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ISIS Increasingly Recruiting Children To Carry Out Terrorist Acts


ISIS is increasingly employing children to carry out acts of terrorism. Last Sunday in Iraq, a young teenage boy was captured before he could detonate an explosive belt. And authorities are still investigating whether another young teen was responsible for last weekend's wedding bombing in Turkey. While the use of children in warfare is not new, researchers say that ISIS has taken the notion of child soldiers to a new level, even bragging about employing children on their social media sites.

John Hogan is a psychologist at Georgia State University. He's been studying terrorist groups for 20 years. He joins us now from Atlanta. Welcome to the program.

JOHN HORGAN: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you are getting a lot of your information from ISIS websites. Tell us what you're seeing.

HORGAN: In contrast to, I suppose, most terrorist groups for whom allegations of child exploitation would be embarrassing, ISIS has very publicly embraced the use of children.

WERTHEIMER: So who are these children, and how do they find their way to ISIS? Is this part of the outreach?

HORGAN: It's part of the outreach. I mean, one of the extraordinarily effective ways in which the Islamic State has managed to recruit so many is because of that outreach. And they have, in the last 18 months, paid particular attention to targeting not just lone, disaffected male Muslims or male Muslim converts, they have reached out to entire families to say it's OK. There is a place for your spouse and your kids here, and this is a package deal. We will find a role for everybody.

WERTHEIMER: It sounds as though they must have set up some kind of system for where the children sleep, what they do, what - do they study?

HORGAN: We - one of the things that really struck us in trying to make sense of all of this imagery, and we've put all of this in a rather elaborate database, which we're going to publish soon, is just how how systematic and structured this entire process is, from - or through which, rather, they progress these children from being merely passive bystanders to fully fledged, fully committed, mobilized fighters.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just give us maybe a condensed version of that? You say that it starts off gently, perhaps with toys and treats attracting the children.

HORGAN: Toys and treats and it really is about trying to lessen any doubts or reduce fears that kids might have about what life in the Islamic State might be about. The next phase is schooling, and this is where kids are far more subject to intense indoctrination, which they don't really understand the ideology but they do parrot it. But it also brings the kids far closer to ISIS-specific personnel, so recruiters who are able to select kids out who might be showing aptitude for one activity or another. And this is where ISIS essentially creates prestige among these young kids at school. And they project the idea to them that greater things await should they be lucky enough to be accepted to go from the schools into a military training camp and stationed as part of the Islamic State's military activity.

WERTHEIMER: How do they move from taking the children, sort of encouraging them to go to school and giving them sweets and toys and all of that, how do they get from that to suicide bombing?

HORGAN: Suicide bombing is only one of many roles that these kids have fulfilled. I mean, by our estimates, we're looking at somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 children who have been indoctrinated, trained and mobilized over the past two years. But they don't have to work hard to convince the children to become martyrs. I mean, this is very much a process of intense psychological dynamics where utter obedience and complete allegiance to the Islamic State is expected.

There are numerous accounts of children who failed at training or who miss their parents too much and decided that, you know, this really wasn't for them. In some cases, in many cases in fact, those children were severely beaten and, in some cases, even executed. This is really all about providing points of no return. The children at a point here really don't have a choice. And it is fundamentally - this entire activity is based on coercion.

WERTHEIMER: John Horrigan is the co-author of a forthcoming book "Small Arms: Children & Terrorism." Thank you very much for talking to us.

HORGAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.