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date: 12 July 2024

Children in Violent Movements: From Child Soldiers to Terrorist Groupsfree

Children in Violent Movements: From Child Soldiers to Terrorist Groupsfree

  • Mia BloomMia BloomCommunication and Middle East Studies, Georgia State University
  •  and Kristian Kastner WarpinskiKristian Kastner WarpinskiPolitical Science, Georgia State University


While the use of child soldiers has declined in recent years, it has not ended entirely. Children remain front-line participants in a variety of conflicts throughout the world and are actively recruited by armed groups and terrorist organizations. Reports of children involved in terrorism have become all too common. Boko Haram has repeatedly selected women and girls as their primary suicide attackers, and, in Somalia, the United Nations reported that al-Shabaab was responsible for recruiting over 1,800 children in 2019. In Iraq and Syria, children were routinely featured in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) propaganda, and the group mobilized children as “cubs” to fight for the so-called Caliphate. Unfortunately there is a myriad of reasons why terrorist organizations actively include children within their ranks: children can be proficient fighters, and they are easy to train, cheaper to feed, and harder to detect. Thus, recruiting and deploying children is often rooted in “strategy” and not necessarily the result of shrinking numbers of adult recruits. Drawing from the robust literature on child soldiers, there are areas of convergence (and divergence) that explain the pathways children take in and out of terrorist organizations and the roles they play. Focusing on two cases, al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we argue that there are three distinct but overlapping processes of child recruitment, including forced conscription (i.e., kidnapping), subtle manipulation and coercion (i.e., cultures of martyrdom), and a process of seemingly “voluntary recruitment,” which is almost always the result of intimidation and pressure given the children’s age and their (in)ability to provide consent. The concepts of consent and agency are key, especially when weighing the ethical and legal questions of what to do with these children once rescued or detained. Nonetheless, the children are first and foremost victims and should be awarded special protected status in any domestic or international court. In 2020, countries were seeking to balance human rights, legal responsibility, and national security around the challenge of repatriating the thousands of children affiliated with ISIS and still languishing in the al-Hol and Al Roj camps.


  • Conflict Studies
  • Ethics
  • Human Rights
  • Security Studies

While the exploitation of children as soldiers by state and nonstate actors has declined since the publication of the United Nations 1996 Machel Report, there has been a resurgence of youth participation, both voluntary and coerced, in terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, as well as armed groups, local militias, and vigilante organizations. This emergence of “children in terrorism” requires a review of the literature on child soldiers, and an exploration of the varying pathways children take both in and out of violent organizations in order to design “best practices” to discontinue the practice in future.

The literature on child soldiers is extensive and there is no shortage of scholarly analysis and autobiographical accounts of children’s wartime experiences—as both victims and perpetrators of violence. This article surveys the literature detailing the historical evolution of child combatants for both al-Shabaab and the Islamic State and highlights the changes in recruitment strategies and historical roles of children in conflict. Ultimately, the question of why terrorist groups recruit children to their ranks remains relevant, and this article discusses whether they are substituted for adult fighters as the pool of willing adult recruits dwindles or dies in battle, or whether groups seek child operatives for strategic reasons.

In many cases, both motivations may be valid, and the decision to deploy children is arguably rooted in strategy and tactical advantages in a variety of ways. Many authors have argued that children are smaller and thus able to more easily evade detection, cheaper to feed, more malleable, and easier to coerce than adults. With the technological advancement of lightweight weapons and small arms, children can operate weapons that would have been beyond their capability previously (Bloom, 2019; Rosen, 2005; Singer, 2006; Tynes, 2018). Further, as Singer (2006) argues in Children at War, we know that children can be “callous killers capable of the most terrible acts of cruelty and brutality”—especially when faced with violence themselves (p. x). However, questions of agency and culpability are central to the question of child operatives and ethical questions regarding what to do with the children as many countries grapple with balancing national security with human rights and the law. With the end of the territorial Islamic State resulting in thousands of children in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq, the question of whether to allow the children to return to their countries of origin makes this issue even more pressing.

Our inquiry addresses each of these concerns and is structured as follows: first, in order to understand how children become conflict actors, the definition of “child” is conceptualized in legal and practical terms. While this article adopts the commonly accepted legal definition that a child is any person under the age of 18, the concept of childhood is more nuanced when one takes into consideration the relevant psychological and cultural distinctions. This is marred by the fact that there is a fuzzy area where childhood ends and adulthood begins, and that age may not directly correspond with an individual’s psychological or physical maturity (Horgan et al., 2016).

Regardless of chronological age, the literature on child soldiers has illustrated that children have historically been involved in conflicts. While it is important to detail the evolution of how children have been utilized by armed groups, including state and nonstate actors, it is not the objective of this article to provide an exhaustive history of child soldiers. Rather, it provides context to explore the rationale behind the choice to employ children as combatants, while highlighting the various roles children have played in some historic conflicts. In doing so, the article details “contemporary child soldiers” by exploring how terrorist organizations have exploited children in new ways, particularly jihadist groups such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Ultimately, there are the three distinct mechanisms by which children are recruited or coerced by terrorist organizations, although these processes may overlap. The first mechanism is forced conscription or kidnapping, which has received considerable attention especially since Boko Haram’s kidnapping campaign in April 2014. The second is employing other coercive means. As this article highlights, coercion takes many forms; it cannot be overstated that children are first and foremost victims even in situations when they are also combatants. For example, the cultivation of “cultures of martyrdom” in some conflicts by elevating front-line fighters to cult-like hero status within the community may play a crucial role in convincing children to believe they are joining groups voluntarily. There are coercive techniques, such as making direct threats against the child or their families, which can likewise mimic “choosing” to join a group. Finally, some of the older children may have the capacity for ideological and political preferences and choose to participate. Thus, while there are older youths who may choose to engage, even in these cases the underlying presence of coercion dictates the parameters of any “choice” and mitigates against possible culpability.

Finally, it is important to draw upon the disengagement and deradicalization literature to explain how and why children may leave the organizations. Like adults, children may become disillusioned with a terrorist organization, and push and pull factors exist to encourage them to leave (Altier et al., 2017). However, like adults, children will likely face consequences for engagement if they disengage, and they pose a unique ethical and legal conundrum. In many legal systems, children are not held to the same legal standard as adults if they commit crimes—including terrorism-related offenses. While there is variation in penal law, many systems correspond with the United Nations’ view that youth are first and foremost “victims” due to their protected status as children. Nevertheless, even the United Nations contends that victim status does not—and should not—absolve them of liability or accountability for their actions (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2017, p. 39). This presents a provocative challenge regarding what governments should do with returning youth from conflict zones.

Conceptualizing Children and Child Soldiers: Is Age More Than Just a Number?

In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) established the “age of majority” as 18. This move was widely embraced by the international community and adopted by 196 nations, though the United States did not ratify the resolution. However, given that 18 is the widely accepted norm, and enforceable under international law, it made sense to consider anyone over the age of 18 as legally an adult. However, as many scholars have pointed out, the conceptualization of what constitutes a child remains tricky given the local, cultural, and legal distinctions that render “childhood” a nuanced concept. There are likewise multiple disparate cultural interpretations of what constitutes “adulthood,” “child,” or even “youth,” which the the United Nations says can be between the ages of 15 and 24 (United Nations, 2013).

Rosen (2005) argues in Armies of the Young that cultural interpretations of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood vary widely and influence ideas about the age at which a child can fight (Rosen, 2005). In Islamic jurisprudence, 15 is often considered to be the age of adulthood (alNajd), and ISIS routinely recruited children over 15 for the cubs of the caliphate (Bloom, 2019, pp. 10–11). In non-Western cultures, adulthood may be established by physical metrics, such as the existence of facial or body hair, before which the individual remains a child regardless of their numeric age. The ability to grow a beard is a sign of maturity in Afghan/Pashtun culture, as is the appearance of body hair in Arab culture. Western biases do not always apply to non-Western contexts; to quote the anthropologist Franz Boas, “civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes” (Boas, 1887, p. 539). While these are only a few examples, they demonstrate that cultural variation exists for determining what constitutes a “child.”

Finally, there is a psychological component to childhood that needs to be considered. As multiple scholars claim, there is an ambiguous period during which “childhood and adulthood merge,” which is further marred by the fact that actual age may not correspond with an individual’s psychological or physical maturity (Horgan et al., 2016, p. 647). Similarly, theories within cognitive psychology specify that children at different ages have discrete capacity for decision-making as it pertains to risk (Defoe et al., 2015). While there is debate surrounding how decision-making processes differ between children and adolescents, Jacobs and Klaczynski (2002) argue that “recent research related to this apparent contradiction indicates that children develop competencies to reason effectively and make normative decisions, but also develop biased judgment strategies that are used inappropriately in some situations” (Jacobs & Klaczynski, 2002). The decision to mobilize is one that undoubtedly comes with a number of potential risks; however, when it is children (seemingly) making this decision, we must take great care in recognizing their capacity to “see the whole picture.” Potential risks may seem negligible to children who believe they have no other option.

The second question to address is what it means to be a child soldier. The Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict provides the following definition of a child soldier:

A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.

(UNICEF, 2007)

While there are differences between child soldiers and children engaged in terrorism, the literature defines what “children in terrorism” entails. In Small Arms, Bloom (2019) argues that while children may adopt parallel roles in terrorist organizations, the most significant difference between child soldiers and children in terrorism is how children are recruited and the micro processes of socialization.

This is a complex topic—one that potentially violates long-standing norms and international laws, but one that also challenges our understanding of what constitutes a child. When children become engaged in activities that run contrary to the assumed innocence of childhood, the result can be both jarring and heartbreaking. However, many military groups and terrorist organizations have deliberately chosen to use children as a strategy. As such, the questions of both how and why children are engaged in violence—both historically as child soldiers, as well as within terrorist organizations—becomes critical.

The History of Children in Warfare

Despite the almost universal rejection of the practice, the exploitation of children during conflict is not a recent phenomenon—children have functioned in a variety of strategic and tactical roles for state and nonstate actors across historical conflicts (Rosen, 2005; Singer, 2006). Several countries allow individuals 17 years of age to voluntarily join their armed forces—in the case of Egypt, children as young as 15 may volunteer, while in India and Iran, people 16 and over can volunteer for military service. While 18 is the commonly accepted age for military recruitment, it is important to stress that in many countries, including the United Kingdom, a 16-year-old can enlist in the armed forces. The Child Soldiers World Index highlights that, “at least 46 states recruit children under the age of eighteen into their armed forces” (The Child Soldiers Initiative). Among these states are many Western nations, including the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway as 17-year-olds can be recruited into the armed forces (though often with parental consent). However, Gabon prevents anyone under the age of 20 from joining the armed forces. Such age differences highlight the fact that the presumed age of consent is fluid—16 and 17 are younger than the widely accepted age of consent. Nonetheless, children, including those well below the age of 16, continue to be recruited by armed groups who may not observe international norms or laws.

Children have historically served militaries in a variety of capacities, both active and passive, for centuries. Spartan soldiers began training children as young as seven, yet they were prohibited from participating in battle until age 16 (Harley, 1934). There are countless examples of children depicted as pages during medieval times as well as “drummer boys” during the 18th century. There have been numerous cases of children serving as scouts, spies, and weapons or ammunition runners. While these were not technically active combat roles, children were involved in or close to the battlefield. In the case of both world wars, children were active on the front lines, and as Rosen (2005) acknowledges, this was the case despite more formalized regulation of the age of enlistment (p. 8).

Highlighting the “new child soldiers,” Singer (2006) assesses the active participation of children across a variety of conflicts. Sierra Leone provides a primary example of the exploitation of children in combat. While the exact number of child soldiers used by all parties to the conflict is not known, estimates range between 6,000 and 22,000 depending on the source. Many children were drugged to motivate them or dull their resistance, and all suffered serious physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their adult cocombatants. Often, young girls were procured as “bush wives” and raped. Recruits were forced to watch violent acts of rape and murder—including of their own family members—to desensitize them (Zack-Williams, 2001, p. 80) or cause a psychological break with their past, eliminating the possibility of defection from the group. Upwards of 80% of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) consisted of child fighters, and they respectively comprised the majority of the casualties (Singer, 2006). Sierra Leone is not the only contemporary case, as children were forcibly conscripted in numerous African conflicts (including in neighboring Liberia by Charles Taylor, but also by all sides in the Sudanese civil war, by Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and by Joseph Kony in Uganda). However, the use of child soldiers is far from being an “African only problem” (Tynes, 2018).

Since the 1990s, children have been active in conflicts around the globe. In Colombia, children participated on the front lines with both with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), as well as with the United Self Defense Forces (AUC). The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey actively recruited children and reportedly mobilized over 3,000 individuals under the age of 18—the youngest of which was seven (Child Soldiers Global Report 2001—Turkey, 2001). While many scholars address the rise of children engaged in terrorism, the literature often fails to distinguish between child soldiers and “children in terror.” However, there are critical distinctions, particularly regarding the different pathways that children take during mobilization.

The How and Why: Coerced, Forced, and “Voluntary” Recruitment of Children

The question of why terrorist organizations recruit children is often answered by two competing explanations: children are a strategic choice, a “complimentary good” in which they have some innate comparative advantage, or they are a “substitute good” when the availability of adults wanes and children replace adults lost in battle. However, these explanations need not be either/or and may function in tandem. Terrorist organizations resort to recruiting children when their numbers dwindle, as was the case with the Afghan Taliban. However, groups that recruit children do so to bolster their strength, but they also terrorize and intimidate the population and innovate in their tactics (Tynes, 2018). The deliberate targeting of children “reinforce[s] a message that a group [i]s was willing to prolong a campaign of violence or escalate the severity of violence” (Horgan et al., 2016). However, children are not just victims of violence; many participate and are socialized into terrorist organizations, ultimately becoming fully fledged members.

Why Children?

There has been no shortage of discussion as to why armed groups and terrorist organizations recruit children. Some scholars argue that terrorist organizations recruit women or children when they are at their weakest in an attempt to bolster their ranks (Bloom & Horgan, 2015). However, Pearson argues that recruitment may demonstrate a “show of strength” to enhance lethality despite intensified conscription, for example in Nigeria by Boko Haram (Pearson, 2014). Others have posited that because weapons have been streamlined and the size reduced, children can operate guns just as well as adults, lowering the barriers to membership (Bloom, 2019; Stohl, 2002). Children are malleable—their bodies and minds are always changing and growing, which often makes them easier to coerce than adults (Stohl, 2002, p. 4). Further, they are distinctively vulnerable to a variety of pressures, including economic, political, or community/family networks that feed into that acquiescence.

Using children can provide unique advantages. Terrorist groups raise funds by abducting children for ransom. Boko Haram reportedly received 3 million dollars in exchange for the release of a family of seven French nationals (BBC, 2013; Zenn, 2014). Similar allegations have been made that the group received millions in ransom from the Nigerian government for the release of the Dapchi and Chibok schoolgirls. However, the government vehemently denies these claims (Sahara Reporters, 2018). Likewise, at their peak, ISIS earned millions via kidnapping and extortion; though most victims were foreign nationals, some were Yazidi and Christian girls ransomed to their families. Nonetheless, both Boko Haram and ISIS (and others) routinely use the threat of kidnapping to extort money from parents.

Apart from serving as a source of financial reward, children can be trained to become capable and committed fighters, carrying out attacks while evading detection given their slight build. This is particularly true for young girls, who are regarded with less suspicion. In their research on Boko Haram suicide bombers, Warner and Matfess (2017) found that the group was “at the forefront of normalizing children” and deployed over 81 children to carry out suicide attacks between 2011 and 2017—accounting for almost 20% of the total suicide attacks. The three youngest bombers were seven years old, and girls (Warner & Matfess, 2017, p. 4). What is striking, however, is that those suicide attacks carried out by children and teenagers were comparatively deadlier than average—killing an additional 9.4 individuals per attack (p. 37).

Another reason for the mobilization of children is that it serves as a signaling technique, one that terrorizes a population by indicating the group’s willingness to push the boundaries of brutality. Victimizing children broadens “the acceptable limits of terrorism in order to maintain the overall climate of fear” (Horgan et al., 2016, p. 646). Tynes (2018) argues that children are used as a “tactical innovation” in that groups use a “morally bad tactic to determine how far they are willing to go for victory” (p. 8). Further, their inclusion goes against long-standing norms: when an armed group uses children, it rarely goes unnoticed by the press. International awareness of the group intensifies, often giving it a level of attention that groups seek. Additionally, using children signals a new degree of brutality by showing that even the most vulnerable are not safe—not just from the violence perpetrated against them, but from children carrying out the violence themselves.

ISIS capitalized on this and consistently used children in their posted propaganda images and videos—oftentimes in combat and as executioners. However, children were also used as a recruitment tool to “shame” older adults into participation. Children were fed a steady diet of propaganda in ISIS-controlled schools and in their communities. When the Syrian state descended into chaos in 2014, ISIS assumed de facto authority over schools in the areas under its control. As well as indoctrinating children, these schools provided ISIS recruiters with easy access to the children and an opportunity to scout for talent or select for specific traits. Children with an aptitude for communication were deployed as recruiters, adopting public-speaking roles to conscript others on the Dawa (the call) caravan.

Child recruiters not only goaded adults to participate but also persuaded children with promises of status, purpose, and admiration from adults and the public alike. Thus, children constituted a form of “deviant peer” whereby they recruited other children. Since not every child achieved cub status, the group was able to make participation in these units appear desirable and limited. However, ISIS is not alone in their use of children as recruiters, as many other terrorist organizations have engaged in similar tactics. In Somalia, al-Shabaab offered children money in exchange for recruiting other children (HRW, 2012). Women and young girls coerced other girls to join Boko Haram—often maintaining that their lives were much better with the group than without it (Nwaubani, 2017).

This is underscored by Pearson’s research, which details that women and girls have actively recruited other young women to carry out terrorist attacks. In 2014, the same year that multiple blasts were perpetrated by women and girls in Kano, the group established an all “female wing” of Boko Haram led by Hafsat Bako, the widow of a former Boko fighter. This wing was responsible for organizing female-led attacks but also for recruiting teenage girls and young women, especially the widows of fallen Boko Haram fighters. Like in ISIS, the widows were encouraged to remarry and become the wives of current fighters. In contrast to ISIS, women filled tactical positions, such as spies and bombers (Pearson, 2014).

The Pathways Into Terrorism: Coerced, Voluntary, and Conscripted Children

Like adults, children’s pathways during recruitment and mobilization vary from individual to individual. We argue that children take one of three pathways, but we recognize that the pathways may overlap: children can be coerced into joining, and these same children may eventually believe they had volunteered. Children can also have ideological preferences, grievances, or motivations that may push them to join the group. Finally, children can be forcibly conscripted. Armed groups abduct children after their parents have been killed (often at the hands of the fighters), but also seize children from school. The most infamous example is the April 2014 abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Kano State, by Boko Haram militants. Many of the girls were married off to fighters, and some became enforcers for the other women and a few were eventually suicide bombers.

Contemporary research delves into the role of the children’s social ecology, arguing that pressure to volunteer or self-mobilize is coercive and stems from a variety of sources: from family, teachers, the community, and the wider society. There has been a marked rise in terrorist groups procuring children from their parents, and often families hand over a child in exchange for protection, or out of ideological support for the group and its aims.

In some cases of children involved in militant movements, recruitment occurred via existing kinship and social networks, and notably through community-centered activities (Cantori & Harik, 1984). Children in conflict areas are routinely exposed to violence perpetrated by all sides from a very early age. Exposure to violence may alter the child’s perceptions of right and wrong and may impact the children’s willingness to participate in violent activities themselves. For example, early trauma and adversity places a child at risk for a variety of negative outcomes including greater likelihood of engaging in violence. The structural conditions that foster an environment conducive to violence can be the result of the shared experiences of a people inhabiting a conflict zone. Ethnic groups in conflict will cohere in unique ways and the experiences of the few will be felt by the many, especially with the global media.

There are severe psychological sequelae that result from living in conflict areas. In particular, in cases where a dominant group exercises population control tactics, checkpoints, patrols, searches, and seizures, people suffer humiliation. As Fierke (2012) argues, “when ongoing suffering or humiliation is the shared experience of the people, expressions of this pain may come to occupy a central place in the language, narrative, and practice of its culture” (Fierke, 2012, p. 92). Humiliation may be the impetus for resistance. In a situation marked by past humiliation, there is a further dynamic between emotional experiences and those expressions that are permitted. It is under these circumstances that a “culture of martyrdom” thrives and captures the imagination. These “cultures of martyrdom” are observable in areas where martyrs are memorialized and elevated to “cult-hero status” in some communities—as groups use their images for posters, murals, or stamps, to exalt the individual bomber who is spoken of with reverence. Bloom (2019) dedicates an entire chapter to this phenomenon in Small Arms, as she discusses the influence of this constructed “culture” on would-be child recruits across a variety of conflicts. The concept of martyrdom is not unique to jihadi groups and has been celebrated by other cultures and in other religions. In contexts where children are taught that their death can mean more than their life, one can understand why children might believe their vocation is to “join” a militant group (p. 118).

Moreover, children killed on purpose or by accident serve as powerful mobilization tools for adults in the community. The killing of innocent children can instantly rally people behind the cause. Likewise, images of children killed by an occupying force, for example the iconic images from the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, speak to a different audience and can incentivize a community to take action against a brutal state (Motro, 2000). The use of images of children to mobilize people to join terrorist movements is especially successful throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These children become martyrs in their community and are celebrated and admired far and wide. Interestingly, such images have cross-national appeal, and thus pictures of a slain Palestinian baby may have as much resonance in Algeria or Morocco as it does locally in the Occupied Territories.

Despite their young age, children can have preferences, grievances, and ideological beliefs. While beliefs can be manipulated, they can also serve as the underpinnings for self-mobilization. The literature on radicalization addresses these complex processes, and like adults children may mobilize not because of ideological sympathy or “radicalization,” but from a desire for personal gain (economic, social, etc.) or simply because they perceive no other options. Scholars have identified a variety of socioeconomic catalysts such as lack of economic opportunity, weak educational systems, and rampant corruption or inequality as hypothetical mobilizing factors. The so-called root causes (i.e., deprivation, frustration, greed, grievance, etc.) all demonstrate that there is no “one-size-fits-all” explanation for every situation.

In the case of Boko Haram, some child fighters recounted that they were lured to join the group with financial incentives (Mercy Corps, 2016). Others insisted they were promised some other subsidy—wives, weapons, and/or status—and many reported actually enjoying their time within the group as they gained a community and “respect” (HRW, 2019; Topol, 2017). Many young girls who were kidnapped and married to fighters returned to the group after being rescued, not only because they were shunned by their communities upon return, but because they had become sympathetic to the group during their captivity (Nwaubani, 2017, 2018). Other girls and women took a more active role in their mobilization and joined on their own volition because they wanted to (Matfess, 2017).

In sum, there are several reasons why terrorist organizations seek to integrate children to their ranks. Children provide a unique advantage both strategically and tactically. Like their adult counterparts, children join these groups in a variety of ways, and the pathways vary from person to person and from group to group. However, the role of coercion in these processes cannot be overstated: while many children seemingly want to join the group, their desire is theoretically manipulated, and adults facilitate the processes of involvement.

Children and Terrorism: Evidence From ISIS and al-Shabaab

While the literature on child soldiers is not without cases of children being involved with terrorism, it is increasingly important to consider the entirety of the phenomenon while acknowledging the differences between individual cases of recruitment. For example, Boko Haram used scores of young women and girls as suicide bombers, whereas the academic literature has demonstrated that ISIS did not use female suicide bombers on the front lines. There are no females eulogized in their propaganda despite some rhetoric advocating that women should take a more active role (especially in self-defense). The pathways into the organizations differ across groups and demonstrate significant discrepancies between children involved with terrorist groups and the stereotypical “child soldier.”

Children in al-Shabaab

In Small Arms, Bloom (2019) posits that “there are two processes that lead to children’s involvement in terrorist violence: (1) targeted recruitment initiated by adults, or (2) facilitated engagement, in which a child, responding to personal, social, and/or cultural factors, seeks out engagement with the group” (p. 75). Through an in-depth analysis of the literature as well as a survey of open sources, publicly accessible information, government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, and newspaper articles, this appears to be accurate for the case of al-Shabaab in Somalia. Some children joined because they believed they wanted to, with beliefs rooted in ideological sympathy with the group, a quest for identity or belonging, or the promise of economic incentives.

However, others joined because they had few alternatives—they were coerced into joining, even under penalty of death. After 2016, al-Shabaab increased the number of abductions and took over schools throughout the country with the goal of training and psychologically conditioning youth. The group also demanded that community elders surrender children to the group; if they refused, the group resorted to coercive means such as kidnapping to secure young recruits. In 2016, the United Nations estimated that 6,163 children, some as young as nine, had been recruited by armed groups in Somalia since 2010, including by the Somali government and opposition clan militias. Al-Shabaab was by far the most egregious offender as they were responsible for 70%, and over half of their force was comprised of militants under the age of 18 (Al Jazeera, 2017). The group’s recruitment of children peaked in 2018 as nearly 2,230 children were recruited (Children and armed conflict Report of the Secretary-General, 2019). However, al-Shabaab is not the only faction guilty of exploiting children.

As Fritz’s (2012) research demonstrates, children were actively recruited into Somali piracy as the result of endemic poverty and the lack of economic opportunity. She recounts an example in which 61 pirates were captured, 25 of whom were under the age of 15 (Fritz, 2012). Similarly, the Somali National Army (SNA) recruited an estimated 920 children, and tribal militias may have recruited even more (Al Jazeera, 2017). One militia member, Abdul, a 14-year-old boy, told a reporter with the East African that he had fought with his clan’s militia since he was eight years old and hoped to join the SNA since the militias and army already worked together. By the age of nine, he killed his first al-Shabaab fighter after the group killed his father. He received no payment for his service but is occasionally gifted food or clothes by a grateful community (Barigaba, 2018).

According to the Ceeljaale elder and chief Yuusuf Osman Ali, their clan’s militia employs children, but only out of desperation—without them, their town would be taken over by al-Shabaab (Barigaba, 2018). In their 2011 report on children in Somalia, Amnesty International assessed that “boys over 15 years old are often considered adults and, in a situation of state collapse, breakdown of the rule of law and clan feuds, have been expected by some to defend their clan and family” (Amnesty International, 2011, p. 22).

There are many reasons why children joined al-Shabaab. Conventional wisdom assumes that recruitment for jihadi terrorism occurs primarily along religious lines. Somalia is predominantly comprised of Sunni Muslims, the majority of whom follow a “Sufi-type brand of Islam” (Amble & Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2014, p. 532). As Amble and Meleagrou-Hitchens argue, some regions in Africa have been more receptive to Salafi-jihadi ideology, such as Kenya, while Somaliland remained largely unaffected. They found that the jihadi narrative has greater impact on Kenyan Muslims as a result of their lower socioeconomic status. However, in Somaliland, because the Salafi-jihadi message challenges perceptions of effective governance and stability, they are less predisposed toward it (p. 538).

In the case of Somalia, Anderson and McKnight (2015) found that “cultural and religious factors may be less important in mobilization,” despite the widely held belief among radicalized believers that Islam in East Africa is “under attack by the west” (p. 10). While many Somalis are devout, the authors argue that they are “far from fundamentalist” as “pastoral life ensured pragmatism ruled over religious doctrine” (p. 7). Despite the fact that al-Shabaab is innately conservative and fundamentalist, it has proven malleable by evolving and being flexible in its religious fervor (p. 9).

Botha’s (2014) research, focused on Kenyan socialization of those who joined al-Shabaab, found that 87% of those interviewed cited religion as their reason for joining; 97% perceived that their religion was under attack; and 34% joined the group after being inspired to do so by a religious leader (Botha, 2014, p. 903). The ages of their respondents ranged from 10 to 40; however, five were between the ages of 10 and 14, with an additional 17 aged between 15 and 19; the remaining 78 were above the age of 20 (p. 909). Nonetheless, almost all the respondents had experienced high levels of frustration with their situations before they joined—with anger being the most common emotion (Botha, 2014, p. 912).

Kfir (2016) observes that al-Shabaab manipulated a “victim narrative” that Somali Muslims, and Muslims in general, were being oppressed by the West (p. 778). This allowed the organization to attract individuals to wage a defensive jihad to protect Islam from attack—an individual obligation that is a requirement for everyone to observe. In their research on the recruitment of Kenyans, two interviewees expressed ideological sympathy with the group as the foundation for their mobilization. The Kenyans had no ethnic ties to the group, but they felt drawn to the organization as they were waging jihad against those in the “war against Islam” (Amble & Meleagrou-Hitchens, 2014). However, three respondents alluded to economic incentives for their recruitment, as they were allegedly offered between 40,000 and 200,000 Kenyan schillings (395–1,983 USD) per month to join, underscoring the role of poverty and the promise of economic incentives (p. 525).

While some children joined seemingly of their own volition, it is important to highlight how “willing participation shades into coercion” as significant pressure can come from the family and one’s community (Bloom, 2011, p. 30). Children may be coerced through “outright force,” including the compulsion to “kill or be killed,” as well as through more explicit threats such as “kill or we kill someone you love” and other forms of “subtle trickery,” including peer/community pressure (Bloom, 2019, pp. 74–75). Amnesty International’s (2011) report found that many children were forced to join the group on the threat of death (Amnesty International, 2011). However, many more had been kidnapped. According to the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG), al-Shabaab’s abductions tripled in 2017, including over 364 children abducted in just the second quarter (United Nations Security Council, 2017, p. 153).

A detailed report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows how al-Shabaab began ramping up aggressive child recruitment in September 2017. However, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) reported that the rise in school attacks and attempted kidnapping began as early as 2013, when the group abducted over 100 religious teachers in Galgadud region after they rebuffed al-Shabaab’s pressure to furnish new recruits (Refworld, 2018). The group routinely threatens parents and teachers if they refuse to hand over children—including those as young as eight years old (HRW, 2018a). Onyulo (2018) reported that parents with even younger children have been solicited to compel their kids to join—if they refuse, the group kidnaps them regardless (Onyulo, 2018).

One teacher disclosed that militants stormed their school and demanded teachers deliver 25 children between the ages of eight and 15; when the teachers refused, they were beaten. In June 2017, the group abducted 45 elders in El Bur after they refused to hand over 150 children. They were released, but the group abducted 300 children and placed them in an al-Shabaab school that July (HRW, 2018a). While the SEMG found that child recruitment declined by two thirds in the first half of 2017, it spiked again in July, in preparation for anticipated military offensives (United Nations Security Council, 2017, p. 157). Al-Shabaab has resorted to kidnapping youth to bolster its battle capabilities as children have been trained to carry out a variety of roles.

However, unlike Boko Haram, who deploy children for suicide attacks, it is unclear to what extent al-Shabaab engages children on the front lines (Warner & Chapin, 2018; Warner & Matfess, 2017). As Warner and Chapin found, in al-Shabaab’s suicide bombing attacks the age of the attacker is often unclear. Nonetheless, they posit that al-Shabaab likely uses adults, because the media would mention underage bombers had children been involved (Warner & Chapin, 2018, p. 25). It is equally possible that al-Shabaab attackers could be teenagers given the group’s track record of recruiting youth. Based on the SEMG reporting that they have been training children for suicide missions, it is safe to assume there have been child suicide bombers among the attackers (United Nations Security Council, 2017). In interviews with Amnesty International, children have reported that their friends had bombs strapped to them and were told to detonate them (Amnesty International, 2011, p. 32). However, hard data and actual numbers are difficult to verify.

Boys were trained to assemble improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosives, and subsequently taught to detonate them. Boys also received extensive weapons training and were trained in both offensive and defensive tactics (United Nations Security Council, 2017, p. 154). According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “these children planted explosive devices, acted as human shields, conducted assassinations and suicide attacks, gathered intelligence, and provided domestic service; some girls were also forced into sexual servitude” (U.S. Department of Labor, 2018, p. 1). However, as Robert “Rowbow” Ochola, a Kenyan Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) activist, explained to Agullo and Lianes, the group is increasingly turning to young women to fill these roles as they garner less suspicion, and there has been an influx in young girls acting as spies and scouts (Agullo & Lianes, 2018).

Young girls are used to convey weapons due to their ability to pass through checkpoints largely undetected. Many others have become spies and scouts for potential targets and to gather intelligence. According to the SEMG report, however, young girls were not given weapons training. Whether or not this is true is difficult to verify, as women and girls have regularly reported being given access to guns during their time with the group. As with Boko Haram, women are recruited to become wives for the fighters. Young girls may be identified as potential brides while still in school (United Nations Security Council, 2017, p. 154). In The Daughters of al-Shabaab, Fatuma explains that after marrying a fighter and entering the group at age 17, she was quickly given a leadership role in which it appears she worked to manage the other women. She explained that when more women were brought in and were assigned husbands, those that refused to consummate the marriage were killed (Agullo & Lianes, 2018). In this instance, women and young girls are used comparably to the women in Boko Haram—to maintain camp order and increase cohesion (Oriola, 2017).

Multiple reports from both media and NGOs have described children spotted in battles, and, when captured, they provide insight into the ways in which al-Shabaab uses children. Children are recruited to plant explosives, and, according to one account, “one of their [leaders] used to give young people money, between 1 and 100 USD. The leaders [of the armed groups] do not bury mines in the street, they only give maps and instructions to the young people to do it” (Amnesty International, 2011, p. 32). The United Nations similarly reported evidence that children have received training on how to build and detonate these explosives as well.

In Somalia, children face insurmountable and overlapping crises: drought, famine, and inherent insecurity are rampant, and poverty is pervasive. Since poverty is a facilitating factor for recruitment, these structural conditions limit children’s options but also may explain why families choose to relinquish their children. Al-Shabaab’s kidnapping has resulted in thousands of children fleeing from communities—often unaccompanied. In many of these cases, children are recruited by al-Shabaab or become victims of human trafficking for either labor or sexual purposes (2017 Trafficking in Persons Report). Many of these children are actually trafficked by external actors after fleeing al-Shabaab.

Children fled from their homes unaccompanied or with their siblings. Some were able to connect with relatives; however, over half have settled in informal camps for internally displaced persons (HRW, 2018a). Life in these settlements is hard, and they often lack requisite resources to provide aid and security for children. In this way, displaced youth become even more susceptible to the violence of al-Shabaab, and their likelihood of being recruited or abducted increases. However, even children that escaped the group have reportedly returned just to have access to food and water (United Nations Security Council, 2017).

Children in the Islamic State

While the number of children involved in violent extremist groups has declined in the two decades following the publication of the United National 1996 Machel Report, groups that avoided using children on the front lines 20 years prior began to embrace the tactic in new and unprecedented ways (Machel, 1996). ISIS heralded its exploitation of children and featured children in most of the ISIS propaganda, including child martyrs in their “about to die” eulogies, and depicted executions carried out by boys as young as 10 (Bloom et al., 2016).

Concerns about this potential threat have led to an urgent call for increased efforts to prevent radicalization to violent extremism across the globe. However, there is a dearth of empirical evidence on the subject and little guidance for effective prevention. The various methods of indoctrination employed by armed groups often point toward the different roles children play in the broader context of the conflict. This is most evident in a group’s approach to education, particularly in the case of ISIS.

ISIS tried to engender a sense of pride, prestige, and competition among the “cubs of the caliphate” to achieve this special status. Students earned cub status in one of the dedicated training camps where they learned the skills needed to become a militant (Fox News, 2015). During its rise, ISIS used footage of child soldiers being trained as part of its propaganda. Between May and July 2015, the group released three videos featuring children aged between 10 and 15 years old. A video from February 2015 featured 80 children—some as young as five—wearing camouflage, standing in formation, and engaging in military exercises with guns. They were taught how to behead people and how to use AK-47s (Engel, 2015).

ISIS pioneered a unique form of individual resilience by combining intense physical and military training with sustained ideological and psychological indoctrination. The group designed a systematic process to generate competent militants who embraced every aspect of its teachings, not just mindless drones (Horgan et al., 2016).

Bringing Them Back: Repatriation, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration of Child Fighters

Because of the innate vulnerability of children, international law recognizes that regardless of the roles children have performed in terrorist organizations, they should first and foremost be recognized as victims. The recruitment and mobilization of children in violent conflict, regardless of whether the child volunteers, are in stark violation of both the Geneva Conventions and the CRC, which seeks to protect children from exactly this type of exploitation. However, children, once in the terrorist group, perpetrate heinous crimes—including crimes against humanity. While their “victim status” does not absolve them of criminal liability for their actions, it does afford them the “rights of victims,” which can include access to more rehabilitation, reintegration, and reconciliation measures (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2017, p. 44). It is important to address this, as the idea of the “child terrorist” is one that should be approached with sensitivity and understanding—especially given the complexity of the trauma likely experienced during both the mobilization process and their time engaged.

The mobilization of children for political violence may have comprised years of indoctrination by sources of religious authority, schoolteachers, and the wider community. The social ecology of this environment provides a facilitating milieu for mobilization and helps make the organization’s message resonate. It also makes it increasingly tricky to reintegrate children into the communities where nothing has changed, making them susceptible to remobilization. Further, each terror attack can bring a new wave of volunteers, especially following a “successful” mission as the groups roll out the propaganda campaigns to celebrate the attack and glorify the attacker. The issue of agency is complicated, because there are instances where very young recruits actively seek out a terrorist organization. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) recruited children because “they [were] easily conditioned and motivated, and could be put into battle with less training” (Brett et al., 1996). Singer further explains that the LTTE used children between the ages of nine and 12 “after it faced a manpower shortage in battles against the Indian peacekeeping force in the 1980s and could not pull in enough adults because it had lost local support” (Singer, 2006, p. 55).

Even in such clear cases of coercion, after an initial period of transition the children acclimated and became enthusiastic supporters and strong proponents of the group’s ideology (Bloom, 2005, 2011, 2019). Field research in the SWAT Valley in Pakistan with children aged seven to 16 who had been captured by the Pakistani Taliban found that in 45% of the cases, the children had been offered to the terrorist organization in lieu of extortion payments when the families could not pay the 5,000 lek (around 373 USD) fee demanded of them. However, over 50% of the children alleged that joining the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was either their idea or a decision made in conjunction with a family member who was already a member of the organization (Horgan, 2013).

Given that indoctrination in many cases started at a very young age, ISIS children have to unlearn the distortions of the Islamic faith and relearn basic life skills along with participating in vocational training. This requires a long-term process, longer than the standard three-month rehabilitation program that exists in the Kurdish camps. As the result of a posttraumatic stress disorder, the children will likely have problems with socialization, lack empathy, and suffer from attachment problems. However, normalization will be all the more challenging if members of their family encouraged or exposed them to violence; these children may have to be separated from them—which does not follow standard practice regarding the best interest of the child.

While successful programs to treat children who were members of violent extremist organizations exist (for example in Pakistan), the child’s family is expected to play a positive role in their reintegration. However, in the case of ISIS, the families that encouraged and exposed the children to the violence in the first place are less than ideal; to prevent recidivism or reengagement, the children may have to be separated from the family members.

It is also important to highlight that while there are significant debates on just how successful these programs can be, Bloom (2019) raises a meaningful point: the countries that may be best able to develop these types of programs, particularly as it pertains to providing the necessary resources (money and expertise), are the least “politically inclined” to do so (p. 168). This is likely the case because many of these states have significantly lower instances of children engaging and then subsequently returning. Yet the countries with the highest rates often have the least resources to develop and implement effective programs.

It is important to highlight that detained children suspected of being al-Shabaab fighters have faced significant stigma and serious abuses by both Somali and Kenyan security forces. In interviews with over 15 children, HRW found that not only have there been due process violations, but there have been severe instances of physical and mental abuse, as well as torture and executions (HRW, 2018b; United Nations Security Council, 2017). In one instance, 40 children in Garowe that were recruited by the group were subsequently found guilty by local military courts. The children under 15 were sent to a rehabilitation center, but one year later President Abdiweil Mohamed Ali pardoned the children and they were then taken to rehabilitation centers (United Nations Security Council, 2018, p. 39). However, in 2016 and 2017, the SEMG found that seven children were detained and tortured—five of them were executed, and two are serving life sentences (United Nations Security Council, 2018). Similar instances have occurred in Kenya—returnees are killed or abducted, and one mother explained that her child had returned, been arrested, was released, and then was subsequently shot dead by the police (Agullo & Lianes, 2018).

Fortunately the Somali authorities have handed over more and more children to UNICEF so that they can be rehabilitated as directed under humanitarian law. In 2018, HRW estimated that at least 250 children were surrendered. However, many are still serving prison sentences of 10 to 20 years, which they argue makes these programs seem more like “correctional facilities than rehabilitation centers” (It’s Like We’re Always in a Prison: Abuses Against Boys Accused of National Security Offenses in Somalia, 2018, p. 5). Khalil et al. (2019) examines the Serendi program in Mogadishu, which works with former al-Shabaab members deemed “low-risk.” It is classified as semi-open, such that it is not a prison-based program, however the program transferred 64 youths to a child-protection center for more specialized care (Khalil et al., 2019, p. 21). There have been informal programs, including one outside Baidoa that worked to retrain upwards of 80 people and offered financial incentives for those who fled al-Shabaab (BBC, 2015). Unfortunately, not much is known about these programs, and there is an urgent need for more research into the rehabilitation and reintegration of former al-Shabaab youth.

Former and current ISIS children likewise face challenges to reintegration into society. With thousands in refugee camps—including local children and the children of foreign fighters—their future remains unclear. In al-Hol, there are a reported 70,000 women and children, including at at least 10,000 foreigners (Hurley, 2020). It is worth highlighting that data collection on the precise numbers of children and their nationalities is tricky at best, as is knowing exactly how many have been repatriated and where given the fact that countries have remained relatively closed-lipped on their repatriation plans (or lack thereof).

However, conditions in the camps are bleak, and it is unclear what will happen to many of these children. Questions of citizenship are as complex as those about culpability—especially as many children were either taken to the so-called caliphate at a very young age or were born there to foreign parents. With reports of ISIS mothers such as Shemima Begum and Hoda Muthana, who want to be repatriated to the United Kingdom and the United States respectively (after emigrating to the so-called caliphate), understanding whether and how the children can be returned is an issue of pressing importance to policy-makers and human rights groups.

While it is important to highlight the fact that children have little to no say in whether their parents took them to ISIS territory, understanding what the children experienced is the first step to reintegrating them into society and giving them a real chance for a normal life. The important questions to ask include: what were the children coerced to do while they were ISIS cubs? What did they witness as observers of ISIS war crimes? And what might have been done to the children themselves? It would not be the first time that violent extremist organizations sexually abused the children they recruited. These are all questions many countries are currently grappling with, and they are further compounded by the widespread insecurity in the camps, especially given the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. Access to food and clean water is scarce—many children have died from malnutrition, and the lack of clean water coupled with overcrowding means the camps are a perfect breeding ground for the virus to spread.

With the proliferation of COVID-19, there have been renewed calls for the repatriation of these children. However, if we are to have any hope of reintegrating the children who survived, one thing is certain: it requires a level of coordination and creativity not previously employed in any program to date. Demobilization of the children requires a multipronged approach to address the psychological trauma suffered by the children from witnessing executions, in addition to the effects of having actively participated in acts of violence.