize that there is no clear or consistent language to describe such groups, nor am I convinced that efforts should be undertaken to develop such language. I therefore deploy a variety of terms such as terrorist groups, militant organizations, violent extremists, and militias throughout this chapter. Mostly, however, I simply identify the group in question by its name. While I focus on ISIS, I make comparative references to a number of other groups, with a particular focus on Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Sierra Leone. This chapter thereby contributes to the discussion of children’s involvement in militant activities in these other jurisdictions as well.

This chapter, in addition, suggests an innovative approach to understanding how ISIS, in particular, exploits children. Child Soldiers International, the primary NGO focused on this subject, published a report in 2012 stating that there were no child soldiers in Syria, there were merely reports of children used as human shields. (9)To this day, media and NGOs have vastly underreported the number of children involved in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq(10) and have failed to demonstrate that virtually every militant group in the conflict, including those who enjoy the support of the United States and other Western countries, have exploited children on the front line.(11)

Issues of data collection are complicated when studying this phenomenon. Barry Ames notes that much of the literature on children and conflict has taken an advocacy position. Accordingly, most statistics, including the oft-cited number of 300,000 children under arms, cannot be independently verified. 12 While one cannot authenticate the actual number or percentages of children involved in ISIS as cited by NGOs and the UN,13 the reality of their involvement holds true.

Suggested Citation:

Bloom, Mia, Weaponizing the Weak: The Role of Children in Terrorist Groups (January 2019). Research Handbook on Child Soldiers (Mark A. Drumbl & Jastine C. Barrett eds., Edward Elgar Publishing 2019); Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2019-06. Available at SSRN:


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