The Is­lamic State’s new threat: Child ter­ror­ists

The mil­i­tant group is cul­ti­vat­ing ado­les­cents in the West, ei­ther by di­rect con­tact or in­spi­ra­tion


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 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 16year-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 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, the Is­lamic State 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-yearold 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 Is­lamic State han­dler who was teach­ing him how to build a bomb.

In De­cem­ber, a 12-year-old Ger­man Iraqi boy — guided by an Is­lamic State 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 the Is­lamic State, 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 Is­lamic State 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.

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.”

Tar­geted pro­pa­ganda

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 the Is­lamic State. 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. The groups 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 the Is­lamic State flag.

Is­lamic State 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. 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.

“They’ve built a struc­tured re­cruit­ment process. They’re on­line, scan­ning for young adults,” Koehler said. “They have stages of [cul­ti­va­tion]. They won’t even men­tion vi­o­lence un­til later in their con­tact, un­til they’ve built up trust with these younger re­cruits.”

Of­ten, rad­i­cal­ized mi­nors are also chil­dren at risk, ei­ther suf­fer­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders or living in bro­ken or vi­o­lent homes. For in­stance, the 12-yearold de­tained in De­cem­ber af­ter build­ing his own bomb — which failed to go off only be­cause of a faulty fuse — had been vis­ited fre­quently by so­cial work­ers be­cause his fa­ther had a his­tory of vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing to Ger­man of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the case, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss a ju­ve­nile. The son of Kur­dish Iraqi im­mi­grants, the boy had be­gun at­tend­ing a lo­cal mosque — alone — that had been pre­vi­ously linked to an Is­lamist move­ment.

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. A Ger­man soc­cer club re­cently can­celed the con­tract of one of its Mus­lim play­ers — Änis Ben-Hatira — af­ter a me­dia up­roar over his in­volve­ment in a le­gal Is­lamic char­ity that pro­motes a con­ser­va­tive brand of the faith.

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

“Re­li­gious ex­trem­ist pro­pa­ganda, Salafist pro­pa­ganda, can only work if it is ad­dressed to an au­di­ence that is al­ready marginal­ized and feel­ing un­com­fort­able in so­ci­ety,” said Goetz Nord­bruch, codirec­tor 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.”

Heat and pain

At 6:45 p.m. on April 16, Kuldeep Singh, a 62-year-old cleric and im­mi­grant from the In­dian state of Pun­jab, was pass­ing in­side the side door of the Gu­rud­wara Nanaksar Sikh Tem­ple in Essen. Sit­u­ated on a curved road, the tem­ple is right next door to a mosque.

The tem­ple’s glass door was locked. The Sikhs — a faith based on the teach­ings of In­dian gu­rus — had be­come con­cerned for their safety. Young Mus­lim men from the neigh­bor­ing mosque had passed by the tem­ple af­ter Fri­day prayers, spit­ting at its gate. That Satur­day evening, a group of Sikh chil­dren gath­ered for singing classes had gone up­stairs so that the adults could pray. Singh was making his way to the al­tar when he felt a crush­ing force, sear­ing heat and pain.

A piece of his left foot had been blown off. Shards of glass were lodged in his body. Two wounded wor­shipers lay near him scream­ing.

The bleached-out blood from that day still stains the tem­ple’s prayer room.

“I don’t un­der­stand where that much hate comes from,” said Singh, who is still un­able to walk with­out crutches. “I try to grasp it, but I can’t. The ones who did this, they were very young, very young.”

Ya­man — the mother of the Emir — is also try­ing to un­der­stand and at­tend­ing all her son’s court hear­ings.

“I need to. I need to un­der­stand what hap­pened to my son,” she said.

Yusuf — whose last name is be­ing with­held be­cause he is a mi­nor — grew up the only son of a Turk­ish meat de­liv­ery man and his wife in old coal min­ing coun­try in west Ger­many.

“Yusuf was the class clown,” said Ya­man in an in­ter­view in her kitchen. “But his jokes be­came dis­rup­tive be­hav­ior. He would go un­der a ta­ble or a desk at school and refuse to come out. We knew he had prob­lems. We tried to get him help.”

In 2012, a child psy­chol­o­gist di­ag­nosed him with at­ten­tion-deficit dis­or­der. Yet the pre­scribed med­i­ca­tion — methylphenidate — made him so lethar­gic that he could not get out of bed. He com­plained of vi­o­lent stom­ach cramps. “We took him off it af­ter one day,” Ya­man said.

His be­hav­ior nose-dived. He would be­rate his younger sis­ter and her friends and would throw tantrums.

“He started see­ing things — and he asked for God’s help,” she said. “He said he wanted to know more about his re­li­gion.”

Ya­man’s an­swer was to take him to an event sug­gested by a friend — a speech by Pierre Vo­gel, a for­mer boxer and Mus­lim con­vert known for spew­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamist rhetoric who called for a pub­lic fu­neral prayer ser­vice for Osama bin Laden af­ter he was killed in Pak­istan.

“I didn’t know,” Ya­man said, bury­ing her head in her hands. “I had no idea the things [Vo­gel] said.”

But Yusuf was hooked — and he quickly sought out new friends. They were men in Is­lamic garb from a move­ment known as True Re­li­gion, which for years handed out free Ko­rans from booths in Ger­man cities. In Novem­ber, Ger­man au­thor­i­ties out­lawed the group, call­ing it a re­cruit­ment network for the Is­lamic State.

In 2014, the men of True Re­li­gion wel­comed Yusuf as “a brother.”

“He never re­ally had friends — be­cause of his be­hav­ior,” Ya­man said. “But they wel­comed him, in­cluded him. Gave him re­spect.” And he ab­sorbed their ideas. In class, he threat­ened to break the neck of a Jewish girl — re­sult­ing in his ex­pul­sion and an or­der to at­tend derad­i­cal­iza­tion classes spon­sored by the state in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. For 18 months, to lit­tle ap­par­ent ef­fect, he re­ceived ther­apy and par­tic­i­pated in dis­cus­sion groups. At the time, his age pre­vented the au­thor­i­ties from mon­i­tor­ing his com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“What we can do is to open the door, but the peo­ple them­selves have to go through it,” said Jo­erg Rademacher, spokesman for the do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence branch in the Ger­man state of North RhineWest­phalia.

Yusuf’s down­ward spi­ral con­tin­ued. In 2015, he se­cretly mar­ried a burqa-wear­ing Mus­lim girl, 15, whom he had met on a web­site. A rad­i­cal Mus­lim cleric presided over the mar­riage — and chas­tised Yusuf’s par­ents when they ob­jected.

Us­ing so­cial me­dia, Yusuf also con­nected with other Mus­lim boys his age who ad­mired the Is­lamic State. There is no ev­i­dence to date that they had any di­rect con­tact with the group, but they col­lected be­head­ing videos on their phones, praised the mil­i­tants at school and be­gan to plan their own at­tack.

In late 2015, the mother of a stu­dent at Yusuf’s school be­came alarmed and in­formed au­thor­i­ties af­ter he al­legedly bragged about hav­ing a gun. He had also cel­e­brated the Novem­ber 2015 Paris at­tacks and warned that stu­dents at his school “would die.” A search of his fam­ily home en­sued, but no gun was found.

On Jan. 2, 2016, Yusuf and two other boys built a test bomb at his par­ents’ house, pour­ing ex­plo­sive com­pounds into an emp­tied fire ex­tin­guisher and at­tach­ing a fuse. They det­o­nated it at a lo­cal park — and showed a video they shot to class­mates who re­ported the in­ci­dent.

The school sum­moned Ya­man to tell her and also in­formed the au­thor­i­ties. This time, Yusuf was called in for ques­tion­ing, but he was not de­tained. The school did not pur­sue dis­ci­plinary ac­tion be­yond alert­ing the po­lice.

“Of course the school has taken ac­tion, but we have noth­ing to do with how the au­thor­i­ties re­act,” said Werner Gallmeis­ter, prin­ci­pal at the St. Michael School that Yusuf at­tended.

Three months later, Yusuf and his friends at­tacked the Sikh tem­ple that abut­ted the mosque where the boys had started wor­ship­ing with­out their par­ents, of­fi­cials said. In their texts to one an­other, re­cov­ered by po­lice, they de­scribed the tem­ple as a den of in­fi­dels. Stephanie Kirch­ner in Berlin con­trib­uted to this re­port.




Ne­r­i­man Ya­man, top, is the mother of Yusuf, a teenager charged with bomb­ing a Sikh tem­ple in Ger­many. Ya­man holds her cell­phone, which shows a pic­ture of Yusuf, above. “I need to un­der­stand what hap­pened to my son,” Ya­man said in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post.

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