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Posted: August 12th, 2013

Children as the target of Islamic extremist activity in the Middle East




Children as the target of Islamic extremist activity in the Middle East

Terrorism within the Middle East is a religious and cultural phenomenon that is perpetrated by Islamist extremists and is characterized by suicide attacks, kidnappings, recruitment of new members and hijackings. Although terrorism has its roots in Islam, instances of terrorism have surfaced in almost all continents including United States, Africa, Europe and Asia. Terrorism first developed as a movement of state assassins who targeted religious opponents who stood in the way of the state ideology. Later in the 20th century, three major events: the Iranian Revolution, the withdrawal of Russia from Afghanistan and the post cold war religious revival.

Although the general rule of operation for terrorists is they target non-combatants. However, a new phenomenon is emerging where children have become the primary target for terrorists. From the start of 2000, terrorists have slowly shifted their attention to terrorizing states and groups using children as their targets. Russia reported some of the first school bombings in 2004 in Belsan. Between 2009 and 2010, Afghanistan witnessed poison attacks on 3 girls’ schools and 16 similar attacks in 2012. The fact that all the 16 terrorist incidents were perpetrated in girls’ schools makes the situation even worse.

Elsewhere in Gaza, bombs were dropped over UNWRA schools that were housed many children. In total, the attacks in 2012 resulted in the death of over 2,000 children. Apart from deaths, the terrorist actions have also had severe psychological effects on the children. The past two years in America have witnessed an influx of extremist group members who have been looking for jobs within educational institutions. These jobs are significant in implementing terrorism acts for example school bus drivers, janitors and electricians. Their training practices in Afghanistan also involves taking over schools that are structured in the American way.

Terrorist activities targeting children include kidnapping and hijacking. These activities harm children physically and psychologically. Terrorist target children whose families are perceived to be opposing the Al-Qaeda objectives and mission. A recent instance was the abduction of 8-year-old Khidhr al-Ani whose father is an Iraqi police officer by the Al Qaeda network. The young child suffered form burns, beatings and harassment that left him physically and psychologically wounded. After the ordeal, Khidhr did not regain al his abilities fully rendering him helpless and dependent on his family members. This and other instances of children being targeted by terrorists have aroused the attention of diplomats, scholars and  human rights bodies that seek to understand the reason behind the focus on children and schools and the effect of this change of target on the children (Shelly et al, 2012).

Theories explaining the effect of physical and psychological trauma in children

            Children who are directly and indirectly involved in terrorism are predominantly susceptible to the sweeping impact of terrorism. Children at risk of encountering mental difficulties after an act of terrorism include those who were in the environment and witnessed the event, those who lost their parents and even those children who witnessed the coverage of the terrorism on television. For children who experienced the terrorism directly, the experience can be harrowing and life changing to the extent of death. Terror groups responsible for inflicting and exposing children to violence are also responsible for the growing number of mentally disturbed youth.

There are few scientific studies done on the effect that terrorism has on the physical and psychological status of children. Most of these reports simply record the effects of watching terrorism acts but they rarely address the harm that is inflicted upon the children because of the acts of terrorism. Terrorism causes psychological strains that produce helplessness in the event of anxiety and danger. A large percentage of the children exposed to terrorism acts suffer from post-traumatic anxiety disorders that influence the cognition, feelings and personality growth. The most common impact of such violent events is a lasting sense of negativity with dejection and suicidal thoughts.

Anger and depression symptoms appear more among children who were directly exposed to terrorism as in Iraq and Palestine. Studies have shown that on average each Palestinian child has been exposed to ten traumatic incidents. These types of children show symptoms like nightmares, severe agitation, insomnia and hyper-vigilance. Such children develop violent and delinquent behavior later in their lives if they are exposed to these adverse stress conditions for long periods. Most of the children grow up amid these difficult conditions but they develop coping mechanisms that solve these issues but other children are not so fortunate.

Numerous studies have confirmed that emotional and physical trauma caused early in life can have permanent damage on the brains of children especially the sections involved with regulating emotions and stress. This damage at a tender age results into altered behavior and adverse response to the environment that in turn increases the probability of adult mental disorders. Living in such difficult conditions in Middle East countries where terrorism is the highest, children end up having flashes of trauma in their dreams, thoughts and flashbacks. The current bombings, direct attacks on schools and abductions focus the stress on schoolchildren and affect them in numerous ways (Roberts, 2010).

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among children is presented and expressed differently in children than in adults. Coping with the effects of terrorism among children requires a multi-dimensional approach that involves the following solutions. The strong support from the immediate family, the community, teachers and other close people is important in that all these people have experienced the effect of the terrorist acts. The parents of the children should be at hand to help the child to com to terms with their new environment by explaining the violence and conflict in a way that will not traumatize the child. The economic resources are helpful at this junctures as the family can relocate to locations that are more peaceful and conducive for child growth. Ensuring that children have other factors taken care of such as academic qualification and problem-solving skills suffice to help the child deal with the psychological challenges that arise from violent environments.

Physical and psychological effects of child terrorism

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a state that comes about in response to observing or seeing a hostile or unsafe incident that draws out fear, vulnerability or shock. The common symptoms of PTSD include constant re-experiencing of the terrorist act, avoidance of items or locations that remind one of the terrorism act and unrelenting symptoms of amplified stimulation. PTSD is the most common reaction to catastrophic events in children and has been recorded in up to 40% of children who were exposed to tragedies. The effect of PTSD can be persistent for more than 15 years after a terrorist act.

Children exhibit several unusual symptoms when they encounter terrorism acts. Children became afraid of darkness claiming that snipers would kill them. Children also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder every night where they have sleepless nights and dream about shootings. These children have also seen many of their relatives die in gun battles and they have developed low self-esteem, insomnia and depression. At the older years from about 16 onwards, the young people become verbal in their expression of how they feel. They express how the loss of their families, property and homes had an effect on their lives. They do not have any optimistic thoughts about ending the violence but instead plan to join the terror gangs and perpetrate the violence that they grew up. Almost two months after the Afghanistan gas attack on a girls’ high school, 50% of the students reported significant levels of PTSD. Even children who were not directly affected by the terrorism act showed signs of PTSD (Anbar, 2012).


The evolution of terrorism within the world has reached the level where terrorism is manipulated for political and economic gains. Within the Islam community, religious terrorism has gained root in almost all cultures and communities to an extent that when the purpose of driving out foreign troops and business interests from Middle East came up, terrorism was readily used as a deterrent. The Jihad ideology plays a major role in Islamic terrorism where they use jihad as a defense method against parties that impose their own religions or ideologies on Islam people.

Osama bin Laden was a strong proponent of jihad even though many scholars have dismissed the ties between religion and terrorism. Targeting children in these terrorism attacks has changed the way in which young people grow up and how they will eventually end up. Constant exposure to violent situations cultivates and entrenches the aggression and spite that propagates the cycle of terrorism. Therefore, psychological therapy is important in ending the terrorism cells within Middle East and the rest of the world because children can grow up without the various psychological disorders that cause errant behavior later in life. Apart from all the negative consequences of terrorism, the violence is also beneficial in that it can work to connect communities together with a common purpose and outrage. Terrorist attacks give people the perception that they share a common enemy. To that extent, citizens put aside their differences and work together toward ensuring their society and their children are safe from the harrowing effects of terrorism.



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