Rebecca Littman

Children and Extreme Violence: insights from social science on child trajectories into and out of non-state armed groups

United Nations University


The United Nations University (UNU) is leading a research initiative examining child trajectories into and out of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) in contemporary conflicts, including those listed as terrorist and characterized as “violent extremist”. Children are often forcibly recruited into armed groups, but in many cases, children exercise some agency in joining a NSAG. What contributes to this decision?2 When trying to answer this question, it is often assumed that negative emotions such as anger or hatred for another group are central motivations. Indeed, revenge is often cited in advocacy literature3 – and in some academic research4 – as a motivation in joining a NSAG (e.g., retribution for the death of a loved one). Yet social science research suggests that children primarily have positive and prosocial motivations for joining armed groups. These include a need to belong, a desire for a sense of significance in one’s life, and the power of peer influence.