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Manchester attack underscores ISIS' willingness to use children as tools of terrorism

Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after reports of an explosion at the venue during an Ariana Grande gig in Manchester, England Monday, May 22, 2017. Police says there are "a number of fatalities" after reports of an explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in northern England. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

Children and young adults were among the victims of the Monday night suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, where at least 22 people were killed and more than 50 injured after an improvised explosive device was detonated as fans were leaving the arena.

The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack saying a "soldier" of ISIS carried out the attack. Police in Manchester named 22-year-old Salman Abedi as the suspected suicide bomber.

The attack was particularly shocking because of the choice of target, a pop music concert largely attended by children, young adults and their families.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the incident as "the worst attack" to hit Northern England. "This attack stands out for its appalling sickening cowardice, deliberately targeting innocent, defenseless children and young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives," May stated.

The first victim named in the attack was an eight-year-old grade school student, Saffie Rose Roussos. Area hospitals have reported that at least a dozen among the injured are children, and hours after the attack, a number of teenagers are still reported missing.

The world community was united in condemning the attack. President Donald Trump denounced the perpetrator of the attack as "evil losers" who preyed on "innocent children." He then called on all nations to drive out the terrorists, saying their "wicked ideology" must be "completely obliterated."

Terrorism experts were not surprised by ISIS' willingness to target innocent children and families.

For years, ISIS has targeted mosques, schools, hospitals and directed foreign attacks against nightclubs, street fairs and other soft targets.

The group has also trained and recruited hundreds of children under 16-years-old to participate in jihad, as fighters or suicide bombers. ISIS propaganda videos have shown children as young as 8-years-old executing prisoners and toddlers surveying the sites of mass executions.

The gruesome treatment of children has been a tool of terrorism for the group, whether it is the children of the so-called caliphate, or the children of non-believers who are made victims.

Georgia State University professor Mia Bloom is the author of numerous studies on suicide terrorism and the recruitment of children by terrorist groups, including ISIS.

In an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group, she explained that across the board, ISIS is using children as a tool of terrorism, whether as an actual tool on the front lines of battle, or using images of dead children in Iraq and Syria to recruit sympathetic foreign fighters, both men and women.

Immediately after the Manchester attack, Bloom monitored jihadi social networks and found a disturbing response. "The fan-boys were posting picture of dead kids from Mosul, who were killed as a result of aerial bombardments with the underlying message, 'If our kids aren't sacrosanct, neither are theirs,'" she said.

"ISIS does not respect childhood," she said, "Whether it's their children other people's children, they don't respect it."

Answer the question of the day: Do you feel safe bringing your child to a concert?

Bloom is currently working on a new book, Small Arms: Children in Terrorism, which will include her research documenting the cases of more than 300 children under the age of 16, used by ISIS as suicide bombers. The study also looks at the willingness of parents inside the so-called Islamic State to hand over their children to be indoctrinated, trained and then used in battle by the terrorists.

She explained, "It's the opposite of every maternal or paternal instinct parents have, whether its in the West or the East."

Bloom said that the choice of venue for Monday's attack was a clear tactic that other terrorist groups have used in the past, namely, targeting at a particular venue at a particular time in order to get the maximum number of young people.

However, some other terrorism experts are waiting for additional information to confirm whether Salman Abedi's target was chosen for him by ISIS, or whether he was self-radicalized.

David Schanzer, Professor David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University warned against reading too much into the target selection until more questions are answered.

Most important, he says, is to determine whether Abedi was inspired or directed by ISIS. This is the priority of local British authorities, who announced on Tuesday that they are seeking to determine whether he was acting along or as part of a network. Late on Tuesday afternoon, UK authorities raised the terror threat level to "critical," indicating that another attack may be imminent.

"Is this [attack] showing that ISIS is having such influence that it's in communication with people in the West, that it is doing the target suggestion? Is it involved in providing training, materials, direct encouragement of individuals?" Schanzer asked.

If Abedi was an agent of the organization and was in communication with ISIS from the European continent, those circumstances "make it feel more dangerous," Schanzer noted.

In just the past two years, young people have been targeted in a series of deadly terror attacks in the West. At the Bataclan nightclub in Paris, 90 people, many of them young adults, were gunned down in a highly coordinated attack by a Belgium-based group associated with ISIS. The Orlando attack at the Pulse nightclub claimed 49 victims, more than half of them were in their twenties. Of the 84 people killed in the Bastille Day attack in Nice, ten were young children.

William Braniff, the executive director of the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) explained that the targeting of civilians and children have been a constant feature of ISIS attacks in recent years.

"This captures our imagination. It horrifies us, and as a result we pay more attention," he said. "It works on our psychology."

Within the group's own territory, Braniff believes the group's use of kids to fight and die for the so-called caliphate or using women and children as human shields in urban warfare is a tactic that could ultimately "backfire" on ISIS.

He explained, "They expose the hypocrisy of an organization that claims to be righteous, that claims to be brave and masculine, but fights from behind the protection of women and children in order to preserve their life."

Bill Roggio, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explained that this latest attack has the potential to backfire in a different way, by catalyzing more concerted counter-terrorism efforts in the West.

"Their tactics are succeeding in selling panic. They've had a strain of successful attacks that have hit a variety of targets and they're forcing European intelligence services and police forces to respond to them," Roggio said. "On the flip-side, I think it's also hardening elements of Europe that would otherwise be willing to ignore what jihadists are doing."

This week, President Trump will meet with leaders of Europe at the NATO Summit in Brussels. Defeating terrorism and increasing the role of U.S. allies in the fight has already been a major theme of the president's first overseas trip, and one he is expected to put high on his agenda in Europe.

Roggio explained that in recent years both the United States and Europe have failed to appropriately harden their defenses to meet the levels of violence these jihadist groups are willing to reach to achieve their goals. On his foreign trip, Trump can seize the opportunity to galvanize a broader response to the terrorism threat.

"President Trump should use this incident to remind Europe that the threat is far from defeated and that the countries need to develop a unified strategy to deal with jihadist groups and deal w the threat seriously," he said. That means European countries contributing more to the effort to defeat terrorist groups in concert with the United States and hardening their own defenses against terrorism.



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