The use of child soldiers is a practice that is as old as the history of warfare itself. Since its founding, the Islamic State has embraced the tactic, but has added a modern twist with the use of social media to gather young recruits into the radical jihadist movement. And as international pressure has squeezed the group on the battlefield, it has increasingly used the children under its sway to carry out combat operations — even suicide bombings.
On Dec. 16, German news outlets reported that a 12-year-old German-Iraqi boy was arrested after twice trying and failing to detonate a homemade explosive device near a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen, a city on the Rhine River across from Mannheim. A passer-by noticed an unattended backpack and alerted police, who found that it contained a glass jar filled with gunpowder. A wire protruded from a hole in the lid of the jar, suggesting that the boy was trying to detonate the gunpowder using a battery or other source of electricity. The jar bomb, covered with nails, was clearly intended to hurt or kill people. Despite its relatively simple design and small scale, had the boy managed to ignite the device in a crowd, it could have done serious damage.
Authorities did not specify how they linked the boy to the device, but it is likely that surveillance camera footage helped. He apparently first tried to set off the device on Nov. 26, then tried again nine days later — indicating the backpack had been in place for some time. It appears as if police waited to publicize the incident until after they had detained the boy.
Police said that the preteen had been radicalized after communicating with an unidentified member of the Islamic State over the Telegram instant messaging app. The boy reportedly expressed a desire to travel to Syria, but it appears as if his Islamic State contact persuaded him to remain in Germany to conduct an attack there. This is in keeping with the trends we have been following in Islamic State propaganda and its efforts to radicalize grassroots jihadists in the West and equip them to conduct simple attacks. In this case, the would-be attacker was a child, offering a glimpse into how the Islamic State is trying to build the next generation of jihadism.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
Since 2014, Islamic State propaganda has highlighted its efforts to indoctrinate children into its ideology and train them. It depicts images of children attending open-air theaters and carnivals and shows classroom activities along with shots of children being trained to handle weapons. The Islamic State has also trumpeted a classroom curriculum it developed for use in its schools. Some darker Islamic State propaganda has even shown children, which the group refers to as the "cubs of the caliphate," carrying out executions.
Conventional armies and insurgents representing almost every ideological background across the globe have used child soldiers. Among jihadists, it is a common practice in al Qaeda, the Taliban and groups operating in Syria. Before it became the Islamic State's West Africa province, Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, Boko Haram not only used child soldiers but also abducted more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria, to be used as war brides in a widely publicized incident.
While most groups simply recruit child soldiers from the territories in which they operate, the Islamic State has taken the practice global. Since its formation, the Islamic State has used its internet outreach to entice adolescents from the West to travel to Syria to serve as fighters. Captured records show the group processed foreign fighters as young as 12. It also has recruited girls as young as 13 to serve as brides for its militants. The Islamic State openly boasts that those girls will give birth to the next generation of its fighters.
The Ludwigshafen case is a further example that the group is using its outreach to encourage lone wolf attacks not just by adults, but by children as well. In the first documented case of an Islamic State-directed attack in Germany, a 15-year-old girl used a knife to attack police officers in February 2016 at the Hanover train station, seriously injuring one before being subdued. The girl, identified in court documents as Safia S., had traveled to Turkey intending to become a jihadi bride but was sent back by her Islamic State handler, who persuaded her to conduct a would-be suicide attack.
Social media is not the Islamic State's only tool to radicalize and recruit children.
In May, the group released a smartphone app aimed at children called "Library of Zeal" through its Telegram channel and other file-sharing outlets. The app, which ostensibly is used to teach the Arabic alphabet and language, employs images of guns, tanks and other weapons. Recently, it was updated to add a system to reward players for their progress in learning. In the updated version, users can trade reward points to conduct virtual attacks against such targets as the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower with an array of weapons — including a commercial airliner. The update leaves little doubt about the app's intended purpose.
Attempts to use video games to radicalize youths have been made before. The neo-Nazi group National Alliance's 2002 game release, "Ethnic Cleansing," was created with the intention to recruit young people. In addition, the group had purchased a heavy metal music label called Resistance Records in 1999 as part of its youth outreach. The Islamic State, which believes that instrumental music is satanic, is unlikely to embrace such a strategy, but "Library of Zeal" does use nasheeds, Islamic vocal music, as an aid to help children learn Arabic. Music is a powerful medium for learning — and indoctrination.
A Problem That Will Persist
Attacks conducted by untrained grassroots jihadists tend to be simple — and oftentimes flawed — because of their lack of terrorist tradecraft. With young attackers who have not developed the skills that come with experience, this weakness is likely to be even more pronounced. However, past school shootings in the United States involving adolescent killers demonstrate that youths can and do kill without direct adult oversight — sometimes even more effectively than adult attackers — thus the threat posed by young attackers cannot be ignored. Efforts to radicalize children and encourage them to conduct attacks are a further reminder of the danger posed by the ideology of jihadism. Ideas are hard to fight, and the world cannot simply kill its way out of the problem. Until the ideology underpinning jihadism is defeated, it will continue to be used to recruit new — sometimes very young — soldiers.
Radicalized children imbued in jihadist ideology will pose a persistent risk in the areas where the Islamic State and other jihadist groups have governed, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They may also pose a risk in other places if their families are taken into refugee programs. Furthermore, children native to other countries whose parents took them to those locales can use their citizenship to return home, bringing radical notions with them. The risks also extend to young people ensnared by the internet's web of jihad.
No matter what happens to core Islamic State and al Qaeda members, young people who are being radicalized today will pose a lingering global threat. Programs to change that thinking or challenge the ideology, and other efforts to counter violent extremism, will find plenty of business for many years to come.