How can terrorists justify targeting children?

Terrorist acts are often heinous in nature.  People targeted at a club in Orlando (or Istanbul) dancing the night away.  Passengers on a city bus in Tel Aviv.  Young political activists on an island in Norway.  When we are happily doing whatever it is that we like and we are felled by indiscriminate terror and violence we tend to call these acts evil.  Few would argue with that point.

So what to make of the attack in Manchester last night where a crowd of largely tweens and teens were brutally massacred by a 22-year old British citizen of Libyan descent while attending a concert by the American singer Ariana Grande whose music and style appeal to this age set?  Is this a new low of depravity?  How can any group – the maniacal Islamic State included, which by the way has claimed responsibility for the murders – say it is ok to kill kids?  Even among violent extremists is there no ‘honour code’?  Surely to God there are limits for those that otherwise engage in innovative ways of killing mass audiences (trucks, cars, suicide attacks…)?

Perhaps not.

Before I go any further, although I should not have to say this I will anyway. My analysis of the terrorist targeting of children should in no way  be construed as support for what they do.  Quite the contrary: I abhor these acts and dedicated 15 years of my professional life trying to do my small part in preventing them while I worked at CSIS. Good analysis is not the same as condonation.  You can try to understand a phenomenon while still condemning it.

Terrorists would respond, and in fact have responded, in answer to the question why kids are ok targets in a very simple and matter-of-fact way.  Former Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden said so a decade or so ago: as you kill so shall we.  In their mindset, the death of children at our hands – through airstrikes or drone operations for example – is no different in kind than the deaths of children in terrorist attacks.  Tit for tat as it were.  Let us not forget Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City where many children in a daycare centre died for the ‘crimes’ McVeigh thought the US government was responsible for.

Aha, you might say, but there is a significant difference.  We do everything in our power to avoid ‘collateral damage’ and when it happens we (sometimes) apologise and offer compensation to the families.  Terrorists do nothing of the sort.

In reply, the terrorists would dismiss all of this.  They are convinced that we collectively are at war with Islam (the so-called Single narrative) and that we really don’t care who we kill, as long as the victims are Muslim.  They would also argue that Muslim lives, including those of children, are not valued as highly as those of Westerners.  Our so-called rules of engagement and civility are seen as ruses that mask our true natures and goals, insofar as the terrorists think they understand us.

Furthermore, from a purely operational perspective, targeting children makes sense.  Think of the attack on a school in Beslan in 2004.  Little to no security was on site.  Perhaps the same occurred last night in Manchester (not that I am laying any blame as many are quick to do in the aftermath of an attack).  If you want your action to succeed you will choose a venue where security is not as tight.  We cannot protect everything and who would have thought a young persons’ concert would be targeted?

In addition, at the end of the day terrorists may not give a damn about their reputation.  We know that Islamic State doesn’t. Actually it seems to be the opposite as the group has engaged in one particularly vile act after another.  It is almost as if we are witnessing a game of terrorist barbarity oneupmanship.  The attack at the concert last night has already been portrayed by IS as a ‘gathering of Crusaders’ at a ‘shameless’ event.  Recall that IS sees any deviation from their twisted interpretation of Islam, here to include singing and dancing, as haram (forbidden) and punishable.  Why would our condemnation matter to them?  It doesn’t appear to have harmed their recruiting drives after all.

One hopes we will learn more in the coming days and weeks about the suicide bomber, his background and his ties to others.  We may also uncover how and why he chose this event and whether he targeted children deliberately or whether it was all coincidental.  In the best case we’ll find a last will and testament or video diatribe.

Whatever the truth, 22 people are dead, 59 are wounded and countless hundreds are traumatised and in need of our support.  We owe them that.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

2 replies on “How can terrorists justify targeting children?”

Yes, it’s important to recognize these facts. It should also be added that terrorists tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people They tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal , they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”

This was the conclusion of Richard English of the University of St. Andrew’s. It can be found in his book Terrorism: How to Respond. It’s an interesting book, but I feel as if John Gray best summarized the book:

Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war… While nothing in human conflict is entirely new… there are certain discomforting differences.

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