Cubs of the Caliphate: The Child Soldiers of the Islamic State
Though it is estimated that around 300.000 children are involved in the current conflicts in the world, whether as combatants, suicide attackers, or cleaners, guards, cooks, sexual workers, ISIS’s strategy is more complex in recruiting and training these children than many other radical groups’ methods. It is not sure, how many children have joined ISIS since it raised, but the Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council, issued in June 2015, indicated that over 271 children have been recruited for combat in the Syrian civil war. These numbers are probably much higher, since the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that from January to March 2015, more than 400 children have been recruited by Islamic State militants. They recruit children as young as 8-10 years old, who either voluntarily join the armed group or are kidnapped or forced to join them.
There are different types of recruitments. Firstly, there are those who, as mentioned, are fascinated by ISIS soldiers and doctrines and join the training voluntarily. Some of them are the children of fighters or orphans who grow up in ISIS controlled orphanages. Others are children of desperate parents who send them to ISIS controlled schools or training camps for money, since the financially wealthy ISIS represents the only alternative for them. Secondly, there are the one who are coercively taken from their parents, detained and tortured. Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 children who were either combatant or assisted to combats for armed groups in Syria. Many of them have been recruited after participating in anti-government protests. Even in this perspective, ISIS strategy is different from other radical groups recruiting only orphans, since many parents in Syria and Iraq support and help their children to be trained and educated under the Sharia law and ISIS rules.
Regarding child recruitment, Channel 4 News recently uploaded a film featuring ex-child soldiers who managed to escape and children who were tortured because they did not join ISIS. The video features Omar, a 14-years old boy, who had been serving with moderate opposition forces. ISIS fighters captured and tortured him, cut down his arm and leg in front of other children.
ISIS is systematically recruiting these children, not just taking them from their families. Besides the fact that parents are paid 250$-350$, thus being exploited by their need for money and food, there are numerous meet and greet organized events where children are offered toys, food, candy, just for showing up. During these meetings, the organizers show propaganda videos and tell the children about life in the training camps, while these kids are able to socialize with already committed child soldiers. During these events, children are provided with entertainment and an inclusive atmosphere, filling the gap created by the war, where children can’t enjoy these aspects of life. Adolescents are recruited by other methods, like giving them a sense of belonging and power by being able to identify themselves with a strong organization.
ISIS uses a hybrid training method, combining ideological/religious indoctrination and military training. After being recruited and getting to know how life is in the Islamic State, the next step is indoctrination in the free schooling programs or orphanages. Sometimes teachers keep on working at the occupied schools, but they have to undergo a training regarding what can be thought and what is forbidden, after which they teach the ISIS created and accepted curriculum. Education is considered extremely important, since ISIS is not just creating soldiers for short-term military use, but future brainwashed jihadists who will represent a long-term threat and who will “listen and obey” without questioning throughout their lives, either because they believe in the doctrines or because they are afraid and unable to quit. They train not just mindless fighters, but competent ones who believe every aspect they have been thought.
During the training period, children are encouraged, and in some cases forced, to watch public executions and videos of these, until violence becomes the normal state for them and the community. However, children are not forced to commit murders or executions from day one, nor are they militarily trained to be combatants. If they do well at schools, they will be able to join the Cubs training. This is how children become competitive and they try to do a good job on their current level of study, which is usually spying on their neighbors, family, friends’ family. Those who receive a Cubs training will undergo a similarly systematic program where, besides ideological training, they will learn how to commit murders and executions (shooting, beheadings) how to fight, shoot and kill. Meanwhile, they are constantly beaten to be more tolerant to force and pain, while imposing the idea that the priority is fighting and dying for their faith and to kill infidels. Once the training is completed, children are sent to the front lines of fights, using them as human shields, or (as young as eight years olds) use them as suicide bombers (many of them after volunteering for the job). Children are more easily indoctrinated and faster to present loyalty. While achieving that for them, war and jihad would be the normal state of mind. In one of the propaganda videos, the interviewer asks a child about his future, to which he answers: „I will be the one who slaughters you, O kuffar (non-believer). I will be a mujahid, insha’allah (God willing)”. ISIS is not just using child soldiers as combatants, but also as propaganda, in order to impose global fear of a multi-generational war and increase their presence on social media.
While the fact that ISIS recruits and trains child soldiers became virally discussed in the last few months, it has to be mentioned that ISIS is not the only group training and using children for war. Shia militias (the Popular Mobilisation Forces), sponsored by the Iraqi government, for example, was searching in conflict zones of Iraq, as well as in Baghdad, for children to train. Also, the existence of a summer camp has been revealed, which is run by Iraq’s largest paramilitary force. The March 2014 report of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that pro-government armed groups also recruited and used children, stating that “pro-government militia armed and used children from the age of 13 at checkpoints”.
Unicef Fact sheet: Child Soldiers, http://www.unicef.org/emerg/files/childsoldiers.pdf
Human Rights Watch- “Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die” Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria
ISIS’ children: Soldiers trained to kill or die , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVxZfP1fC_I
The Children of ISIS, By Mia Bloom. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-07-21/cubs-caliphate
Channel 4, Syria: child soldiers of the caliphate, http://www.channel4.com/news/syria-children-of-the-caliphate-isis-amputation-evan-williams