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

Mia Bloom, John Horgan
Paul Springer

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 Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (July, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55208

Mia Bloom is a professor of communication at Georgia State University. She is one of the most well-respected scholars of modern terrorism in academia. Her work Dying to Kill transformed our understanding of the mechanics of suicide bombing. Her Bombshell examined the increasing number of roles that women play in terror organizations. John Horgan is a science journalist with a wide range of interests, including the conduct of modern warfare. Their current collaboration seeks to examine the roles of children in modern terror movements, and argues that children have started to play key roles in some of the deadliest terror organizations in the world.

The work opens with a discussion of how to properly define “child” in the modern world. There are many different cultural approaches to the concept, and the way a culture approaches childhood has often changed over time. In the current United Nations definition, which refers to anyone under the age of eighteen as a child, there is a strong Western bias. However, in many regions of the world, children playing an active role in combat operations has become normalized. Often, groups recruit children to augment their combat power first out of a sense of desperation—but this behavior can become attractive to groups for a wide variety of reasons. In general, many terror leaders report that because children follow orders, expect little in return, and have unique abilities to penetrate heavily defended areas, they are a unique resource that is almost irresistible. Although many terror groups publicly denounce the incorporation of children into their activities, they still continue to engage in this behavior (which in turn illustrates the danger of accepting a terror organization at its word.) Bloom and Horgan build a solid case for why the incorporation of children, while not unique to terrorism, is a definite threat from terrorist groups that needs to be addressed before the situation becomes unstoppable, or worse, considered acceptable.

Bloom and Horgan see the Islamic State as particularly committed to the use of children, in more and nastier ways than their peer terror groups. This study relies heavily upon the eulogies of child participants, verified by independent means when possible, to examine the motivations of children who have voluntarily sacrificed their lives on behalf of the Islamic State. But they do not rely solely upon an examination of the Islamic State to develop their model of how children are recruited and utilized by terror groups. Children without parents are particularly vulnerable to recruitment, but they are not the only source of potential victims. For many of those orphans, though, joining the terror group might offer the most viable path toward personal security and a source of food. Some children have been given to terror organizations by their parents, in lieu of a cash payment that they cannot satisfy. Although this decision seems cruel, to many parents, it is the only method of saving the remainder of their children from execution at the hands of the group making the demands. Many groups use drugs and sexual abuse as levers of control over their young recruits. Upon joining the group, the youngest children are often encouraged to think of older, more advanced children as their surrogate parents within the group, creating a psychological dependency that has proven very difficult to counter. As young children survive within the organization, at least some of them have an opportunity to rise within its ranks—making their examples an attractive means of recruiting more children to the group.

Bloom and Horgan note that schools within active conflict zones are some of the most fertile recruiting grounds for terror groups—and that the most effective recruiters are typically other children. Some terror organizations have taken over responsibility for the operation of schools, allowing them to engage in mass indoctrination of young minds by changing the curriculum to suit their purposes. In particular, madrasas and related schools tend to serve this function—they cater almost exclusively to children from poor families, and make no effort to present a balanced curriculum, or even one that will help students in a competitive global economy. The focus upon religious subjects and extremely biased historical grievance discussions further reinforces the terror organization’s ideology. Parents often know this is the result of sending children to those schools—but with no other options, and given that the schools often provide a vital source of food for children, they persist in sending their children directly into the indoctrination centers.

One noteworthy aspect of this study is its contrast of different forms of coercive recruitment—the so-called push and pull phenomenon of terror recruitment. Getting children to want to join the organization can be a tricky business—it might start in the form of simple bribes of candy and toys, but often manifests in the creation of a competitive environment in which only some children will be selected for full membership, for vital tasks, or for potential advancement. The entire effort is built upon a foundation of propaganda specifically designed for children, which has proven extremely effective. Children, whose minds have not fully developed, are very susceptible to influence from role models. By lionizing previous child “martyrs,” terror organizations can create an environment in which sacrificing one’s life seems the greatest opportunity available to a child. Such a sacrifice might also be presented as a mechanism to help the broader family, which will potentially receive financial compensation and greater social status as a result of the child’s sacrifice.

The work goes into rather disturbing detail about the various roles that have been played by children in some of the bloodiest terror movements of the twenty-first century. In addition to the Islamic State, the authors pay particular attention to Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army, both active in sub-Saharan Africa. In all three movements, children have been encouraged to engage in the worst forms of violence, to include execution of captives, suicide bombings, and attacks upon military and law-enforcement units. Ironically, the top leaders within terror organizations typically attempt to shield their own children from participation within the movement—a fact that demonstrates they are well aware of the damage such participation causes.

The authors discuss the consequences for children who survive their participation in terror organizations, and manage to escape the control of the groups. Although most terror groups publicly disavow the possibility of disengagement from the group, privately such disengagements tend to be relatively common. It is hard to determine the long-term effects of participation upon children, or to be certain of whether they can be successfully reintegrated into civilized society. Unfortunately, quite often it seems that victims become victimizers in turn—and although a few children have managed to escape captivity, or allow themselves to be captured before carrying out an attack, there is yet no way of knowing if they will successfully return to civilian lives.

The long-term control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State has created a number of unforeseen problems for children, even those not being recruited to join the group. For example, the Islamic State has issued birth certificates for children born in the areas under its control—but no state has recognized the certificates, which means that as territory is recaptured, the youngest children in the area are literally stateless. Host nations that are housing refugees from contact areas are each forced to determine the security measures that might be necessary due to the influx of children from terror organizations. While education might offset some long-term issues that stem from participating in terror movements, there is a strong case that many if not most of these children have been severely and permanently damaged by their experiences. Unfortunately, this proves the concept that children can be both victims and security threats at the same time.

Bloom and Horgan close the work by offering eight steps to prevent children from being successfully recruited by terror organizations, and to reengage them into society after participation. First, they recommend that those seeking solutions address the context of individual children and the groups they have encountered. All solutions will begin with an understanding of the local conditions. Second, they place a special emphasis upon being aware of the gender disparity within groups, and how the treatment of boys and girls substantially differs within almost every terror organization. They call for a multidisciplinary and mixed methods approach to helping children, under a set of safe, coherent, and transparent policies rather than a veil of secrecy. They believe that nongovernment organizations are likely to have more success than government entities, if their capacities can be increased. Engaging families and communities in the effort to reintegrate children is key to providing a stable foundation for their participation in society. Engaging the public sector, including the media, and both religious and secular entities is another key to success. And finally, investing resources into nations torn by conflict is an important long-term approach to halting the recruitment and utilization of children into conflicts.

This is an intriguing, if extremely disturbing work. It approaches an aspect of terrorism that is almost always ignored within the literature of terror movements, one that has extremely broad ramifications for the future of terror organizations and the ability of governments to reintegrate their members into society. Bloom and Horgan have done a masterful job of building their argument and demonstrating their concepts without lingering on the worst aspects of their subject. It belongs on the shelf of any individual interested in modern conflicts and should be of enormous utility in a wide variety of undergraduate courses.


Citation: Paul Springer. Review of Bloom, Mia; Horgan, John, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55208

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Apologies for a mistake in the background of Professor Horgan. As an H-Diplo member points, out, "John Horgan is a Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University, very well-known and extremely highly-regarded in the field of terrorism, with a long record of scholarly publications focusing especially on psychological aspects and de-radicalization. He is also one of the editors of _Terrorism and Political Violence_.