Raised by ISIS, Child Soldiers of the Islamic State

March 29, 2016 Tony Sinkewich Opinion 
Child Labor

It’s nearly impossible to watch the news for 15 minutes and not hear some sort of mention of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The subject of the radical terror group has completely dominated discourse across any media outlet – left or right – for the past two years. The egregious acts of this group have been made well-known to us by the bombings in Brussels as well as Paris and San Bernardino prior. Even more terrifying than ISIS’s radical agenda is the new recruits they have carrying it out: children.

Side note: for those who want a brief explanation of what ISIS is, watch this video:

The real question now is: how soon can we defeat ISIS? Along with the other obvious human rights abuses, the recent occurrence of child soldiers being added to their ranks will indeed make a short timeline to victory harder to achieve for the U.S. and allies.

This is a still shot of children dressed for battle from a video released by ISIS.

Haven’t we seen this before?

Children have been used as fighters in armed conflicts for centuries. This really is nothing new. However, what’s most unnerving here is how the child soldiers of the Islamic State differ from former cases of youth fighters throughout history. In Cambodia and Vietnam, the Viet Cong used children covertly to carry out missions that adults could not such as crawling through small tunnels across enemy lines or deceiving American soldiers that they were hurt. These were perceived innocent children who, in actuality, carried firearms or explosives. In Nazi Germany, children were added to the ranks once the war effort became desperate and more soldiers were needed as a last resort defense in Berlin and other cities under siege from the Allies.

In contrast, ISIS is not using children as a last means effort, and they certainly are not keeping their young jihadists a secret. Children aren’t being recruited by the terror group because they present some tactical advantage in combat that adults don’t or because they’re short on militants. In fact, child soldiers fight alongside the adults in their ranks, and the fallen are eulogized and given martyr status just the same.

An Islamic State militant shows a child how to use a gun in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. ©Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA

Cubs of the Caliphate

The driving characteristic that distinguishes the child soldiers of ISIS from other cases is parental consent. Islamic State propaganda has glorified the enlisting of children to their cause and their appeal actually targets parents more than the kids themselves. In their very polished propaganda magazine Dabiq – named after a city in Syria – ISIS encourages mothers to sacrifice their sons for the Caliphate. The article has the calling,

 "As for you, O mother of lion cubs...what will make you know what the mother of lion cubs is? She is the teacher of generations and the producer of men." 

What’s truly terrifying about this is how ISIS does not have a sanctity for children. They are seen as the next generation of jihadists, and their conscription into the Cubs of the Caliphate program is held in the highest regard as a rite of passage to manhood. No longer is the use of child soldiers just a military tactic but a form of obedience and duty on the part of the parents. This message has resonated with parents both within and outside occupied territories, including people in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe who believe their children are called for a higher purpose.

A recent video from ISIS shows a father handing his son, who is estimated to be under 10 years old, a gun to use in the execution of two rebels from Kazakhstan. Before the execution, there is a lengthy speech from a teary-eyed father who is incredibly proud of his son for “becoming a man.” He gives the boy a hug then his son kills two men at point-blank range. ISIS has produced a whole series of videos similar to this one where fathers teach their sons to kill. Some even show fathers strapping bombs on their sons, saying goodbye, then sending them off for a suicide mission. 

Deaths and suicide operations chart from the “Depictions of children and youth in the Islamic State’s martyrdom propaganda, 2015-2016.” ©Mia Bloom, John Horgan and Charlie Winter

Researchers from Georgia State University said at least 89 boys between the ages of eight and 18 were killed this past year while fighting for the terror group. Many of these deaths were related to suicide attacks such as vehicle-borne improvised explosives or mass casualty attacks against civilians. Furthermore, hundreds and even thousands of children are being used as foot soldiers for battles in Iraq and Syria. This full report from the West Point Combating Terrorism Center goes more in depth with statistics of where the children come from and what roles they play in the fighting.

It is important to note that not all of the children fighting for ISIS want to be there or were handed over by their parents. Hundreds have been abducted from their homes, mainly Kurdish boys from Northern Iraq indoctrinated and forced to fight. All boys in territories under ISIS rule must attend schools that preach hate, immune them to violence and train them in the art of war. Overall, it is estimated that there are about 1,500 boys in the ranks of the Islamic State.

What can we do?

A very tangible way to help is getting involved with the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF has been giving children displaced by war a better life for 70 years now, and their Middle East and North Africa regional office provides basic necessities, medical attention, education and emergency assistance to the children directly affected by the wars in Syria and Iraq.

Learn more and support UNICEF's work in Syria

Topics: Child Labor

About the Author

Tony Sinkewich

Tony Sinkewich is a senior at the University of Cincinnati studying communication, Arabic and marketing. In 2014, he studied Arabic and Middle Eastern culture in Amman, Jordan then worked for a human rights office within the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. After graduation, Tony hopes to work for a non-profit or government agency fighting to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking.