- By Benjamin SolowayBenjamin Soloway is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He worked previously in Indonesia as a web editor and Princeton in Asia journalism fellow at the Jakarta Globe. He has also lived in Brazil and Turkey. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, the New Republic, USA Today, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He studied history at Wesleyan University., Henry JohnsonHenry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog.
The children wear camo. They practice martial arts. They fire handguns and rifles in sync, as a proud instructor looks on. They burn their Indonesian passports in a crackling bonfire.
The 16-minute video has been circulating this week on pro-Islamic State corners of Telegram and Twitter. Multiple analysts have confirmed the group’s claim that it filmed the video in what it calls al-Barakah Province, in northeastern Syria.
The film shows young Indonesian and Malaysian men, dressed in combat fatigues and vests, jabbing AK-47 assault rifles into the air while a crowd of children joins them in chanting the Takbir in Arabic — an expression of faith in Islam.
“While the cubs of the Caliphate prepare themselves to be the conquering heroes in the near future, their fathers never stop waging jihad in the battlefields and being garrisoned on the front lines to expand the territory of the Caliphate and protect every inch of its lands,” the narrator intones, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online jihadist messaging.
“We in the nations of Nusantara — Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia — by the grace of Allah, we have immigrated to the land of the Caliphate, and we left from the land of ignorance, the land of humiliation, the land of the lie, to the land that Allah had dignified,” says one of the older boys, cradling a rifle.
In the next scene, the children bow their heads in prayer as one of them quotes from the Hadith — companion scriptures to the Quran.
“Whoever did not brand the polytheists as infidels, or doubts their disbelief, or corrects their creed, then has become an infidel,” a young child says. “An example is those who have not branded the Jews and the Christians as infidels.”
The Islamic State frequently recruits and indoctrinates children, sometimes by force. In addition to those brought by foreign fighters to the region, the group has taken up to 900 children between the ages of nine and 15, according to an estimate by the United Nations assistance mission for Iraq, abducting hundreds of boys, some Yazidis and Turkmen, from their parents.
“The problem of children being indoctrinated by ISIS is going to go well beyond Indonesia,” J.M. Berger, a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and Foreign Policy contributor, said in an email. “We’ve seen children of foreign fighters from a number of nationalities in ISIS videos, being trained and educated in the ISIS world view.”
Ridlwan Habib, an intelligence and terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia, told Indonesian news site Tribunnews that he counted 23 children, ranging in age from eight to 12, in the video. “Imagine if in the next three years they are grown up and return to Indonesia,” he said.
If and when the children return home, they’ll be back within the range of help. For now, they couldn’t be further outside it. “I am not sure what the Indonesian government can do for those children in particular as they are already in Syria,” terrorism analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi told Foreign Policy.
The Islamic State has long looked to Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, for both new recruits and potential targets. Last November, the Indonesian government said that at least 700 of its citizens had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, but analysts believe the actual number could be fewer than 500. In January, Islamic State-affiliated extremists carried out an attack in central Jakarta, killing four and wounding 23 others, amid a police crackdown against Islamic State sympathizers. The four attackers died too.
“Almost no week passed without the police arresting somebody somewhere that they claimed to be a suspected IS sympathizer,” Fitriyan Zamzami, the national affairs editor of Republika, a Jakarta newspaper, told Foreign Policy at the time. Among Islamic State sympathizers, those committed to acting on their beliefs have mostly focused on getting to Syria — although that could change as border crossings become less porous. “All of their energies have been on how you emigrate and join ISIS in Syria,” Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told Australia’s ABC news last month.
Tamimi has also found evidence on social media of Indonesians, including people with children, living inside the caliphate in Iraq:
— Aymenn J Al-Tamimi (@ajaltamimi) August 8, 2015
The first Indonesians to join the extremist group were already in the region on student visas, according to the Soufan Group, an international security consultancy. Like most foreign fighters, the Indonesians that followed came through Turkey, which has deported at least 100 of them, including women and children.
In February, an ABC cameraman witnessed a Islamic State recruitment meeting at a mosque in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. For a nation of 200 million Muslims, however, Indonesia contributes a tiny slice of the caliphate’s foreign recruits, especially compared to western European countries, such as France, where as many as 1,800 have left their homes for Syria. The chance to build a caliphate and wage jihad has drawn upwards of 30,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries. Nonetheless, the foreign fighters from Indonesia who have traveled to Iraq and Syria could pose a serious security problem for authorities when they begin to return home in large numbers. The future of children who appear in the video remains hard to predict.
“It’s not clear what will happen to them when the conflict is over, including whether they will return to their countries of origin,” Berger said. “Studies of child soldiers have found that they often are not violent when they grow up, if the conflict is over, but this is arguably a different kind of scenario, given ISIS’s global writ.”
Image credit: Scene from Islamic State propaganda video