A 12-year-old girl is forced into marriage by her brother. Her husband is her brother’s friend – and a member of the jihadist terrorist group Boko Haram. It’s not long before she finds herself with a bomb strapped to her chest, being directed to detonate the explosive – and kill herself – in a public square.

But instead of pulling the trigger, the girl finds a police officer. “Please help me,” she says.

Governments worldwide find themselves increasingly faced with horrifying acts of terrorism like this one – in which the perpetrator and the victim are one in the same. It’s a challenge that many countries find themselves grappling with when it comes to issues of prosecution, prison system reform, rehabilitation, and prevention efforts.

In 2019, Richmond Law professor Julie McConnell found herself at the epicenter of this human rights crisis. As Director of the Children’s Defense Clinic and Clinical Professor of Law, McConnell and her students work with children and families around Virginia advocating for indigent youth charged with acts of delinquency. Thanks to her recent work with the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ), McConnell is taking her expertise further afield.

The IIJ was founded in 2014 by members of the international community with a specific mission to strengthen the competencies of criminal justice practitioners to address terrorism and related transnational criminal activities in a rule of law framework. Based in Malta, the IIJ has been a leader in the field of juvenile justice in a counterterrorism context since 2015, leading the development of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) Neuchâtel Memorandum on Good Practices for Juvenile Justice in a Counterterrorism Context. In 2017, the IIJ launched a project to support implementation and operationalization of these internationally recognized good practices, including the development of a set of five tailored practitioner notes. McConnell was hired by the IIJ to serve as a Juvenile Justice Advisor for the Defense Counsel’s Practitioner Note and participated in a number of workshops in this series.

“Many countries around the world are grappling with the challenges of children being recruited into terrorist activities,” said McConnell. “It is an emerging issue that these groups see children as easy targets,” she added, explaining that terrorist groups often leverage more vulnerable populations in their efforts. As the issue continues to develop and more children become involved with terrorist organizations, many countries find themselves ill-equipped to respond. The IIJ trainings were designed to equip five different audiences – prosecutors and investigating magistrates, judges, defense attorneys, corrections officials, and investigators – with the tools, resources, and knowledge needed to better support their countries’ counter-terrorism efforts in a juvenile justice context. McConnell was tasked with writing a note for juvenile defense attorneys to support operationalization of the Neuchâtel Memorandum’s good practices, consistent with international law and juvenile justice standards, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Fortunately, “many of the countries facing this problem recognize that these are children who in most cases are also victims of their circumstances.” So their task is a straightforward, if daunting, one: “We are working with countries impacted by this problem to develop ideas, strategies, and good practices on how to de-radicalize these kids and help them to reenter society safely and no longer pose a threat to themselves or their communities,” said McConnell.

The trainings incorporate the 13 good practices articulated in the Neuchâtel Memorandum, which address everything from developing rehabilitation and reintegration programs, for example, to holding children separately from adults in prison facilities. By sharing these practices, as well as the research notes, and gathering feedback, the group hopes to work both to prevent child terrorism, and to better prepare countries to respond to instances of child terrorism.

“The first thing we want to recommend is that countries design a training process and develop a specialized cadre of juvenile defenders who understand child development and know how to communicate effectively with children, who know how to protect their rights in the criminal justice system,” said McConnell. “Finding lawyers who will handle the cases, essentially for free, is very challenging,” she acknowledged.

But the results are worth the investment. “We have seen examples of real change that have occurred because of the trainings we have offered,” said McConnell. The head of one prison system, for example, recognized the damage done by holding children with adults and created separate juvenile holding areas as a result of a training. And a judge in another country encouraged his regional counterparts to follow a model in which social workers are paired with juveniles convicted of crimes, using trauma-informed best practices and an evidence-based approach to hold the child accountable – to help ensure the child doesn’t commit an act of terrorism again.

“What we hope is that, through these trainings, we’ll have many more stories like that,” said McConnell: stories about “protecting children’s rights, helping to de-radicalize them, about giving them an excellent defense, and making sure that the criminal justice or civil justice system treats them fairly.” 

As a former prosecutor herself, McConnell sees the value in providing education across the board, to all the stakeholders in the justice system. “Prosecutors have more power than anyone else in the criminal justice system,” said McConnell: “I truly believe that if prosecutors are educated about why fairness in the system helps prevent crime, and that there are examples of it being successful, they will take those practices back to their countries.” By working with those five different audiences, the goal is to focus on the changemakers, explained McConnell: “We want to empower the changemakers, and we want to see real change in these countries, as well as our own country in the way that we respond to juvenile crime.” 

Pictured: Julie McConnell, sixth from left, with colleagues who participate in the ILJ juvenile counter-terrorism initiative.