News | Feb. 10, 2020

Small Arms: Children and Terrorism

By Kira I. McFadden Joint Force Quarterly 96

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Small Arms: Children and Terrorism
Small Arms: Children and Terrorism
Small Arms: Children and Terrorism
Photo By: Cornell University Press,
VIRIN: 200207-D-BD104-013

Small Arms: Children and Terrorism
By Mia Bloom with John Horgan
Cornell University Press, 2019
248 pp. $27.95
ISBN: 978-0801453885

Kira I. McFadden is a Research Analyst in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

Each year, tens of thousands of youths under the age of 18 take part in armed conflicts. Yet the use of children in war, particularly in acts of terrorism, remains woefully understudied and not well understood. In Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, political scientist Mia Bloom with psychologist John Horgan compare children in terrorist organizations and child soldiers, examining how children are recruited, trained, and exploited, as well as how their experiences shape reintegration and rehabilitation efforts.

Drawing on in-depth field research, as well as new primary and secondary sources, the authors offer detailed case studies to illustrate the phenomenon of children in terrorist groups. Organized around chapters depicting various dimensions to the life cycle of the child terrorist, Small Arms’ thematic focus is on the so-called Islamic State, although comparisons are drawn with contemporary and historical terrorist groups, too. While the strength of the book lies in its interdisciplinary approach, the analysis sometimes muddies the distinction between children as terrorists and children as soldiers.

Children play a wide variety of roles as informants, spies, peer recruiters, executioners, jihadi brides, frontline fighters, and suicide bombers. The main difference between child soldiers and terrorists, however, is the recruitment process, which Bloom and Horgan examine in detail. While both are drawn into conflict for similar reasons, children in terrorist groups are more likely to be supported by the community, religious leaders, peers, and family. The authors do well in recognizing that while these children are victims, some have also perpetrated heinous crimes, and they do not assume a one-size-fits-all process for addressing their actions.

Contemporary scholarship regarding children’s involvement in terrorist groups tends to revolve around children’s victimhood. While Small Arms does play to an emotional dimension, the scholarship is sound and should evoke concern about the future of terrorism and efforts to combat it. First, terrorist groups will continue to recruit children because they provide operational advantages. Children, especially girls, are able to move more freely and attract less suspicion than adult males, making them useful as spies and suicide bombers. Child martyrs and preachers are powerful recruitment tools to shame those with wavering allegiances. Physically, children are also well suited for bomb making and hard labor.

Perhaps more concerning is the implication of rigorous indoctrination and exploitation for the endurance of extremist ideology. The generational nature of terrorism—strategies, ideologies, resource streams, and alliances learned and strengthened in one conflict tend to appear in the next—is well documented. Bloom and Horgan’s most important contribution is detailing the process by which children under the Islamic State “learn terrorism.” As with cults and other extreme social groups, months of intense positive reinforcement, rewards, “insider” identity markers, routinization of violence, and military and Sharia training teaches children to be passionate participants in the movement and to shame those who express doubt. As Small Arms makes clear, parents in the Islamic State played a disturbing and central role in radicalizing their own children.

This raises a “ticking time bomb” dilemma in that children associated with terrorist groups may present an ongoing security risk in a manner atypical of children associated with other armed groups. While these children usually lack formal education, skills learned under the Islamic State are transferrable to other criminal enterprises. Recidivism for these young people could include not only re-engagement but also other forms of violence and criminality. While the Department of Defense has expressed interest in deradicalization activities in Iraqi and Syrian refugee camps where foreign women and children may become more radicalized over time, it is not currently a priority. Countering violent extremism requires that planners examine the process of radicalization and institute measures for deradicalization, reintegration, and repatriation. At the same time, security concerns should not influence the question of accountability for past acts of terrorism.

Small Arms is a must-read for policymakers and planners working on counterterrorism strategy, particularly those grappling with how to work with regional partners to mitigate the fallout from the Islamic State. With so little existing political science scholarship in this arena, Bloom and Horgan earn the dubious distinction of providing the most comprehensive overview of children and terrorism. Their “white paper” recommendations for effectively countering violent extremism among children, all of which require integrating interagency, nongovernmental, and foreign partners, should generate considerable discussion.

The role of family, including children, in terrorism must be understood if we are to combat cyclical violence and the resurgence of the Islamic State. Small Arms is one of only a few pieces of scholarship to examine the long-term challenge of children in terrorist organizations. While the authors admit much remains unknown, this book is an excellent dive into an underexamined issue and a must read for those working to end generational cycles of violent extremism. JFQ