At the earliest age, young children are put into camps to become loyal little soldiers of the caliphate, veritable propaganda tools of Islamic State. They are terrorism’s first victims.
In August 2014, the photo of the seven-year-old son of an Australian jihadi, Khaled Sharrouf, was posted on Twitter posing with the of a Syrian soldier’s severed head. “That’s my boy!” his father said. In February 2016, a picture of four-year-old Isa Dare’s went viral. The son of a mother of a family that left London to join the jihad in Syria, he appeared in an ISIS blowing up a car with three hostages inside. New York’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) sounded the alarm: the more ground ISIS loses and the worse its financial situation becomes, the more children it will send to a certain death. Their lack of critical thinking skills and the ease with which they can be indoctrinated make them ideal prey for armed groups, helping ISIS spread a “jihadi myth” to the enemy. A child’s appearance in a propaganda video has a tremendous psychological impact. Shocking as it is, the message gets picked up media and travels around the world.
The videos aim to warn the Western countries bombing Syria and Iraq: the strikes will not kill the ideology, and future generations of jihadis are already ready. Some of these children are abducted on the street, others sent by their own parents to “training centres” in return for around $200. Sometimes they are enlisted by already-indoctrinated children, which ISIS considered excellent “recruiters”. A child will always have more trust in a message conveyed by someone his or her own age than by an adult.
The Salafist-jihadi ideology is taught in schools where they learn the Koran and an extremist interpretation of the texts by heart. Abu Mosa, ISIS’s “press attaché”, talked about the fate of children in the caliphate in a Vice News story broadcast shortly before was killed in an attack by the Syrian army in August 2014. “Those under 15 go to a sharia camp to learn their religion,” he said. “Those above can join the military camp.” The youngest are most useful as spies.
PREACHERS, FIGHTERS, SUICIDE BOMBERS
In a 2016 report, “Children of Islamic State”, the British counter-terrorism think tank Quilliam described the missions for which children are considered more physically and mentally fit than adults. These include disclosing information about their families, which serves to measure their level indoctrination and ability to take responsibility. According to Abu Mosa, this mission, for which he said they receive $100 a month, is mainly reserved for children under 13. Developing their transmission skills would also serve to make them ISIS preachers in the future.
Canadian academic Mia Bloom works on the question of child soldiers and has written many books on the subject. She analysed ISIS propaganda for a CTC report. She explained children’s particular enthusiasm and need to belong for Afrique Magazine: “In some videos, you can see how the youngest praise the virtues of Islamic State, in others how they preach sermons in mosques and occupied churches. Most of them just parrot what they hear. In some images, you can even see them looking at their parents for an answer to the journalist’s question. That’s why I think it’s essential to understand that young children cannot be considered ‘radicalised’ in the traditional sense. Their ability to understand is limited.” This makes it easy for their “mentors” to subject them to military training with the aim of sending them to fight on the front before they reach adulthood. Some are already guards at checkpoints, make bombs for Islamic State or receive training in the handling of firearms to become skilled marksmen. Their involvement in executing prisoners is an extremely well thought out strategy on the part of the terrorist group.
They can take part passively, as spectators, handing weapons to the adults who will commit the murder, or do it themselves. “ISIS has succeeded in making their participation in these acts something precious in their eyes, an action by which they can enter the dynamics competition,” says Ms. Mia Bloom. After studying interviews with children who had escaped from ISIS, she concluded that the terrorist group managed to “sell death” (either killing others or killing themselves in suicide attacks) to the youngest children as a real project for the future. “Not everybody will become a ‘lion cub’,” she says. As for executions, they are presented to the children as the ultimate proof of loyalty and trust, and, therefore, a privilege.
“The younger they are, the faster they can be brainwashed,” says Ms. Bloom. “The African cases we’ve studied enable us to see the importance of age is in the process. The older they are, the more memories they have of their lives before the war, and the harder it is for ISIS to persuade them that their project is well founded.” In the eyes of ISIS, these children are high-value “death candidates” because they lack the intellectual weapons to fight the ideas with which they are bombarded. A suicide attack can quickly become a goal for a child who learned ISIS ideology and witnessed how that act is portrayed as an honour.
Hundreds of children have perished this way since the war started. In March 2015, a 13-year-old French boy died fighting with ISIS in Syria, while in 2016, the Furat Media Center (the group’s official media organ) glorified the death of a young German. But some, like Usaid Barho, resist. In 2014, the 14-year-old Syrian recruited by ISIS was forcibly led to the door of the Ali Baya Shiite mosque in Bagdad. “Don’t set off the explosives yet,” he was told. “Wait until we’re far enough away.” Then Usaid ran to a policeman shouting, “I’m a suicide bomber! I’m a Muslim and I have no intention of killing other Muslims. I want to go home and see my mother. Can you help me?” Testimonies like his allow researchers to see how Islamic State gives the children they train the choice between fighting and committing suicide. Knowing he would be unable to survive a battle, Usaid chose suicide. “That way, I could surrender to the authorities instead of going straight to a certain death.”
“I WANT TO BE AN INGHIMASI”
Recognising its fierce propaganda value, ISIS has made organising and institutionalising the recruitment of children a priority. Their uninhibited presence on social networks sets them apart from the child soldiers in Asian or African conflicts. Ms. Bloom and several experts from the University of Georgia (United States) were able to piece together the stories of 89 boys aged eight to 18 that isis says died in military operations between 1 January 2015 and 31 January 2016.
In an interview broadcast by Vice News in late 2015, two young brothers enlisted by the Al Nusra Front talk about wanting to become fighters “for Allah’s sake”.
They were among the roughly 1,500 children enlisted by the terrorist group. At least 20% were “inghimasi”, a relatively recent term that refers to children who fight bearing arms while wearing an explosive belt to be detonated if they run out of ammunition or are captured. These images went around the world. In November 2015, Vice News posted a video of two little brothers enlisted by the al Nusra Front talking to a journalist about their future. “Have you already decided to join the jihad?” he asks one of them". “Yes, God willing.” When the reporter asks the other brother the same question, he says,
-“I want to become an inghimasi.”
-“Can you repeat that?”
-“I want to become an inghimasi to serve Allah.”
In early March, the BBC posted the testimony of two Yazidi brothers who were kidnapped and forcibly enlisted by Islamic State in northern Iraq in April 2014, when they were 14 and 16. Nearly two years later, they managed to escape from a jihadi training centre in Syria. Today they live in safety with nearly 80 other Yezidis in a shelter in Bade-Wurtemberg (Germany). Their testimony overlaps the analyses of Ms. Bloom and Quilliam about the treatment of children the caliphate has chosen to become “lion cubs”. “They tried to brainwash me,” said one brother. “Their books were incredible. They quickly succeed in changing your mind. I’m sure I’m not the only one it happened to. Even an adult could have changed his way of thinking. If I’d stayed there a month longer, I would’ve become like them.”
The banalisation of atrocity is one of the organisation’s most potent weapons—and a difficult problem for countries with citizens who have joined the cause. “Sometimes they’d take us to see the graves of ‘Muslim traitors’, who spied for the regime or used drugs,” one of the brothers recalled. “Then, they told us to shoot at them to become accustomed to it.” A culture of fear pervaded the camp, where the boys lived with nearly 120 minors. In the daytime, they trained and were forced to pray and learn the Koran by heart. At night, they guarded the camp. If one of them fell asleep, their “mentors” would wake them up with cold water and beat them with sticks.
The brothers said they were always forced to carry rifles, “even to go to the toilet”. As part of its psychological conditioning, Islamic State also granted them some moments of happiness, such as a dip in the river after meals. “I missed home,” one of the brothers told the BBC. “Especially when we saw how Arab children could spend their weekends with their families in Syria. That affected us a lot. At those times, we felt like were dying 10 times.”
Ex-fighters like these brothers who manage to escape Islamic State suffer from severe psychological damage. Adolescence being a pivotal period for the integration of social values, overexposure to atrocity is a major challenge not only for their mental health, but also for their future host countries. According to Quilliam’s “Children of Islamic State” report, in the next few years these countries must develop effective reintegration strategies. The DDR model (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration), which child welfare agencies use in treating soldiers, would be inadequate because it was designed to rehabilitate adults. The success of these children’s reintegration will depend on case-by-case studies of their trauma and the various degrees of autonomy or indoctrination with jihadi ideology. Finding an approach that takes their religious indoctrination into account is now a priority.
ON THE FRONT LINE
Many armies have used children throughout history. The Nazi regime created the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), which indoctrinated them with racist and Fascist values. They were often forced to join the German army as Flakhelfer, literally, “anti-aircraft defence assistants”, says the report “The Children of Islamic State” published in March 2016 by the think tank Quilliam. Africa is the continent that most ignores the humanitarian standards established after 1945 on the use of children in armed conflicts. In Liberia alone, the UN puts the estimated number of children who took part in the civil war that ended with giving power to Charles Taylor in 1997 at 20,000. Minors accounted for 70% of the army. In Rwanda,
thousands of children, most of them under 14, participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, while in Angola, 36% of the children fought in the civil war there between 1975 and 2002. As for Libya, according to Mark A. Drumble’s 2012 study, General Gaddafi surrounded himself with minors, which was also a widespread practice in rebel groups despite a Libyan law prohibiting the recruitment of child soldiers.