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ISIS’ War On Children

CREDIT: YouTube

Children are shown executing a group of captives in an ISIS video shot in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.

“We will kill the kuffar [non-believers] over there,” a four year old boy said during his cameo in ISIS’ latest execution video.

The child is Isa Dare, the son of a radicalized Muslim convert who left her home in southeast London to join the so-called Islamic State in 2012.

Grace “Khadija” Dare’s camo-clad child might be one of the youngest to appear in an ISIS propaganda video, but the militant group has been eerily inclusive when it comes to children. Perhaps more than any other militant group, ISIS has made children into war machines. Children have long been brainwashed, drugged, and threatened children into picking up arms. ISIS has elevated their place in conflicts, given them revered roles as trained executioners, guards, and recruiters. The United Nations has confirmed that children as young as 12 are being trained by ISIS.


The reasons for indoctrinating children are both strategic and optic. By training and filming children along with its fighters, ISIS presents its brand of militancy as a family affair — and the family as integral to the state it’s created.

“Children are shown in propaganda videos for calculated psychological value,” Rachel Bryson writes in the Independent. “It aims to arouse global fear through portraying to the world that it is a powerful and fully-functioning state, fueling a multi-generational war.”

That fear seems deliberate on the part of ISIS, which has developed a specialized curriculum and camps to indoctrinate children into their extremist world view — and train them to defend it. Children of ISIS fighters and sympathizers are reared in ISIS’ ideology and trained to fight in camps far from their parents’ reach.

“The Caliphate Cubs”

According to a lawyer from Mosul, an Iraqi city currently held by ISIS, the children are isolated from their families and communities in remote camps.

“ISIS uses certain names to label [children’s] camps, which gives the impression that they are some sort of private religious schools,” the man, referred to by the pseudonym Samir Abdul Aziz, told Al-Monitor. “Children undergo three different levels of training in these schools. The first is religious training, whereby children are taught ISIS jihadi ideology and approach. Children are brainwashed into becoming hateful and ready to commit suicide. The second level is practical, as children receive harsh physical training, and are taught to use weapons. The third level is psychological. Children are taken to public squares to participate in slaughters, or are placed at the forefront of the Hisbah [religious police] sessions, or in the mosques’ sermons so as to promote their leadership skills and their sense of superiority.”

The policy of fostering an allegiance to the state through isolating children from their loved ones seems to have a basis in the Ottoman Empire’s training of Janissaries. When the elite military corps first came into being in the late 14th century, the Janissaries were mostly Christian children who had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. Although this method of “recruitment” was later abandoned, Janissaries continued to be isolated from their families so that their allegiances would be to the state alone.

According to people who have fled ISIS-held territory, the militant group has taken a similar approach through the cadre of young fighters it calls “The Caliphate Cubs.” Ahmed al-Jabouri, a former resident of Mosul, said that ISIS ransacked the city’s orphanages and sent the children away when it took control of Mosul in June 2014.

“The group also includes hundreds of other children fighters coming from abroad, who are called immigrants,” he told Al-Monitor. “I once met one of these kids. He was Syrian and was as young as 12 years old. He was clad in black. His clothes were similar to the clothing worn by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he made his first appearance back in July 2014. The young boy was at the forefront of a group that had executed a so-called apostate in one of Mosul’s streets [in February]. The boy was the one to slaughter the victim with a knife.”

ISIS again deployed some of its youngest fighters to carry out executions at the historic town of Palmyra which it took over in May. In a video released by ISIS soon after, 25 men kneeled before 25 young gunmen who pointed pistols at the backs of their heads, killing them in the city’s ancient amphitheater.

In another video released by the militant group in June, young boys are shown kicking and punching one another in a big cage. Wearing balaclava masks and green jumpsuits, the children are praised for their fighting skills.

Passing On Terror

Not only does the indoctrination of children forward ISIS’ aim to take and hold territory, but it allows the group to further promote its thoroughly misogynistic understanding of family life. While boys are sent off for training, young girls are married off to fighters or used as sex slaves. In a pamphlet outlining the terms of sexual slavery for the non-Muslim women the group takes captive, an ISIS official declares, “It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse.”

“However, if she is not fit for intercourse, he (the owner) can only enjoy her without intercourse,” continues the document, which was leaked last year.

While militant groups from the Lord’s Resistance Army in southeast Africa to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have forced children into battle and into sexual slavery, ISIS has integrated child soldiers into its broader mission of creating a functioning society based on its abhorrent ideological underpinnings.

According to what one ISIS member told VICE: “For us, we believe that this generation of children is the generation of the caliphate. God willing, this generation will fight infidels and apostates, the Americans and their allies.”

Revering The Young

Children are seen not merely as expendable fighters by ISIS leaders, but as an investment in the group’s future. Those who have been brought into its fold as children are being bred to maintain an unquestioning faith in ISIS’ mission.

That’s why children soldiers are treated with such respect by fellow militants.

“The group has already given strict orders to its members to show ultimate respect to children, who are seen as an integral part of its structure,” Mosul lawyer Samir Abdul Aziz said.

Witnesses in ISIS-held territory have attested to this claim. Some have said that children are encouraged to wear the sweeping black robes reserved for the group’s senior officials in order to inculcate a culture of respect towards them.

Not only is the recruitment of children under 15 as soldiers against international humanitarian law, but the effects of war on young people are especially severe. Efforts to rehabilitate them into society are underway for those who have been able to make it out of ISIS territory, but reversing the group’s all-encompassing indoctrination isn’t easy.

Without saving children like Isa Dare from the group’s unflinching hold, ISIS will pass on its horrors to the next generation. That’s why the boy’s grandfather, a London cabdriver and devout Christian, hopes someone is trying to bring the boy back.

“He doesn’t know anything,” Henry Dare said. “He’s a small boy. They are just using him as a shield.”

But many fear that those shields will prove to be time bombs if ISIS is not stopped soon.

Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, who founded the organization Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said that the conflict will be prolonged because of ISIS’ focus on its youngest recruits.

“It will be a matter of generations,” he said. “It will take maybe 20 years, 30 years. It’s a long, long process and it’s very dangerous.”

UPDATE JAN 5, 2016 4:47 PM

The piece was updated to remove a quote from Steve Emerson.

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