The threat presented by ISIS is taking on a new form: child terrorists either directly in contact with or inspired by the militant group. Even as it suffers setbacks on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is cultivating adolescents in the West, who are being asked to stay in their home countries and strike targets with whatever weapons are available, such as knives and crude bombs. A 16-year-old girl was among four people arrested in the south of France on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, French authorities said Friday.
“The amount of ISIS videos and propaganda aimed at children has really jumped in recent months,” said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies. “We haven’t seen anything quite like this, not on this scale and of this quality. They know that in the West, you don’t expect a 10-year-old to be a terror suspect.”
Last September, German authorities arrested a 16-year-old Syrian asylum seeker after they discovered the young man was in contact with an ISIS handler who was teaching him how to build a bomb.
In December, a 12-year-old German Iraqi boy — guided by an ISIS contact in the Middle East who warmly addressed him as “brother” and groomed the boy via the encrypted messaging app Telegram — built and tried to detonate a bomb near a shopping center in the western German city of Ludwigshafen. The device failed to explode.
The boy had been “headhunted” by ISIS, officials said, after searching radical websites online. A 17-year-old accomplice was later arrested in Austria.
Last month, a 15-year-old girl — the daughter of a German convert to Islam and a Moroccan mother — was sentenced to six years in prison for an attack last February on a German police officer in Hanover. She gouged him in the neck with a kitchen knife, causing life-threatening injuries after being befriended and cajoled by an ISIS instructor via a text messaging service.
All told in Germany, at least 10 minors have been involved in five plots over the past 12 months. In a country where militants disguised as migrants have been blamed for a terrorist plague, most of the minors were homegrown threats born in Germany.
And then one night last April, officials said, the Emir — a Muslim title for an exalted leader — led two cell members to a Sikh house of worship in this industrial city and hurled the bomb toward its door. A deafening boom rang out. Orange flames lit a mosaic of blood and shattered glass. Inside, victims screamed as the assailants fled.
All three terrorists were 16-year-old boys, according to German police.
“Our children!” cried Neriman Yaman, 37, mother of the Emir, whose first name is Yusuf, in an interview after attending a court hearing for her son. “What is happening to our children?”
Worse, authorities said, is that the intelligence community is often blind to the threat posed by these teens and preteens.
Officials lack the legal authority to track children the same way they monitor adults, creating what German authorities describe as one of their greatest counterterrorism challenges.
Intelligence agencies here have identified at least 120 minors who have become dangerously radicalized — and some of them cannot be intensely monitored because of domestic laws protecting children, officials said.
German law was amended last year to allow for the collection of data on suspects as young as 14. But officials now argue that is not young enough.
“Our service mainly focuses on adults,” said Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. “We are allowed to monitor minors and record them in our databases in exceptional cases only, but they have to be aged 14 or over. Normally people do not expect children to commit terrorist attacks. But they can and are.”
He added: “What is really worrying is that people frequently look the other way. They say it’s just a phase of adolescence and surely they will grow out of it. Often parents don’t really know what their children are doing in their rooms.”
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Europe has grappled with the kind of radicalization that led thousands of its Muslim citizens to travel to the Middle East, often to join ISIS. But as Turkey and other nations more actively block the path of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the journey has become harder.
So the targets of radicalized youths are shifting, European intelligence officials said, with terrorist groups either enlisting or inspiring them to attack their homelands. They are employing propaganda tailor-made for youths, including several recent graphic videos showing grammar-school-age children executing prisoners and a newly released computer game, inspired by “Grand Theft Auto,” in which users kill enemies under ISIS flag.
ISIS recruiters carefully monitor children who visit their propaganda sites or enter radical chat rooms, meticulously evaluating who may be suitable for cultivation.
Typically, they don’t immediately attempt to challenge children’s relationships with their parents but nudge them toward violence by convincing them that Allah smiles on those who defend the faith.
The Washington Post