Time and time again children brandishing AK-47s and M-16s have shocked the world. From Myanmar’s Tatmadaw to Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, state and non-state forces globally employ around 300,000 children under 18 years old to fill their ranks. Children, who are easily manipulated through psychological and physical abuse, provide a cheap supply of fighters. Their agility and youth make them dangerous and unexpected; a 14-year-old sniper made one of the first US serviceman kills in Afghanistan.
Today the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known as ISIS or ISIL) relies heavily on children to fight in the field, to provide general support for its forces, and to propagate its message at home and abroad. This January, ISIS propaganda machine Al-Hayat Media released a video showcasing a 10-year-old boy executing two alleged Russian spies. Though the exact number of children in ISIS is unclear, first-hand accounts prove their ever-growing presence.
Though child soldiers are not unusual, Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF’s regional child protection advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, states that the child soldiers of ISIS signal the “emergence of a new ‘child soldier’s paradigm.’” This new paradigm is characterized by four elements: a multinational makeup, instances of voluntary enlistment, internet-based propaganda, and a future-focused orientation. The combination of these qualities in the composition of what ISIS terms its “Cubs for the Islamic State” presents a long-term problem that will persist even if ISIS falls. A program based on ensuring the futurity of the group’s goals, that works to comprehensively reform the child, both physically and mentally, in the image of the ideal ISIS operative guarantees the survival of the group’s core ideology.
Global Recruitment & Enlistment
When propaganda is not confined by geography, its reach is unlimited. ISIS spreads its message throughout the world, often targeting the internet-saturated West. Chapuis states that reports indicate recruitment is not limited to the Middle East or Syria, nor are the recruited children necessarily holders of regional Arab country passports.
Young recruits are from every region, showing that ISIS’s message resonates across cultural and national boundaries. Ten-year-old Abu Ubaideh, who is venerated as ISIS’s youngest martyr, allegedly came from the Arabian Gulf. Meanwhile, on October 22, 2014, three girls from Colorado in the United States, ages, 15, 16, and 17, were found at the Frankfurt airport on their way to join ISIS. These girls were radicalized online, and the parents were unaware of their teens’ intentions. Another 15-year-old girl from Bristol, England, also disappeared after declaring her intentions to join ISIS.
These examples, among many others, prove ISIS’s global reach and children’s deliberate decisions to follow the group’s call to action. As in the Colorado case, the girls ventured out without parental support and with a stolen $2,000. They made a decisive move, though the girls were physically far from circumstances that typically motivate a child to enlist: violent surroundings, economic depravity, kidnappings, and suppression. Though their case does not resemble all child enlisters, it does highlight an intentionality in many underage ISIS recruits that is historically unusual for the military recruitment of children.
The motivation for children to enlist varies for multiple reasons: financial desperation, conscription, family pressure, and religion among others. For recruitment in Western countries, ISIS has particularly focused on a social media approach. The extremists cultivate a hip, in-group image through their highly effective propaganda, trendy messages, and social media prowess. The obvious rationale is to catch the young and impressionable in their own defined space: online. Popular Internet memes often drive home the ISIS message.
Outside Internet forums, ISIS supporters troll popular video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto 5. The group recently took the promotional image from a modified version of the Grant Theft Auto video game series called “Grand Theft Auto: Salil al-Sawarem,” and added the following text: “Your games which are producing [sic.] from you, we do the same actions in the battlefield!!”
The text connects enjoyable online thrills with offline action, challenging the gamer to go to the next level. Whatever teens and their impressionable younger siblings are doing online, ISIS will follow. Appropriating relatable cultural symbols moves ISIS from a fringe extremist group to an accessible, relevant organization. The messaging shapes the group as a welcoming community that supports the child’s already existing social network and provides a community of belonging.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that this approach works. Young people in ISIS’s ranks told HRW that “ISIS recruited them through public forums and ideological tools, rather than through community or family networks.” The group effectively speaks to teens, preteens, and children in their own language and context, which according to Chapuis, is “certainly new.”
ISIS recruits children not just for immediate military use; the group incorporates children to build an established, long-term state. While children are relied upon as fighters and military supporters, children are elevated as the key to the Islamic State. In a video interview with Vice, an ISIS member in Raqqa states:
For us, we believe this generation of children is the generation of the Caliphate. God willing, this generation will fight infidels and apostates, the Americans and their allies, God willing. The right doctrine has been implanted into these children. All of them love to fight for the stake of building the Islamic State, and for the sake of God.
The emphasis in his statement is not necessarily focusing on the children fighting now, but their future roles as fighters and guardians of the Islamic State. He says that these children will be the next generation of the Caliphate, an enduring force that will carry the state forward.
The typical training places religious indoctrination above military prowess. Traditional schools and curriculum have been replaced with ideological training, not just military exercises. ISIS takes care to continue compulsory class attendance; the classes teach religious ideology, Arabic, and conservative doctrine. An ISIS education entails mental and physical training, setting it apart from the typical immediate military use of child soldiers.
An ISIS spokesman captured ISIS’s main goal when recruiting child soldiers during an interview with NBC:
The goal of these [training] camps is not to take the cubs to the battles, but to prepare them for the battles in the future. If some of them are taken to the battles, they stand in the back rows in order to see how to fight and hear the explosions and to see the wounded and the dead.
His point is not to discount that ISIS does aggressively target children for immediate military operations (HRW found fighters as young as 15), but to emphasize that ISIS is future-oriented in their child soldier strategy. ISIS grooms recruited children’s minds and military abilities. The simultaneous training and preservation of “schools” entrenches ISIS’s presence; their organization is setting up a complete, albeit perverted, state system.
ISIS builds on youth pop culture to create its own youth culture. The organization attracts children from diverse backgrounds that are intentional in their decision to join, and then re-educates those children in a new ideology to preserve, and not just fight for, the Islamic State. The comprehensive grooming of the children requires rehabilitation and recruitment prevention programs that are child-targeted versus ISIS-targeted. It is nearly impossible to shame the shameless ISIS into eliminating their child soldier recruitment, and many young recruits are deliberately joining ISIS based on disillusionment with Western society as a direct reaction inspired by ISIS propaganda.
We can prevent the recruitment of potential child-soldiers by hindering ISIS’s message of religious piety, wartime glory, and paradise for their followers. While the group successfully draws many children into its ranks, some of their young recruits quickly become disillusioned and defect. Child soldiers Jomah and Ismail (surnames withheld) are two examples of voluntary recruits who were so horrified by the group’s disregard for human life that they fled. Their stories, among others, must be heavily broadcasted. Supporting moderate Islamic leaders is also crucial. Any removal or hindrance of their religious outreach will leave a leadership vacuum and confirm the ISIS narrative that Islam is under attack. Allowing the propaganda to continue to disseminate unchecked and enabling a leadership vacuum to form will only bolster the success of the group’s recruitment message. Focusing on ideology and on disproving ISIS’s narrative is the key to weakening its myth and to stopping the growing exodus of children flocking to join its cause.