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Lethal Victims: Child Recruitment in Terrorist Organizations

Lethal Victims: Child Recruitment in Terrorist Organizations

April 14, 2015
Amaryllis Georges
Amaryllis Georges Terrorism & Human Rights Researcher

Upon his death, bin Laden’s documents reveal admissions pertaining to Al Qaeda having turned its focus towards “luring and preparing the youth.”[1] Indeed, the indoctrination and abuse of children in terrorist activities is no new phenomenon. Among others, we have seen similar instances, in East Africa with the Lords Resistance Army’s use of young boys as soldiers, in Afghanistan and Pakistan as Al Qaeda continues to recruit children from madrassas (many holding crucial roles within the organization today had been picked from religious schools in the 1980s), and the Real IRA (a branch of the IRA formed by discordant members) in Northern Ireland recruited teenagers in the 1990s. The reasoning behind using children in combat situations range from the straight forward and practical motives such as their inexpensive and undemanding recruitment to the strategic calculation of indoctrination for the longevity of the organization. Significant literature[2] dwells on the former motivations but limited analysis delves into the normalization of violence for these youths and the tactical incentives such abhorrent propaganda holds for the future of terrorist groups.

The strategic motivations that prompt the use of children by terrorist organizations are indeed many. A specific terrorist profile no longer exists and counterterrorism experts have abandoned the belief that a terrorist must have distinguishing traits or be of a particular age. Terrorist groups are aware that an innocent child is less likely to arouse mistrust and suspicion and they use this to their advantage. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, children were used by insurgents to distract the occupying forces, while the extremists attacked. On multiple occasions, children themselves were used as suicide bombers, a trend we see more recently employed by Boko Haram. Children fighting with extremist groups pose a distinctive threat to security forces and professional armies who may be more reluctant to use deadly force against a child, an asset to the terror group. Given their naïve, easily frightened, and defenseless nature, children can effortlessly be molded and exploited by terrorist organizations. In areas, such as Syria and Iraq, where conflicts have been extensive and the absence of social structures is pervasive, minors are recruited with minimal trouble. These children, victims forced into battle, can be bold and tenacious fighters when brainwashed and bound by radical political or religious fervor, making them deadly combatants.

A crucial terrorist rationale for using children as combatants is the ensuing shock factor that such ethically repugnant methods produce with a view to Western expectations. In parts of the world such as Columbia, Somalia, and Syria the image of a child holding a weapon has become the norm.[3] It must be stressed that no matter how commonplace such images may be in certain parts of the world, they are abhorrent and must be viewed and dealt with as nothing less. By disseminating such revolting images of children in combat through propaganda videos, the terrorist’s necessity of theatricality is fed.[4] Visuals, such as that of a suicide bomber no taller than 52 inches or that of a boy holding a rifle twice his size against someone’s head, are guaranteed to not only garner widespread attention from the international community but also produce a sense of fear, disgust and disbelief. Thusly, terrorist organizations are afforded with what they truly desire – to sow the seed of horror and get more terror bang for their buck.

There are also practical incentives that can underlie the exploitation and use of children in wars. Young trainees are inexpensive and easily recruited. In Raqqa (a stronghold territory for Daesh), the terror group bribes both parents and children to attend the indoctrination camps. According to a Human Rights Watch Report, children are paid roughly $47 – $100 per month, which is the equivalent of around half of what an adult combatant would receive.[5] Within Daesh’s recruitment camps, the ‘cubs of the Islamic State’, as they have been labeled in the numerous propaganda videos and magazines, have been used as human shields in battle, protecting the more seasoned fighters, while on other occasions they have been used as suicide bombers. During the Iran-Iraq war children were thrown out in front of fields ridden with mines.[6] Beyond the seemingly dispensable fighting power however, these ‘cubs’ are prepped and primed to lead the next generation of jihad.

Herein lays a vital strategic move deployed by terrorist groups, particularly Daesh: the group understands that to endure and have permanence, the future generation must be indoctrinated to continue the cause. In this case, children lack a frame of reference, save that of jihad, so the terror dogma instilled in them will be concrete and hard to uproot as they will grow up to view bloodshed as a way of life. When educating the youth, terror groups not only control them, they control the future and legitimize their behavior under an umbrella of normalcy. Daesh is training children within a military and ideological capacity – a lethal blend for young and impressionable minds. The ultimate goal of groups that use children is to create reliance so the minor feels enslaved to the organization. A new type of man is shaped by Daesh and who better to mold into this new man than a child?[7] This is easily done in fragmented and failed states where totalitarian and authoritative powers rule, as individuals born into such a structure cannot identify with anything but that system.[8] Youth wings, training camps, and religious schools have been set up with the sole intent of churning out the future generation of Daesh fighters in accordance with the organization’s values and vision of Islam. According to an Arabic instructor within such an indoctrination school, “…with Allah’s permission, they are the next generation. They are the ones who will shake the earth and spread this precious religion to all religions of the earth.”[9] In effect, to groom children to walk in the footsteps of their fathers’. This ideological and militaristic brainwashing is in line with the group’s aims of establishing a Caliphate. As with any state there must be an educational system. Obviously in this case, it does not entail a secular education but one that is in agreement with jihadist ideologies, including lessons in reciting the Quran, Arabic language as well as physical and military training.[10] The idea is to build a different social order, unpolluted by the values Daesh deems to be un-Islamic.[11]

There are sufficient Daesh media videos that show young children in combat gear, stripping assault rifles and proudly stating that they will, by the grace of God, become mujahedeen one day.[12] Others hold severed heads while some are shown executing prisoners, like the young Kazakh boy who has stared in numerous propaganda videos.[13] Selecting a child from an indoctrination center to play a leading role in an execution video, which will without a doubt be shown to other children in such centers, is an enthralling and blunt lesson to other children. “You too can one day be on television; scenes of you holding a weapon against the kuffar’s head can be promulgated across the world; you can make your brothers proud.” In other words, Daesh has fashioned a role model for this future generation of jihadis under its guidance.[14]

Prevention of radicalization of children worldwide has, for the most part, failed. There have been some moderately successful rates, such as those seen in Uganda[15], however in the case of the deradicalization of Daesh cubs and those already recruited and training inside IS territory is indeed impossible as these children are conditioned to build an appetite for destruction. Others, already indoctrinated, will grow up to have serious mental health problems and will need to be reintroduced back to society within non-violent surrounding frameworks. This will require joint efforts from the government’s side, the community at large, as well as the victim’s immediate circle of family and friends. Victoria Forbes Adams, of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, insists that further longstanding examination of the rehabilitation programs used to aid in the demobilization of child soldiers is needed.[16] To cutoff and deny the accessibility of child recruits is a strategic step in the right direction for defeating terrorist groups in the long term. Environments submerged in violence and the absence of opportunities in many parts of the world amplified by economic paralysis along with inadequate or a complete lack of education systems provide fertile ground for terrorist groups to mobilize and recruit. Methods that can be employed to minimize the pool of prospective resources in the form of recruits include: providing children with educational alternatives such as state school systems rather than religious extremist private schools where poor parents are often forced with no other alternative to send their children; the utilization of religious leaders in speaking up against the use of children within terrorist organizations is paramount; as is the role of family accountability and parents being held responsible for the actions of their children.[17]

The systematic exploitation of children in war is, unfortunately, no new phenomenon; indeed it has been a trend dating century’s back. Whether coerced into fighting or brainwashed and indoctrinated, children are systematically victimized by groups and individuals who take advantage of their innocence and vulnerable states. International laws provide principles for defending children in war, however in many conflict ridden states they are not vigorously imposed. The brutalization of children into becoming killers will have dire consequences for future generations. Children who have no frame of reference other than bloodshed, will grow up (if indeed they get that far) to become fully indoctrinated with no hope of rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Many will have severe psychological issues and will require psychosocial support. Children world-wide are suffering at the hands of adults whose decisions are preventable. Although some conflicts are not inevitable, the exploitation of children and the effects such wars may have on them is something that can and should be diminished. A dangerous reality is that chronic conflicts produce scores of orphans; children who have no one to turn to and no one to care for them. How will these children survive and who will they turn to? Disturbingly many find surrogate families in the very terror groups that rob them of their innocence and in whose hands they suffer appalling brutality as soldiers. Ten year old Mustafa Ibrahim, who lost his parents in a battle in Fallujah, says that he “do[es] not have anyone…in this world and…want[s] to meet [his] family in heaven by revenging their death.”[18]  He joyously claimed responsibility for the death of three US marines on the borders of Ramadi. Aside from providing children with proper education, being open to dialogue and involving various actors from communities such as family members as well as utilizing religious leaders in denouncing terrorist behavior, governments will need to place an emphasis on educating their citizens for peace as a way of preventing violence.

[1] Bloom, M. 2012. “Analysis: Women and children constitute the new faces of terror.” Available at: http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/06/analysis-women-and-children-constitute-the-new-faces-of-terror/

[2] Bellamy, C. 1996. “State of the World’s Children” report. UNICEF. Available at: http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/2csoldrs.htm

[3] For Columbia, available at: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/colombia

For Somalia, available at: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/somalia

For Syria, available at: http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/syria

[4] B.L. Nacos. 2003. 28. R. Kupperman and D. Trent. 1979. 10, 42-43; D.J. Whittacker. 2004. 95; B.L. Nacos 2003. 3; G. Weimann and C. Winn. 1994. 93.

[5] Stern, J. and Berger, J.M. 2015. “Raising tomorrow’s mujahideen: the horrific world of ISIS’s child soldiers.” The Guardian. Extracted from ISIS: The State of Terror by Stern, J. and Berger, J.M., in HarperCollins. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/10/horror-of-isis-child-soldiers-state-of-terror

[6] Hammarberg, T. 1995. Presentation to the Regional Consultation on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children in the Arab Region, in Cairo.

[7] Stern, J. and Berger, J.M. 2015. “Raising tomorrow’s mujahideen: the horrific world of ISIS’s child soldiers.” The Guardian. Extracted from ISIS: The State of Terror by Stern, J. and Berger, J.M., in HarperCollins. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/10/horror-of-isis-child-soldiers-state-of-terror

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wyke, T. and Boyle, D. 2014. “ISIS release shocking new video of child soldiers from Kazakhstan being trained with AK47’s.” Mail Online. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2845531/ISIS-release-shocking-new-video-child-soldiers-Kazakhstan-trained-AK47s.html

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stern, J. and Berger, J.M. 2015. “Raising tomorrow’s mujahideen: the horrific world of ISIS’s child soldiers.” The Guardian. Extracted from ISIS: The State of Terror by Stern, J. and Berger, J.M., in HarperCollins. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/10/horror-of-isis-child-soldiers-state-of-terror

[12] Spellman, J. 2015. “Terror Groups Increasingly Use Children as Foot Soldiers.” Available at: http://www.cctv-america.com/2015/01/14/terrorist-groups-turn-children-into-soldiers

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kaufman, S. 2015. “Why ISIS Used a Child Soldier for its Latest Execution Video.” Available at: http://www.vocativ.com/world/isis-2/isis-child-soldiers/

[15] Young, A. 2007. “Preventing, Demobilizing, Rehabilitating, and Reintegrating Child Soldiers in African Conflicts.” The Journal of International Policy Solutions. Available at: http://irps.ucsd.edu/assets/012/6360.pdf

[16] Kaplan, E. 2005. “Child Soldiers around the World.” Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/human-rights/child-soldiers-around-world/p9331

[17] Singer, P.W. 2005. “Terrorists must be Denied Child Recruits.” Brookings Institution. Available at: http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2005/01/20humanrights-singer

[18] Available at: http://www.irinnews.org/report/61917/iraq-insurgents-using-children-to-fight-us-led-forces

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