New UNODC research on child recruitment and exploitation by terrorist groups shows need for a united front on child protection

Brussels, 22 February 2024 - Children around the world are victims of a serious form of violence: recruitment and exploitation by terrorist groups.
Recognizing the gravity of this situation and the scarcity of related data and evidence, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), together with national research partners and the support of the European Union, launched a new study Targeted by Terrorists: Child Recruitment, Exploitation and Reintegration in Indonesia, Iraq, and Nigeria in Brussels, Belgium.
Carried out through UNODC’s STRIVE Juvenile project, the study sheds light on the devastating phenomenon of child recruitment and exploitation by terrorist groups and incorporates field research carried out in Indonesia, Iraq and Nigeria with young adults who had been recruited by terrorist groups as children. The core protection challenges faced before, during and after association with the groups are presented, together with effective strategies to counter recruitment and exploitation.

According to the report, child recruitment by terrorist groups is not exceptional and largely overlaps child recruitment by other armed and criminal groups. The emphasis on recruitment techniques and campaigns targeting children by these groups, however, demonstrates that children are a valued resource for these groups - both for economic and tactical reasons, but also as pawns that raise their visibility.

Though children’s roles within the terrorist group varies, the study continues, their experiences are consistently characterized by violence and harm.  Children exit and disengage from terrorist groups despite serious risk of retaliation when they reach a tipping point of negative experience within the group and positive prospects for life outside it.
Children do not join terrorist groups voluntarily, the study notes. Their association is characterized by a spectrum of coercion, even when they exercise some form of agency. The complex interplay between exploitation and agency in the lives of these children, the research suggests, means that involving children as partners in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts addressing the consequences of violations of their rights is likely to be the most promising approach.
As noted by Andhika Chrisnayudhanto, Deputy Head for International Cooperation, National Counter-Terrorism Agency, Indonesia:“The paradigm needs to change - from punishment to reintegration. From looking to the past, to looking to the future.”
Barriers and incentives to such successful reintegration, however, are determined by gendered and stereotypical representations of children’s association with terrorist groups.
Finally, though it has proved challenging to uphold children’s rights in counter-terrorism efforts, it contributes to the effectiveness of counter-terrorist programmes and the promotion of peace and security. Overly punitive and securitized approaches in national counter-terrorism laws and policies that do not take account of children’s vulnerability and entitlement to specific and non-derogable rights have overshadowed the importance of prevention, reconciliation and reintegration-focused strategies and measures. This increases the risk of their marginalization and acceptance of terrorism, and perpetuating the cycle of violence.
Ambassador Mairo Abbas, Director, Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, Office of the National Security Advisor, Nigeria emphasized that “punitive approaches come with a considerable security cost and the Nigerian Government’s courageous decision to promote rehabilitation and reintegration in the face of terrorism are directly contributing to public safety.”
Alexandra Martins, End Violence Against Children Team Leader at UNODC noted that: “Since 2015, UNODC has tackled the issue of children being targeted by terrorists, advocating for an effective and comprehensive approach that centres child rights within broader humanitarian, development, security, and rule of law and law reform efforts.”
Isabel Candela, Deputy Head of Unit, European Commission Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, highlighted the importance of STRIVE Juvenile, a five-year initiative through which UNODC has worked in partnership with Indonesia, Iraq and Nigeria to protect children from terrorism. According to Candela: “By investing in governance, human rights and the rule of law, we are building the ground for stability and peace.”
The launch of Targeted by Terrorists signifies a pivotal moment in ongoing efforts to protect children in the context of counter-terrorism: the establishment of a united front whereby national governments, international organizations, communities, children and young adults come together to ensure that children are safe, protected, empowered, and given the chance to reclaim their futures.

Further Information

Read the Full Report here.