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The Islamic State's new threat: child terrorists

Neriman Yaman holds her cellphone with a picture of her son, Yusuf, a teenager who is charged with setting off a homemade bomb outside a Sikh temple in Essen, Germany.
Neriman Yaman holds her cellphone with a picture of her son, Yusuf, a teenager who is charged with setting off a homemade bomb outside a Sikh temple in Essen, Germany.
Published Feb. 12, 2017

ESSEN, Germany — The package ordered online arrived at his second-floor apartment on a brisk Saturday morning, a cardboard box packed with magnesium, potassium nitrate and aluminum powder for a homemade bomb. Weeks ahead of the attack, police said, the terrorist cell's leader — an Islamist his comrades called the Emir — had issued precautionary orders.

"Delete ALL pictures and videos of the Islamic State," the Emir warned via Whats­App.

"Delete your chats."

"Everything that is weapon-like or similar (also bombs) must be immediately disposed of. … Sell it, give it away, move it or destroy it."

And then one night in 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?"

The threat presented by the Islamic State, which is also known as 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 Islamic State 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."

In September, German authorities arrested a 16-year-old Syrian asylum seeker after they discovered he was in contact with an ISIS handler who was teaching the young man 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.

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.

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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.

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. 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."

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.

ISIS recruiters carefully monitor children who visit their propaganda sites or enter radical chat rooms, meticulously evaluating who may be suitable for cultivation. They groom children much the way that pedophiles do — deploying flattery and attention while pretending to be friends, according to people who study the phenomenon.

In the face of terrorist attacks, freedom of religion is being tested in Germany — with even the progressive Chancellor Angela Merkel now calling for an election-year ban on the full Muslim covering known as the burqa.

The heightened sense of insulation and persecution among young Muslims, experts said, is only fostering more radicalization.

"Religious extremist propaganda … can only work if it is addressed to an audience that is already marginalized and feeling uncomfortable in society," said Goetz Nordbruch, co-director of Horizon, a German group offering counseling and workshops on Islamophobia in German schools.

"The public discourse is turning against these kids, against Islam," he said. "It is making it harder for them to feel both Muslim and German."