Henshaw on Bloom and Horgan, 'Small Arms: Children and Terrorism'

Mia Bloom, John Horgan
Alexis Henshaw

Mia Bloom, John Horgan. Small Arms: Children and Terrorism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 248 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5388-5.

Reviewed by Alexis Henshaw (Troy University) Published on H-War (October, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54520

Small Arms: Children and Terrorism is an important, timely, and interdisciplinary work that offers new insight into the issue of children in conflict. While child soldiering has long been the topic of international attention and advocacy, Bloom and Horgan offer a new angle by positioning their work as a study of children’s involvement in terrorism. In doing so, they focus primarily on the recruitment and use of children by the Islamic State (IS), although other cases are invoked throughout the text. Primary questions explored by the authors include how children are used, how they are mobilized and indoctrinated, and how they could be transitioned out of conflict. There is also some critical dialogue on the place of child soldiers and child terrorists generally in international law, calling into question the tension between a legal framework that almost exclusively defines childhood in modern, Western terms and a much more complex reality in conflict zones.

Among the book’s strengths is its multifaceted approach, which blends political science, psychology, communications, and history. Drawing on literature from all of these traditions, the authors contextualize their study, simultaneously positioning the issue of children and terrorism as a familiar problem yet one that is also somewhat distinct. One example of this is the authors’ discussion of trauma. While acknowledging prior work on the long-term impacts associated with child soldiering and exposure to conflict more generally, Bloom and Horgan suggest that children mobilized to participate in terrorism experience trauma in particular ways, including separation from their families and processes of grooming similar to those used in the criminal and sexual exploitation of children.

Some of the book’s most powerful arguments relate to the militarization of children, often through militarized textbooks and classrooms. The authors offer several visual examples that demonstrate how extremism is normalized in the minds of children not just through religious education and biased histories, but also in texts that introduce children to the vocabulary of war and familiarize them with images of weapons (chapter 3). While IS has created its own pedagogy of violence, there is an indictment here of outside powers as well. In particular, Cold War-era USAID programs and Saudi-led initiatives are identified as important sources of funding for textbooks that ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In approaching this research, the authors rely primarily on their case study of IS, a range of visual material including propaganda, and an attempt at data collection approximating the number and nationality of child terrorists based on a review of IS materials. The authors themselves acknowledge the limitations of this approach, as it is imperfect information based on a case that has continued to develop (p. 33). In portions of the book, this leaves the reader wishing for a more robust development of comparative case studies, which are peppered throughout the text. This is especially true in chapter 7, which deals with the demobilization of children—an issue that seems imperative to address given the current status of IS foreign fighters and their children.

At the same time, drawing on past examples raises a key question about the work: do child soldiers and child terrorists differ in ways that could meaningfully impact policies and programming? The authors’ arguments to this effect are not entirely convincing. They envision five main points of divergence including the role of adults in mobilization, the use of drugs, access to education, the roles played by children, and how girls contribute to the group (p. 38). This is a concise theory, but one that does not neatly map onto conflict environments. For instance, the authors argue that child soldiers tend to be targeted because they lack adult supervision while child terrorists are more often pushed or pulled into terrorism by adults. This conclusion does not sit well with cases like Colombia, where many children report being drawn into guerrilla forces by older relatives or by local insurgents whom they viewed as authority figures,[1] or India and Nepal, where Maoist insurgents practiced a tactic of asking every family to surrender a child, much as the authors report extremist groups doing in Pakistan.[2] Similarly, the authors claim that organizations that use child soldiers “do not run schools to ideologically groom youth” (p. 45), yet this claim appears to be disproven by the existence of a revolutionary education system within, for example, Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and National Liberation Amy (ELN).[3] Finally, a section on the use of girls in combat (pp. 51-52) appears to only highlight the distinct use of women and girls by IS, rather than speaking to differences between girl soldiers and terrorists generally. The construction of a stronger framework that clearly distinguishes between child soldiers and child terrorists—as well as the groups that use them—would perhaps address some of these issues, as it is not always clear where the authors draw the line.

Though the authors’ attempts to create a grand theory of children and terror could use some refinement, this title is relevant and thought-provoking overall. It should promote additional and more meaningful dialogue on a topic that urgently requires such engagement. One hopes the authors will continue their research in this area, as a revised edition or follow-up to this title that provides insight into the long-term outcomes for these children would be entirely appropriate.


[1]. Human Rights Watch, “‘You’ll Learn Not to Cry’: Child Combatants in Colombia” (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003), https://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/colombia0903/colombia0903.pdf; Natalia Springer, “Como Corderos Entre Lobos” (Bogotá: Springer Consulting, 2012), http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/descargas/informe_comoCorderosEntreLobos.pdf.

[2]. Asian Centre for Human Rights, “India’s Child Soldiers” (New Delhi: Asian Centre for Human Rights, 2013), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CRC-OP-AC/Shared%20Documents/Ind/INT_CRC-OP-AC_ICO_I... Roshmi Goswami, “UNSCR 1325 and Female Ex-Combatants—Case Study of the Maoist Women of Nepal” (New York: UN Women, 2015), https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/201....

[3]. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, “Una Guerra Sin Edad” (Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2017), http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/descargas/informes2018/una_guerra-sin-edad.pdf; Human Rights Watch, “‘You’ll Learn Not to Cry’”; Springer, “Como Corderos Entre Lobos.”

Citation: Alexis Henshaw. Review of Bloom, Mia; Horgan, John, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54520

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