- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
In a video released Tuesday by the Islamic State, two men described as Russian agents testify that they had attempted to spy on the militants, infiltrate their computer networks, and assassinate the group’s leaders. Then a long-haired young boy calmly shoots the men in the back of the head with a handgun.
The first alleged Russian agent is identified as Jambulat Mamayev. He says that he is from Kazakhstan and that he was sent to gather information on the Islamic State and get close to a high-ranking member within the group. The second man, Sergey Ashimov, tells his captors that he previously worked for the Russian FSB, the successor to the KGB, and was sent to kill an Islamic State leader, whose name is muted in the video.
The child who carries out the execution appears to be the same child featured in a November 2014 Islamic State propaganda video. In that video, which also showcased the group’s new adult recruits from Kazakhstan, the boy identifies himself as “Abdullah” and speaks predominantly in the Kazakh language.
The high-quality propaganda film shows the religious and military training that children living in the Islamic State undergo. According to the video, that education begins by learning Arabic and studying the Quran in the classroom. Students then graduate to learning hand-to-hand combat and weapons training. The youngsters are shown assembling and firing Kalashnikov rifles.
Asked in Kazakh how he sees himself in the future, Abdullah, says, “I will be the one who slaughters you, O kuffar [nonbeliever]. I will be a mujahid, inshallah.” In Tuesday’s video, Abdullah appears to have realized his ambition.
The use of children in war is not new, but the Islamic State has assembled a stunningly elaborate and sophisticated system for recruiting and indoctrinating children. A June 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that nonstate armed groups in Syria have used children as young as 15 to fight in battles and children as young as 14 in military support roles. According to the report, the Islamic State has targeted children for recruitment and has used the guise of free schooling to plant their extremist ideology in the minds of youngsters.
The Kazakh government has not yet responded to Tuesday’s video, but the authorities did move quickly to remove the November 2014 video. Kazakhstan has tough domestic legislation that outlaws spreading what is deemed as “extremist propaganda,” and the Kazakh authorities even moved to pressure the news site Kloop.kg in neighboring Kyrgyzstan to remove an article the publication had posted about the November video.
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee estimates that 300 Kazakh citizens have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. At least half of those are estimated to be women and children. In an interview in December 2014, Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s minister of foreign affairs, told Foreign Policy that one of the government’s biggest worries is “the rise of violent extremism in Kazakhstan and the region” and how “these schools of thought have spread throughout the population.”
The video ends, chillingly, with the men’s young executioner holding his hand up in triumph before stepping over the corpses and walking away. Idrissov and other Kazakh officials have reason to worry about what will happen when he or his fellow child soldiers begin returning home.
Image via Al Hayat