Children as terrorists? How can we counter-terrorise them?

It seems just so wrong to even be thinking about children perpetrating acts of terrorism or extreme violence. There’s a part of my head that just doesn’t want to go there. I find myself trying to duck and weave to avoid the scandalous, over-inflated, anxiety-provoking media articles designed to keep us glued to screen and print. At times like these when my head and my heart want to be going in separate directions, I know the place I can find solace is in solid research and facts.

When I take the “oh-this-is-too-awful-to-think-about” factor out of it, the sorts of questions my head is left asking go something like:

  • How does this happen?
  • Surely, these kids are not doing it alone, are they?
  • Where are their parents?
  • Why aren’t they spending their time doing what other kids enjoy doing?
  • Could I ever begin to imagine some young person that I know doing something so violent and extreme?
  • How can we keep a level head about this and get children the help that they need before they hurt others?

Studies into Isreali teens growing up in terrorist zones shows they are much more prone to risk taking associated with Post Traumatic Stress concerns, especially for boys.   We also, sadly, understand the role that child soldiers play in other war-torn places on Earth. However, in peaceful places where people are not fighting for their lives on a daily basis, what’s the link between children and violence? Youth violence in more “peaceful” zones is normally attributed by researchers to factors such as substance use, early exposure to family violence and abuse, impulsivity, early aggression or poor regulation and certain anti-social attitudes towards police, schools or authority figures. Violence in the name of terrorism or for an extremist cause is much less likely amongst violent young offenders in Australia. So, where do we begin to focus if we want to prevent acts of terrorism by young people in Australia?

The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has analyzed a cross-section of 114 propaganda sources ranging from April 2013 to summer 2015 from three Salafi-jihadi groups: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  I think this should be mandatory reading for everyone who cares about other people and who has a concern for the welfare of lonely young people all around the world.

By taking the time to look at the ideals that the researchers uncovered in the three pro-violence jihadi groups, we can see some of the links that may be attractive to children and young people. We can also see how they differ from mainstream Muslim groups or ideals of other faiths.

Indeed, despite ISIS, Jabhar al-Nusra and al-Qaeda all promoting themselves as different and unique, analysis has revealed that they have more principles in common than principles that differentiate them. In particular, their core values overlap significantly and differentiate them from mainstream faiths. There are three areas of values that analysts found were at the core of the pro-violence jihadi groups: 1. Creedal Values: 2. Honour and Solidarity; and 3.“End of Days”.

When you know or have spent time with sad, disenfranchised youth, you can start to see the appeal of each of these core values.

Creedal values – Many faiths have a creed, but not many have objectives that are largely about an “enemy” and about “ending humiliation”. Whilst most violence perpetrated by young people in our country is considered anti-social and comes from a certain combination of risk factors involving impulsivity, family violence, and substance use. The links to risk-taking behaviour in young people differ when they are growing up in a zone of recurrent terrorism. The child attracted to the values of violent jihadi groups is likely looking for help, structure and a guide to live by that will help them manage the feelings they have perhaps generated from being victims of racism, taunts or bullying.

You almost get the feeling that some, very hurt, young people are looking for a “family” that can give them a recipe or roadmap to help them travel through the social-emotional war zone that is, for some, adolescence.

Having rules spelled out in a creed provides some rules to live by. For many, this provides black and white thinking and easy ways of making decisions. Things either fit or they don’t. People are with you or against you. A creed provides structure. It provides a sense that you will always have a right answer, even in really complex, emotional or ethical situations.

Solidarity offers a community of people who think the same way as you. It gives you the chance to belong with others who share a common purpose or common responsibilities. It gives you an escape from loneliness and a feeling of sameness and camaraderie.

Honour – a source of respect, a system of merit a way of judging yourself and others. It gives you a chance to be one of the great ones. No longer one of those lonely, “out group” young men that has been hurt by “in group”, “cool kid” bullies who have all of the latest gadgets that their parents’ money can buy.

End of days – There’s nothing like a deadline to get you motivated and get you taking action sooner rather than sitting back and thinking about it all without actually taking any action. Turning ideas into willing action -the idea that there will be a day coming where all those who have filled the creed will be celebrated and reap benefits and those who do not will suffer.

So, in all, these groups offer lonely and disappointed children and youth a chance to belong. If you join, you will belong to a group that has solid and clear values. It will be an honourable choice and you don’t need to be good at making friends. You will get your payback and your enemies will get the hard times that they deserve.

And so…to my questions… Thinking about it like this makes it clearer to me how it could all happen – how a young, disenfranchised, lonely youth might find all he is seeking in a pro-terrorism group. Certainly, they are not doing it alone. While their individual acts of violence might be solo, they are backed by ideas and support that is perhaps stronger than they have felt “backed and supported” in awhile…perhaps ever. You can imagine these lonely young boys living under the same roof as their parents. Perhaps they rarely leave the house except to gather with some like-minded others. After all, they can access all of the support and ideals and enthusiasm online on their laptops or smart phones. They may even belong to a religious community, but if it isn’t offering them enough, isn’t youth-focused enough and doesn’t give them the immediate answers they need when they feel hurt or left out, then they will, like other young people, look elsewhere to get their needs met.

So, in a way, they are spending time doing what other kids are doing. They are looking for a place to fit and to belong and they find it in the structure and idealism of the groups that encourage them to hurry up and do something that will secure their place as heroes in the eyes of others – if not now, on some approaching future day of reckoning. Sadly, now I know I could imagine some of the young people I have met getting caught up in situations that lead them to committing acts of terrorism in the name of a certain group. Perhaps, these children differ a little from those I have worked with in Youth Justice systems over the years because they are not necessarily affected by substances, school refusing, impulsive, domestic violence and the other factors normally associated with youth violence in Australia.

How can we keep a level head about this and get children the help that they need before they hurt others? I think that, until we have an evidence base to work on (young people are always good at getting involved in issues well ahead of the research and researchers are often caught on the hop and needing time to build reliable data) the answer lies in inclusion. We need to do our utmost to include young people of all races, religions, gender identities, music genres in all that we offer. We should celebrate our diversity and help young people who, by the very nature of their developing brains, are simultaneously seeking to belong and build their own identities to get to know, explore, compare, listen to and weigh up the pros and cons of all the choices there are for them in our amazing country.

The answer does certainly not lie in attacking people of other races or religions or going on witch hunts for their children.

While it goes without saying that we should do our utmost to keep all children safe from harm, we need to be careful that in so doing we don’t shut them away from meeting, learning about and being with others.

Again, I encourage you to read…

I know that you may not want to “go there”, but it’s well worth the trip!

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