By: Dustin Johnson

Header photo: Unsplash/Alessio Lin

A recent in-depth piece in the Washington Post examined the ISIS-directed or inspired attacks that have taken place in Germany over the last year, all perpetrated by children. 10 children, mostly teenagers, were involved in 5 different plots or attacks over the past year, and the German intelligence agencies have identified another 120 children suspected of having been radicalized to violence.

Many of the children involved in these plots come from an at-risk background, making them easier for ISIS to recruit. According to the Post:

“Religious extremist propaganda, Salafist propaganda, can only work if it is addressed to an audience that is already marginalized and feeling uncomfortable in society,” said Goetz Nordbruch, co-director of Horizon, a German group offering counseling and workshops on Islamophobia in German schools. “The public discourse is turning against these kids, against Islam… It is making it harder for them to feel both Muslim and German.”

As ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria to the various forces fighting it, they have focused more on directing or inspiring attacks in Western countries, through propaganda and communication over social media and messaging apps. Children are intentionally targeted. As the Post article relates:

“The amount of Islamic State videos and propaganda aimed at children has really jumped in recent months,” said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies. “We haven’t seen anything quite like this, not on this scale and of this quality. They know that in the West, you don’t expect a 10-year-old to be a terror suspect.”

This shows that ISIS is intentionally recruiting children for these attacks due to the advantage they bring from being less likely to be detected. In the case of Germany, laws constrain the ability of the intelligence services to track children suspected of being radicalized, while in general we do not usually assume that a child might pose such a threat.

Unfortunately, growing awareness of this latest challenge from ISIS does not always lead to balanced responses based in a thorough understanding of the use of children by ISIS. Germany’s response has included positive steps such as deradicalization programs for children, while changes to laws governing how intelligence and law enforcement authorities can track children will need to be carefully balanced to both protect children’s rights and the safety of the public.

Other countries have not provided as nuanced a response however. One need not look further than the United States, where the now-rescinded and highly controversial travel ban led to the temporary detention of a 5-year-old American boy of Iranian ancestry by border patrol agents. White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended this action by saying “To assume that just because of someone’s age and gender that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.”

While ISIS is clearly seeking to exploit gaps in counter-terrorism when it comes to children, such an action as described above is not what is needed in response. Given the chaotic implementation of the travel ban and the age of the detained boy, it is certain that there was no actual evidence indicating a threat, and he was detained simply for who he was. Such an approach to countering the use of children by terrorists is both counterproductive and immoral.

An effective strategy that protects human rights, children, and the public must be primarily preventative, while equipping law enforcement with the right abilities to prevent attacks, and providing programs to deradicalize children who do become involved in groups like ISIS, or any other terrorist group of any ideology.

Prevention should encompass, inter alia, interfering with the ability of adult terrorists to recruit and inspire children by countering propaganda and targeting law enforcement action at them; addressing factors that increase vulnerability to recruitment and inspiration such as prejudice against Muslims; and equipping law enforcement with the tools and knowledge to more effectively counter the use of children by terrorists while preventing the use of counterproductive strategies.

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