Children in Wars: Toys for Terrorist Organisations

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1261 in 1999 was the first resolution by the Security Council to condemn the use of children soldiers in wars and conflicts. According to the document, children can be used in various ways. Firstly, they can be used in direct combat roles as child soldiers. This has been the case in past and recent conflicts with new wars arising where the line between citizens and members of the army has been blurred. Secondly, they can be placed in secondary supportive positions such as messengers. Finally, children can be used as strategy tools in the advancement of an organisation’s cause. For instance, the kidnapping of children can be used as propaganda material to gain attention in media, such as the recent cases of kidnappings of Nigerian girls involving clandestine group Boko Haram. They can also be used by terrorist organisations as human shields and human bombs for the spread of their cause.

Image courtesy of Westport 1946 © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Westport 1946 © 2014, some rights reserved.

In this article, I plan to focus on this third approach using the case study of Boko Haram in Nigeria. As stated previously, the use of children in war can be strategic and stretches beyond the rules laid out by Just War theory. How are children tools at the hands of terrorist organisations? To understand the use of children in wars and conflicts, we first must go back to Just War theory, a doctrine concerning military rules of conducts and war ethics pioneered by Saint Aquinas. Just War theory is based on the principle of distinction which means that non-combatants should not be harmed in conflicts. Violence and harm should only be directed towards trained combatants, or also known as military personnel.

There is a long-standing tradition that has removed children and women out of the violence of wars. Acts of terrorism directed towards civilians would therefore be considered wrongful within the confines of Just War. However, with the evolution of media, technology and weaponry, conflicts and wars have evolved and known changes throughout centuries. The recognition of non-state actors has led academics such as Kaldor to introduce the notion of ‘new wars’, which critically assesses recent conflicts. Kaldor argues against the application of Just War theories to new wars, using for instance the shift from physical territorial control, to political control through fear and terror often used by terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram wishing to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. Further, the tendency of a world power like the United States to declare war on everything, even metaphorical concepts or material possessions, such as with the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, has supported Kaldor’s theoretical framework.

The stigmatisation against the use of children in war does not only come from Just War theory. In fact, it contains a moralistic component as well. Children are often deemed innocent and thus should be protected from the atrocities and violence of wars. Most countries have a strict age limit to join the military which promotes this idea of children being removed from conflicts. Because of this strong moralistic approach often propagated by a Western media, non-state terrorist organisations have often taken advantage of that to gain recognition in the media and spread awareness of their cause.

Boko Haram, loosely translated, as ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the Husa language, is an organisation created in 2002, but has only gained attention in the media more recently. It is an Islamist group in Nigeria opposing Western ideals, initially focusing on opposing Western methods of education. Their main aim is to overthrow the current Nigerian government and create an Islamic state. Boko Haram’s most recognised crime was the abduction of almost 200 girls in Chibok, Nigeria. This led to a campaign coined with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, endorsed by personalities such as First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.

Although efforts for negotiation of the girls’ release had been pursued by the Nigerian government, the talks never led to a concrete resolution. The fate of the girls, according to Boko Haram, was to have been sold into slavery and married off to Muslim men. This traumatic event was symbolic of their cause against Western education, especially education for girls. Indeed, the terrorist organisation adheres to traditional values where women hold the position of mothers and wives. The kidnapping of young girls was however a deliberate action on the part of Boko Haram to gain attention for their cause. Before that, the group had been talked about for their bombings of Nigerian villages and their raids, but never made big headlines. They gained world recognition with children used as a tool to propagate their cause against Western civilisation.

With the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the recent Baga massacre in January 2015 was swept under the radar. A neo-orientalist academic such as Spivak would throw a critical comment of the death of a ‘White Man’ being deemed more important than the one of a ‘Brown Man’. I feel that both events should gain equal attention in the media as they are both the works of Islamic terrorist attacks. Boko Haram, on the 3rd of January, committed a series of mass killings in the small town of Baga, in the state of Borno. The number of fatalities and the gravity of the event have been ambiguous. It was first reported that more than 2000 individuals had been killed. The Nigerian government then came forward asserting that ‘more than 150 people were killed’, including militants. It was perhaps more importantly noted by some media sources that young girls that had been previously kidnapped, had been used as human bombs in suicide bombings across the town.

The use of young girls here is strategic as no one would expect a child to be the carrier of a bomb and thus, would maximise the number of causalities. Such use of children would be severely condemned by Western authorities and forces, and thus allow terrorist organisations to gain recognition in the press and their cause. This is a recent phenomenon that could be added to the theory of new wars and should be examined more closely by academics specialised in war and terrorism. In countries like Nigeria, international organisations and states should come together to establish a better protection of children.