In most Western judicial systems there is a very stark divide between minors and adults. The former are treated differently and, if found guilty of serious offences, are usually kept separate from older criminals. This is probably a good thing as putting kids with adults allows the latter to influence – and not in a good way – the former, not to mention the sexual abuse and exploitation the young would suffer.
There is also a belief that minors are somehow more ‘redeemable’ and can be ‘saved’. I am not an expert on this but there seems to be this idea that young people are more malleable and, with the right treatment, can be re-steered to the path of normalcy. There is also the theory that as immature brains are still forming minors cannot be held accountable for their acts in the same way older people can. I will leave this debate to the specialists.
What then to do with minors accused/convicted of serious crimes like murder? It is not as if it does not happen. When they are found guilty they do lose their freedom and are counselled in the hopes they will realise the severity of their actions and not recidivate. I’d be really interested in any studies that show whether these juvenile criminals actually do leave the path of violence because of the different way in which they are treated by the criminal justice system.
So now we come to terrorism as this blog focuses on that phenomenon. What do we do with child terrorists? We in Canada of course have much experience with this in the guise of Omar Khadr, whom many erroneously called a ‘child soldier’ and who inexplicably has a fan club who fawn over him. Another case just came up: the New York Times is reporting that a 16-year old youth was captured fighting on behalf of Islamic State (IS) on the battlefield in Syria by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It looks like he might be a US citizen, although my friend Simon Cottee says he could also be Trinidadian (Trinidad is the home of a disproportionate number of IS terrorist foreign fighters).
Prosecuting them has proved difficult because of their age, said Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism. In some cases, convicted terrorists have been given noticeably shorter sentences than one would have expected given their age.
Is this right? Maybe, but I think we are missing something here. It is one thing to treat a 16-year old gangbanger or drug dealer leniently: these crimes, after all, while violent have no ideological or politico-religious component. Getting minors help who have dabbled in everyday criminality may in fact lessen future re-offence, although I’d love to see the stats on this.
Terrorism is very, very different. It is the commission of a serious act of violence for ideological reasons. In order to ensure that those guilty of it do not go back to their old ways after we let them out we need to be certain that the ideological trappings are gone. Yes, there are so-called deradicalisation programs out there but I have no idea how successful they really are. Furthermore, do we need to treat minors and adults differently when it comes to these efforts? Good question that.
That minors are capable of planning and executing terrorist acts is not in doubt. Five of the ‘Toronto 18’ were young offenders and although four had their charges dropped – despite the fact they were definitely involved in the plot – one was found guilty. A couple of teens from my hometown of London, ON, radicalised while in high school and two of them, Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, later took part in a terrorist attack in southern Algeria in 2013 that killed dozens. So yes, minors can be terrorists.
Complicating all this is what to do with the children of IS terrorists in Syria and Iraq ( aside from taking them away from their parents). The real young ones (babies, toddlers and small children) may be able to get help and enter a normal life. Those approaching puberty are probably a different issue as some got terrorist training and were exposed to heinous acts of violence such as beheadings. The path to normalcy for them is much more twisted.
In the end, I am not advocating seeing children as existential threats to our society. At the same time let’s not naive in our thinking. Minors can be responsible for real acts of violence and that includes terrorism. “But they’re just minors” strikes me as a silly response.