The Islamic State is raising an army of child soldiers, and the West could be fighting them for generations to come.
They stand in the front row at public beheadings and crucifixions held in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria. They’re used for blood transfusions when Islamic State fighters are injured. They are paid to inform on people who are disloyal or speak out against the Islamic State. They are trained to become suicide bombers. They are children as young as 6 years old, and they are being transformed into the Islamic State’s soldiers of the future.
The Islamic State has put in place a far-reaching and well-organized system for recruiting children, indoctrinating them with the group’s extremist beliefs, and then teaching them rudimentary fighting skills. The militants are preparing for a long war against the West, and hope the young warriors being trained today will still be fighting years from now.
Read more from FP on the Islamic State
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While there are no hard figures for how many children are involved, refugee stories and evidence collected by the United Nations, human rights groups, and journalists suggest that the indoctrination and military training of children is widespread.
Child soldiers aren’t new to war. Dozens of African armies and militias use young boys as fighters, in part because research has shown that children lack fully formed moral compasses and can easily be persuaded to commit acts of cruelty and violence.
The young fighters of the Islamic State could pose a particularly dangerous long-term threat because they’re being kept away from their normal schools and instead inculcated with a steady diet of Islamist propaganda designed to dehumanize others and persuade them of the nobility of fighting and dying for their faith.
"[The Islamic State] deliberately deny education to the people who are in the territory under their control, and not only that, they brainwash them," said Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who’s tasked with thinking about future threats and planning for the Army’s future. "They engage in child abuse on an industrial scale. They brutalize and systematically dehumanize the young populations. This is going to make this a multigenerational problem."
Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, recently returned from a visit to Iraq, where he interviewed displaced Iraqis in Baghdad, Dohuk, and Erbil. He said there is a "large and dangerously successful recruitment" program.
Speaking to a small group of reporters at the U.N., he said the fighters "appeal" to some of the youngsters and that they have approved adept at "manipulating young men and children." He explained that "they project an image of being victorious" and offer the promise that those who fall in battle will "go straight to heaven."
"What is striking for me is to meet mothers who [tell us], ‘We don’t know what to do,’" he said. "Our sons are volunteering and we can’t prevent it."
On the front lines of Iraq and Syria, the boys who join or are abducted by the Islamic State are sent to various religious and military training camps, depending on their age. At the camps, they are taught everything from the Islamic State’s interpretation of sharia law to how to handle a gun. They are even trained in how to behead another human and given dolls on which to practice, Syria Deeply, a website devoted to covering the Syrian civil war, reported in September.
Children are also sent into battle, where they are used as human shields on the front lines and to provide blood transfusions for Islamic State soldiers, according to Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization devoted to the eradication of the use of child soldiers.
Eyewitnesses from the Iraqi towns of Mosul and Tal Afar told United Nations investigators they have seen young children, armed with weapons they could barely carry and dressed in Islamic State uniforms, conducting street patrols and arresting locals.
U.N. human rights experts have "received confirmed reports of children as young as 12 or 13 undergoing military training organized by ISIL in Mosul," according to a report written jointly by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the human rights office of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq.
In al-Sharqat district in Salah al-Din, the number of youngsters manning checkpoints "drastically increased" during the last week of August, the report said. And in the Nineveh Plains and Makhmour, male teenagers were swept up in August in a recruiting drive by advancing fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Some of these boys reported that they "were forced to form the front line to shield ISIL fighters during fighting, and that they had been forced to donate blood for treating injured ISIL fighters," according to the report.
Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, the pseudonym of a 22-year-old man who lived in Syria until about a month ago, is the founder of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a Twitter account and Facebook page that documents the brutality of life in Raqqa, the city where he grew up. In addition to him and three others now living outside of Syria, there are 12 people inside of Raqqa, who contribute photos and information about what’s going on inside the city.
Reached via Skype, he told Foreign Policy that the Islamic State has stepped up its youth recruitment program, including a boot camp for young boys where they’re taught combat skills.
He said teenagers from Raqqa were being trained and then quickly sent to fight in Kobani, the Syrian-Turkish border town where the Islamic State has been in a brutal fight with Kurdish fighters for several weeks. U.S. and coalition aircraft have conducted more than 135 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in and around the town, killing hundreds of the militants.
In Raqqa, where poverty is widespread after more than three years of war, the group often persuades parents to send their children to the camps in exchange for money, Raqqawi said. Sometimes, the Islamic State appeals directly to the children themselves, holding public recruiting events or parties and then offering the children money to attend training. With all of the schools closed in Raqqa, there is little else for children to do, Raqqawi said.
There are several well-known youth training camps across Raqqa province, he said, including al-Zarqawi Camp, Osama Bin Laden Camp, al-Sherkrak Camp, al-Talaea Camp, and al-Sharea Camp.
Raqqawi estimated that there are between 250 and 300 children at al-Sharea Camp, which is for kids under the age of 16.
He provided photos of children at this camp, including one of young boys sitting down to a meal together, and another of a young boy smiling as he completed an obstacle course.
When there is a big battle, like the one in Kobani, the training is accelerated, Raqqawi said.
In Iraq, there is also substantial evidence that children are being forced into military training.
Fred Abrahams, special advisor at Human Rights Watch, interviewed Yazidis in Iraq who had escaped Islamic State detention. They said they had witnessed Islamic State fighters taking boys from their families for religious or military training.
One Yazidi man who escaped said he watched his captors separate 14 boys ages 8 to 12 at a military base the Islamic State had seized in Sinjar and take them off to learn how to be jihadists.
This summer, Vice News gained extraordinary access to the Islamic State, producing a five-part video documentary about life under the group’s control. The second installment focused on how the Islamic State is specifically grooming children for the future.
"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," one man tells Vice.
The video shows a 9-year-old boy saying that he’s headed to a training camp after Ramadan to learn how to use a Kalashnikov rifle.
An Islamic State spokesman told the Vice journalists that those under 15 go to sharia camp to learn about religion, but those older than 16 can go to military training camp.
The Islamic State’s command of social media also helps it convince people from all over the world to travel to Iraq or Syria to join the group.
Part of this effort involves using children as propaganda tools, posting photographs on social media sites of them dressed in Islamic State uniforms marching alongside grown-up fighters. "In mid-August, ISIL entered a cancer hospital in Mosul, forced at least two sick children to hold the ISIL flag and posted the pictures on the internet," the U.N. report said.
The Islamic State’s online recruitment has proved successful, drawing more than 3,000 Europeans. The FBI says it knows of roughly a dozen Americans fighting with the group, but acknowledges there could be more.
Three American high school girls from Colorado were caught last week in Frankfurt, Germany, apparently on their way to join the Islamic State in Syria. Reports say they were radicalized online.
The Vice News video shows a Belgian man who traveled to Raqqa with his young son, who appears to be 6 or 7 years old.
The father coaches his son to tell the cameraman that he’s from the Islamic State and not Belgium, and then asks him whether he wants to be a jihadist or a suicide bomber. The young boy says, "Jihadist."
Raqqawi told FP that when he was still living in Raqqa he saw an American woman, her Algerian husband, and their daughter, who looked to be about 4 years old.
He says he also saw a French fighter with two kids: a blond boy who looked to be 6 years old and a daughter who was about a year old.
"We see a lot of foreign fighters inside the city. It is shocking," he said.
In Syria and Iraq, children are not just being radicalized, but are also being exposed to extreme levels of violence every day.
Raqqawi provided FP photos he took while still living in the city, of children watching crucifixions.
He said the children have become so accustomed to these executions that the sight of a head separated from a human body no longer seems to faze them.
"The Islamic State destroys their childhood, destroys their hearts," he said.
Misty Buswell, who’s based in Jordan as the Middle East regional advocacy officer for Save the Children, said, "It’s not an exaggeration to say we could lose a whole generation of children to trauma."
Buswell said the child refugees she’s interviewed are having nightmares, avoiding interactions with their peers, and showing signs of aggression toward other children.
"I have met children who have stopped speaking, and who haven’t spoken for months, because of the terrible things that they witnessed," Buswell said. "And those are the lucky ones who actually made it across the border to safety."
With time and the right kind of intervention those children can be helped and can be able to have somewhat more of a normal life, Buswell said. "But for the kids who are still inside and who are witnessing this on a daily basis, the long-term effects are going to be quite significant."
Buswell said that refugees almost always want to return home once the situation there stabilizes and peace returns.
When she asked refugees from Sinjar that question a few weeks ago, however, she was surprised by their answer. "It’s one of the first times I’ve actually heard people telling me that the things that they saw and experienced were so horrific and traumatic — and the things that their children saw — that they didn’t want to go back, because there are too many bad memories."
Colum Lynch contributed reporting to this article.