Why Do Terrorists Target Children? A guest post by the distinguished historian Prof. Anna Geifman

[Dr. Anna Geifman teaches history at Bar-Illan University. She moved to Israel in 2007 after a distinguished career at Boston University. In 2010 she published the definitive modern history of Bolshevik terrorism, Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia. I reviewed it when it appeared and have had the privilege to consult Dr. Geifman from time to time since then. I’m honored to present her analysis of the murder of the three Israeli boys as a guest post].

In blessed memory of  Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, HY”D

Acts of terror against the young are the unadvertised “latest trend” in global political violence.  For the first time since the Holocaust, slaying children has turned into a modus operandi.  Since 9/11, they are terrorists’ preferred targets.

Terrorists are nihilists par excellence:  they strike at the foundation of the mainstream culture, seeking to wipe out its pivotal symbols and meanings.  In the new millennium, amid a raging sea of conflicting concepts, pluralistic connotations, confusing priorities, habitual skepticism, intellectual and ethical relativism, perhaps our only enduring value is concern for children.  Whatever else we believe, we believe unconditionally in securing the  welfare, health, and security of children. No sane person will claim that while it is not nice to hurt children, there is another side to the argument.  Today, children are the last consecrated absolute.  For its part, militant nihilism strives to ruin first and foremost what their contemporaries hold sacred.

Episodes of child-directed violence occurred as early as May 1970 in Israel, when thirty-four children were killed and wounded in the Avivim school bus massacre.  In May 1974 hostage-takers in Ma’alot detonated hand grenades and sprayed high school students with machine-gun fire.  In April 1980, terrorists took hold of the nursery in kibbutz Misgav Am, killed an infant and injured four children.  In July of that year, in Antwerp, Belgium, a Fatah member cast hand grenades into a group of Jewish schoolchildren at a bus stop.

After the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, casualties among the Israeli young multiplied.  In a single episode in June 2001, twenty-one teenagers lost their lives in the “Delphinarium” discotheque in Tel Aviv. By mid-2002, child-targeting become systematic: a bomb explosion in Jerusalem next to a group of women with baby carriages (March 2); the bombing of a discotheque in Tel Aviv (May 24); children killed in a Petah Tikva ice cream parlor (May 27).

When zoomed-in on selected Israeli localities, the picture becomes grim indeed.  In Itamar, a gunman shot to death two students playing basketball outside the Hitzim school and then killed three more teenagers inside in May 2002. About a month later, two militants broke into the home of the Shabo family, killed the mother and her children, ages fifteen, twelve, and five, and severely wounded a ten- and a thirteen–year olds.  In another month, a terrorist broke into another private home, stabbed the husband and wife and them ran his knife through the empty beds of their eight children, away with grandparents. The March 2011 the Fogel family was slaughtered:  along with their parents, stabbed to death was a boy of eleven, his four-year old brother, and their three-month old sister; at the trial, terrorists regretted not to have noticed two other sleeping children

Itamar is a settlement, where “Jewish fanatics” are said to “provoke victimized Arabs” to kill children in the response to occupation.  But Sderot is not a disputed terroritory.  “A present for the start of the new school year,” the Islamic Jihad website flaunted first of their September 2007 missile strikes, which sent twelve Sderot kindergarteners to the hospital to be treated for shock.[i]  Terrorists send 3,200 Qassam rockets against this Israeli town in 2008.[ii]  Residents reported that the shelling intensified when children were on their way to and from classes.

Attacks on schools and yeshivas in Israel reached their peak with the massacre at Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem in March 2008.  All but one of the children had just gotten off a yellow school bus in Sa’ad on April 7, 2011 when a targeted missile hit, mortally wounding the remaining boy.  On March 19 the following year, a self-styled Al-Qaeda operative opened fire in a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

“If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not. . . . They are enemies not because they occupied Palestine,” some Islamist clerics admit openly and urge:  we will “annihilate them, until not a single Jew remains on the face of the Earth.”[iii]  It is as if the Biblical Amalek has finally broken portentous silence to speak his mind about the annihilation of Israel–his raison d’être.  According to the tradition, Amalek attacks from the rear, slaying the least protected, especially children.  Yet, while Amalek’s hate is for Israel alone, his accomplices today do not spare any children.

Muslim children are among their first victims.  In Iraq they are assaulted in school buildings and on playgrounds—in Baghdad, Ramadi, Tuz Khurmato, and Ba’qubah  (July 13, 2005, December 3, 2006; January 28, 2007, October 12, 2007, January 22, 2008, and December 7, 2009), to list a few cases.  On May 6, 2007 the Islamists bombed a UN-run elementary school in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah during a sports festival, which the extremists had declared un-Islamic.  A suicide car school bombing on December 28, 2008 in Khost, Afghanistan, was one of 1,153 Taliban acts against young students in two preceding years—via shootings, torture, acid, arson, grenades, mines, and rockets.[iv]  Boko Haram of Nigeria has been targeting schools since 2010.  Thousands of children have been unable to attend classes as a result; hundreds have been killed to confirm the Jihadists’ stand against westernized education.  More than 200 girls kidnapped on the night of 14-15 April, 2014 are still missing:  Boko Haram terrorists oppose female education; in the past, they have used abducted schoolgirls as sex slaves.[v]

When Thailand Muslim militants assailed a school bus in Ratchaburi province in June 2002, no one saw the atrocity as a sign of a new trend.  Yet, in the decade that followed targeting children turned into a tactic that crossed all geographical and ideological lines.  On July 2011 a self-styled “crusader” against European leftists and Muslims killed 69 people in a shooting spree in the Norwegian youth summer camp on Utøya island; 50 victims were 18-years old and younger.

Why the Young? 

Terror stipulates unceasing acceleration.  When successful, perpetrators seek to take advantage of intensifying anxiety and strive to build up momentum.  Random, en masse brutality against civilians—emblematic for the 20th-century terror–culminated in a spectacular act of apocalyptic destruction on 9/11.  It made conspicuous that real targets are not those who die.  The violent act is a ghastly message whose purpose is to intimidate the broader public, physically unaffected by bloodshed.  The next round of sustained terrorization required increasingly severe psychological and emotional impact, not necessarily measured by casualty count.

On September 1, 2004, amid the festivities on the “Day of Knowledge,” 32 terrorists held hostage 1,200 children, parents, and teachers inside School No. 1 in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia.  The hostage-takers declared their unattainable demand for Russia’s evacuation of Chechnya and their real intention:  “We are the terrorists, we’re here to slay.”[vi]  What followed “probably was the single most horrific act since the downfall of National Socialism.”[vii]  Indeed, the terrorists turned the school into a mini-replica of a death camp, denying children food, water, and medications for three days.  Dozens of little hostages perished in flames when a bomb detonated inside the building; dozens were shot in the back as they jumped out of windows and ran for their lives after the security forces attacked.  Among at least 334 fatalities, 186 were Christian and Muslim children; over 700 were wounded in this “carefully planned mass murder operation.”[viii]

“Nothing horrifies more than the murder of children” because it “is the ultimate rejection of life.”  Among the suicide terrorists there are those “who not only wish to destroy their own life, but life in general.  These are the candidates for mass killings,” particularly child killings because children are the quintessence of vitality, of sparkling aliveness, the most vibrant and spontaneous of the living, emblematic of life itself.  They are also our connection to the future, a link to immortality; by attacking children, terrorists seek to destroy life as it is and our hopes of continuing life beyond our own span of years..[ix]

Death Worship

Terrorists repeatedly declare that they “love Death” and love it as much as others love life.[x]  They slaughter children as the designated, most pure, and perfect sacrifice to death, which they worship:  “Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were killed by people who believed in death”.[xi]

Modern death-worship is part of a long tradition.  “Even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31).  Throughout the past century, this biblical characterization has been repeatedly fulfilled:  be it the Nazi Hitlerjugen or the Iranian Basij project—various ideologies have validated child-sacrifices.  The Jihadists offer Muslim children to Moloch as suicide bombers and human shields.  Under Jihadist indoctrination, between 72 and 80 per cent of children living in the Palestinian Authority yearn to die as martyrs.[xii]  When in power, as in Gaza, terrorists construct for children under their control an official, prescribed culture in which death is preferred to life.

The Biblical commandment to “choose life” entails a possibility to opt for death.  Militant nihilists do so, and the roots of their destructiveness are infinitely deeper than any political dispute.  “That is the difference between a culture of life and one of death, and this has become the battle of our time, not only in Israel but in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria and elsewhere.”  This battle, in fact, has been waged for thousands of years, and—invariably—“cultures that worship death, die, while those that sanctify life, live on. . . . May the God of life, in whose image we are, teach all humanity to serve Him by sanctifying life.”[xiii]

[i]  Cited in Anav Silverman, “Living with Rockets: Sderot students ready for school bells – and rocket sirens,” Jerusalem Post, 3 September 2009, http://cgis.jpost.com/Blogs/rocketlife/entry/sderot_students_ready_for_school


[ii]  “Follow up to Operation Cast Lead: A Summary of Statistics,” Sderot Media Center, http://sderotmedia.org.il/bin/content.cgi?ID=309&q=6&s=16


[iii]  Al-Rahma TV (Egypt), Jan. 17, 2009 cited in Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook, “When Hatemongering is Common Currency,” Ottawa Citizen, April 24, 2009 (online edition), http://pmw.org.il/Bulletins_Apr2009.htm#b050409


[iv]  “Education under Attack 2010 – Afghanistan,” UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), 10 February 2010, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4b7aa9e6c.html


[v]  Damien McElroy, “Extremist attack in Nigeria kills 42 at boarding school,” The Telegraph, July 6, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/nigeria/10163942/Extremist-attack-in-Nigeria-kills-42-at-boarding-school.html  Oren Dorell, “Terrorists kidnap more than 200 Nigerian girls, “ USA Today, April 21, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/04/21/parents-234-girls-kidnapped-from-nigeria-school/7958307/


[vi]  Anna Geifman, Death Orders: the Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Praeger, 2010), 4.



[viii]  David Brooks, “Cult of Death,” New York Times, September 7, 2004, http://



[ix]  Spengler (David P. Goldman), “Terror and School Shootings Sides of Same Coin,” Current Affairs (21 December 2012 NewAgeIslam.Com), http://www.newageislam.com/current-affairs/terror-and-school-shootings-sides-of-same-coin/d/9764


[x]  See, for example, Fathi Hamad, Al-Aqsa TV, 29 February 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTu-AUE9ycs; John Dawson, “The Bali Bombers: What Motivates Death Worship?,” Capitalism Magazine (October 19, 2003), http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=3000; Geifman,  Death Orders, 100, 151-52.


[xi]  Former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Sacks, “Op-Ed: In Memoriam: Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, June 30, 2014, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15259

[xii]  U.S. Senate Committee Hearing on Palestinian Education (2003), http://www.teachkidspeace.org/doc105.php


[xiii]  Former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Sacks, “Op-Ed: In Memoriam: Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, June 30, 2014, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/15259