Cubs of the Caliphate: Is there a grand recruitment strategy vis-à-vis children?

2015 exposed the shocking realities surrounding the rise of the Islamic State. Men and women, local and foreign, joined ISIS in the hope for a different life to that of daily normalcy. More unsettling however is the rising recruitment of children. In November and December 2014, ISIS released videos that promote its recruitment of children. The streets of Syria and Iraq have witnessed children as suicide bombers, informants and messengers as they continue to take on more roles – even as far as children becoming fully-fledged militants who can kill. The recruitment strategy of ISIS and its indoctrination of youth are troubling and some have likened the Islamic States’ use of children to The Hitler Youth. Charlie Winter, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, recently wrote Shocked by the ‘cubs of the caliphate’? Of course you are – that’s ISIS’ plan for The Guardian. The use of children by ISIS might be a propaganda strategy intended to evoke shock and fear; child soldiering is inhumane and deeply upsetting. Yet, child soldiering is as old a phenomenon as war itself and is of widespread humanitarian concern. Groups such as al-Qaida, Boko Haram and the LRA have recruited children to participate in lethal attacks. Nevertheless,  ‘the cubs of the caliphate’, a phrase used to refer to children recruited by the Islamic State is particularly resonating, unlike other modern rebel and/or jihadi groups.

Children are not solely tools of propaganda for ISIS. ISIS released videos that feature children watching public beheadings and thereafter performing such actions on dolls. On July 4th 2015, ISIS released a video depicting the execution of 25 Syrian government soldiers by young soldiers, clearly portraying the children as executioners themselves. These videos are undeniably abhorrent but signify more than just propaganda tactics. These videos and their depictions of children carry an important message that children are a crucial part of the Islamic State’s overall strategy. The spectre of ISIS is eternal; that is one way to interpret the use of children by the group. Children are the fighters of tomorrow, and they will be the ones who are most likely to carry forward the ideology of the Islamic State.

Indoctrination underpins ISIS’ strategy concerning the recruitment of children, referred to by academic Mia Bloom as a process called gradual socialisation. Public events aimed at attracting young children by proclaiming the opportunities that ISIS offers is one of the many ways the group has found and manipulated recruits. Within ISIS controlled territories, violence and conflict have been normalised. Violent, grotesque and simply inhumane acts, which would have otherwise been shocking, are now daily affair and completely normal to children who witness these attacks, either because they are forced or voluntarily choose to witness extreme violence. The infiltration of violence and conflict into the lives of young children and youth forces them into a state of acceptance. It can be argued that the more exposed children are to violent means and the act of killing, the more they are dehumanized. This is also accompanied by training camps, often sites of indoctrination where violence is not just engrained in the physicality of being able to pick up a gun and shoot but in the formation of ideology itself. It is this formation of an ideology that is dangerous and could be the grand strategy of the Islamic State. The prolonged instillation of violence, small arms and the creation of the ‘Other’ that needs to be annihilated in relation to the ‘Self’ – the child who will grow up to epitomise the existence of the Islamic State.

One of the defining features of ISIS recruitment of children outlines the mobilisation of recruits to fill the thinning existing ranks of soldiers. Often, this is done through families and personal ties – some parents encourage their children to join ISIS as child soldiers. Research on child soldiering and recruitment lacks in complex local understandings of children and childhood, often found in anthropological research. It is understood generally that children are easily manipulated and are often easy targets for state and non-state actors alike. However, this line of reasoning suffers from a myopic view of the child. Whilst some parents bring their child to join the likes of ISIS and other rebel groups, children are also coerced (typically a characteristic in West African conflicts) and so equally important to note is the voluntary participation of a child. This is accompanied by a yearning to follow a particular ideological path and can be referred to as the desire to be on the ‘right side of history’. The Spanish Civil War saw the formation of the International Brigades, 32,000 foreigners mobilised as Brigadiers fighting a war that did not involve their native countries. ISIS is seeing a similar beckoning; 27,000 people from 86 countries have been drawn to ISIS territories.  Amongst these figures, sadly we are not witnessing just the luring of adults; children and the young people feature prominently. Around the world, an estimated 250,000 children are involved in armed conflict. No hard figures are available for the number of children that ISIS has recruited in the last year but at the beginning of 2015, an estimated 400 children had been recruited already and this number is not decreasing. This reality cannot be ignored and the Islamic State is showing no sign of stopping either.

2015 became the year of ISIS, the fall of Mosul in 2014 granted the terror group its moment of glory. Since then, ISIS’ rise can only be described as remarkable. Despite making newspaper headlines, the recruitment of children remains relatively unnoticed, unspoken and unchallenged. The fact remains that children are fighting for ISIS. So what is the Islamic State’s grand strategy to attract young recruits? If you are familiar with Michael Jackson’s Fallen Sparrows, a book that demystifies the truths surrounding the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War Era, you might even argue that the excitement to be part of an epic journey, a clash of cultures and an opportunity to stand triumphant on the right side of history underlie many of young peoples’ urge join ISIS. ISIS doesn’t need grand strategies to attract its recruits; it simply needs to exist. Its mere existence, its cult-like depiction and modern, technologically savvy sophistication will continue to draw attention. It is no surprise then that in the ISIS quagmire, youth on the path of radicalisation both within and outside ISIS territories become recruits.

The 1996 ground breaking Machel report Impact of Armed Conflict on Children highlighted the devastating impact and consequences of children as soldiers. Since then several national, regional and international organisations have united in an endeavour to end child soldiering. However, 20 years from the Machel Report, there is no considerable change in the child soldier phenomenon. The Islamic State is proof of this as it continues to implicate children – in more ways than we can imagine – in its mission.  To tackle this phenomenon is almost akin to attacking the institution of war itself and this is not an easy task. The ramifications of children in armed conflict are numerous; societies are falling apart, children are robbed of a childhood and those parents who do not voluntarily send their children to ISIS watch their children become militants who can kill. Child soldiering harbours not only psychological traumas both to the children themselves and to the communities they belong to but also raises questions of long-term security.

Children involved in violent conflicts become essentially normalised to the idea of violence and often grow to be adults who perpetuate these ideas into a new generation who will not fear from the notion of children as instruments of war. Children are being mobilised globally by groups such as ISIS into an effective weaponry system. The latter is likely to continue to destabilise Iraq and Syria, inviting the region to participate and uphold a culture that sees the child as an opportunity, as a means to a horrible end. Humanitarian and security fields have for a long time dedicated significant research to the phenomenon of child soldiering though they both do not necessarily agree in terms of creating meaningful solutions to the problem. For many rebel groups, the child is an attractive instrument of war. For ISIS, perhaps it is the appeal of the child and their own that has advanced the growing number of child soldiers belonging to the group. It is time to deromanticise the use of children as an effective weaponry system, to engage children in conflict areas in education platforms and to provide these children with alternatives in order to force belligerents such as the Islamic State to look elsewhere. But children are not always victims, some choose the violent path; child soldiering is not always a product of coercion. Perhaps then it is more important to de-romanticise the Islamic State too, to make its appeal redundant and to shatter its cult-like image that has opened doors to children and adults from all over.

Author Biography

Ayooshee Dookhee is a Politics and International Relations graduate from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently working for a public policy, public affairs and campaigns consultancy in London. In September 2015, she will be starting a Masters in International Relations with a focus on Middle East politics at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. She has a growing interest for issues and conflicts in the Middle East having completed her dissertation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Her further interests are in international human rights, women’s rights, gender and minority equality and the politics of the European Union.

She can be found on LinkedIn

Cover image ‘État Islamique – Daesh P1050161‘ by thierry ehrmann

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