Time has proven that there is no action that is too base or vile for jihadists and Islamist groups worldwide to attain their goals, and that includes using children in suicide terrorist operations against their enemies.
A 2017 UNICEF report says that 117 children In Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger were fighting among Boko Haram terrorists after being kidnapped and trained by the group. In 2017, children carried out 27 Boko Haram attacks. In Nigeria, Boko Haram went as far as using a 10-year-old girl to carry out a 2016 New Year’s Eve suicide bombing. The girl approached a crowd gathering to buy noodles, but blew herself up too soon, limiting the casualties to one injured person.
The latest example came in an April 9 Egypt suicide bombing in the north Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid. Seven people were killed, including four police officers and a 6-year-old boy. The terrorist was a 15-year-old boy who targeted a busy marketplace. ISIS affiliate Ansar Beit Al Maqdes took credit for the attack.
The Egyptian army has targeted Ansar Beit Al Maqdes, forcing the group to tap children, who can more easily pass through security checkpoints, for its attacks. ISIS Mufti Abu Said Al Gizrawi issued a fatwa allowing the use of children in suicide bombings, followed by a published book by Abu Hassan Al Kahtani sanctioning the use of women and children in suicide operations. Al Kahtani was killed in Syria in 2015.
According to retired General Mohsen Hefzy, a former Egyptian national security official, children and teenagers are recruited through a two-step process called “Jihadist Discipline.”In the first stage, children are brainwashed and convinced to fight the enemies of God. They then are trained to use explosives and emotionally prepared execute suicide bombings.
Step two is called “Sharia’ Legitimizing” and includes labeling security officers as “heretics and infidels” to cast killing them as justified and a path to heaven.
The process is well established among jihadists across the world. For years, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has exploited children politically to deliver messages during their demonstrations or sit-ins such as the Rabaa armed encampment in 2013. The messages included dressing the children in white shrouds as a symbol of their willingness to die. Moreover, the group leaders direct children to shout slogans like, “I am ready to die.” Some of these children were handed banners saying, “My father the martyr, after you were gone I will not give up.”
The Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas is notorious for using children in its demonstrations and operations. It organizes military training camps for high school students. Hamas calls children’s brigades “Talaa’ Al Tahrir,” or the “The Independence Brigades.” Children younger than 15 are trained in jihadist activities targeting Israel and other perceived enemies. They are used as human shields and to fight or carry out terrorist attacks.
The Hamas Al Qassam Brigades organize week-long boot camps that have included more than 30,000 children in the Gaza Strip. Training includes kidnapping and attacks on targets.
“I want to learn and observe how Al Qassam kill the Jews and perform their martyr operations,” a child named Mohamed Al Bitar told Agence France Presse in 2016. Hamas uses Gaza mosques to recruit children for its training camp. In 2014, the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades sent a 14-year-old boy to blow himself up at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank, but he was stopped at the last moment
But ISIS has exploited children in more shocking ways. Video footage shows ISIS taught children as young as 4 how to behead people or fire a gun to kill captured enemies. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in 2015 alone ISIS recruited about 1,100 children in Syria. They were all trained like adult suicide soldiers and some were paid wages up to $400 per month. Similarly, ISIS captured more than 900 children in Iraq that year and forced them into military training and suicide missions in Mosul. Egypt’s Dar Al Ifta, a state religious institute, reported that in 2018, 12 percent of ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq were children. In 2014, an ISIS father forced his own 10-year-old daughter to wear a bomb vest and detonate herself in front of a Damascus police station.
In Lebanon, Hizballah has been training children for military operations for decades. An Associated Press video from 2015 showed children as young as 9 being trained under the supervision of a group leader. Hizballah even prints its own terrorist propaganda for kids. The Lebanese Amal movement organizes “Little Guest” courses to train to show children what they labeled as “young martyrs.”
Child soldiers still represent a clear and present danger. Jonathan Geffroy, a former ISIS jihadist from France who was captured in Syria in 2017, confessed to French DSGI internal intelligence, and told a French official that ISIS plans to use its trained children to launch terrorist attacks in Europe.
“I know that future external operations will be carried out by children who grew up in the area and who, after adolescence, will be sent to the West, to Europe, to carry out suicide missions,” German Intelligence Chief Hans-Georg Maasen warned about returning ISIS children a year ago, describing them as “living time bombs.” In Germany, a 12-year-old’s attempt to bomb a Christmas market in 2014 was foiled when someone spotted a bag containing explosives.
The number of child soldiers across the world jumped 159 percent in the past five years, the London-based Child Soldiers International reported in February. With many children returning from ISIS-controlled territory, the threat posed will be a lasting one. A bullet fired or a bomb detonated by a child is as effective as those by adults.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.