ISIL is deploying children for base strategic reasons

A handout photograph showing three schoolgirls at Gatwick Airport in London who are believed to be making their way to Syria to join ISIL. London Metropolitan Police Photo
A handout photograph showing three schoolgirls at Gatwick Airport in London who are believed to be making their way to Syria to join ISIL. London Metropolitan Police Photo

An ISIL video from some weeks ago featured a 10-year-old Kazakh boy seemingly executing two Russians accused of being members of the FSB, successor to the KGB. The video appeared the same week as three female child bombers blew up markets in northern Nigeria. Are terrorist groups using children as never before?

This is not a new phenomenon but it is getting worse. ISIL has regularly released videos of its child unit known as the Cubs at Camp Farouq in Raqqa in Syria. The use of children by extremist groups has become a problem in this region and beyond. In October 2013, more than a hundred Afghan and Pakistani children were kidnapped to be trained as suicide bombers by the Taliban. Within a month, Afghan police pre-empted a 12-year-old suicide bomber in the Panjwai district of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. The child was wearing a suicide vest en route to a girls’ school. In January 2014, the 9-year-old sister of an Afghan Taliban commander was forced to wear a suicide belt at a border police checkpoint in Kandahar.

Like the Taliban, ISIL is training very young children for front line operations by a gradual exposure to violence. It is intended to normalise the activity and make killing almost routine. The exploitation of children in this way is strategic. It provides terrorist organisations with increased media attention because it is seen to be breaching a previously unbroken psychological barrier.

While terrorist organisations have begun to recruit and deploy female operatives in greater numbers, the use of children represents a relatively new development, both tactically and strategically. Using children may be an indicator that the group is having problems recruiting adults. The groups may also be ensuring that there is a “next generation of fighters” ready to replace the adults if they die in battle or are killed by drones.

The problem is no longer limited to regions where conflicts rage. Children from diaspora communities in the UK, Canada, France and Australia have joined groups like ISIL and Al Shabab. Perhaps the best known case in the US was the disappearance of 22 Somali-American adolescents and young people from Minneapolis in 2006-07.

Online recruiters use a variety of grooming methods that emulate strategies known to be used by paedophiles. These include social media interaction to build trust, establish a rapport and create an environment of secrecy to exclude the parents, until finally the child is encouraged to meet the recruiter.

There are significant differences, especially at the level of mobilisation, between child recruits to groups like ISIL and child soldiers in Africa and Latin America. For child soldiers, the process may involve explicit coercion – kidnapping, armed force and the use of narcotics. But grooming for terrorist organisations appears to be a more gradual process and it is conducted in a way that gives parents and the community the impression that the child’s participation is consensual. Terrorist organisations have set up youth wings, training camps, and target their propaganda at children. Most groups use the children in support roles until they are deemed old enough for the front line. However, Pakistan’s Tehrik-e Taliban, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and now, ISIL, are increasingly using children as bombers and on the front line before they reach their teens.

What about the role of parents? Most child soldiers were orphaned, often by the group that “adopts” them. In the case of ISIL, some parents encourage their children to become involved in exchange for money, food, and clothing, according to recent claims by the campaign group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. In other places – Lebanon, Palestine, Sri Lanka – the entire community encourages and lauds children’s involvement in militant activities.

For the past two years, my colleague Dr John Horgan and I have been researching children’s involvement in terrorist groups in Pakistan for a book entitled Small Arms: Children and Terror. Some of the children we met in Pakistan stated that they “wanted to become a suicide bomber” but had no understanding of what this actually meant. We found that the children were parroting propaganda, both religious and political. They are targeted, recruited, indoctrinated and deployed. They are groomed. Some of the boys had been sexually abused by the Taliban commanders.

The Pakistani rehabilitation facilities treating these children are taking a multi-pronged approach to address their psycho-social needs. They have been traumatised by what they have seen, and by what they have been forced to do. This complex phenomenon requires a creative approach that addresses the damage done to the children, ways to de-programme them ideologically, train them vocationally so that they do not drift back into the group and ways to reintegrate them into society.

In the first instance of course, it is important to recognise the variations in child recruitment by terrorist organisations because each process may require a different set of counter measures.

Mia Bloom is professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts. She is the author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. Small Arms: Children and Terror will be published by Cornell University Press next year .

source :

media activist from the city of Raqqa, student at the Faculty of Law at the University of the Euphrates. Director of the Media Office of Raqqa, founding member of "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently", founding member of the documentary project of "Sound and Picture". I work in documenting violations committed by Assad's regime and ISIS group and extremist organizations inside the city of Raqqa, as I work in programming, design and visual media. I hold a certificate of coach in digital security, and a certificate of journalist coach, and a certificate in documenting violations against human rights, and a certificate in electronic advocacy. I underwent a training under the supervision of "Cyber-Arabs" in collaboration with the Institute for War and Peace "IWPR", about the management of electronic websites and leadership of advocacy campaigns, and a training of press photography under the supervision of the photojournalist "Peter Hove Olesen".

1 Comment

  1. April 4, 2015 - 9:28 pm

    “…the 9-year-old sister of an Afghan Taliban commander was forced to wear a suicide belt…”

    Pure barbarism. And I think we all know that this “commander” would have been unlikely to be so callous were it his brother rather than his sister… although when they start running short of little girls and women, everyone bar these self-appointed “commanders” will doubtless become grist for their gruesome mill.

    “We found that the children were parroting propaganda”

    Hardly news, and hardly an issue regarding ISIS alone; all religion is perpetuarted by the indoctrination of children, so it seems rather hypocritical to accuse others simply because their own indoctrination of children has a different ideological aim.

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