In November and December 2014 the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released videos that promoted its recruitment and indoctrination of children. The group’s youth training regime includes weeks of religious education, radicalization, and military exercises. ISIL views programs such as the “Cubs of the Islamic State” as the way to produce the next generation of fighters to protect and expand the Caliphate.[1]  They have already employed child soldiers in suicide attacks and assaults against their rivals in Syria and Iraq.[2]

This article will examine the role of children in this movement. The exploitation of youth is particularly troubling for many reasons.  First, the war in Syria and Iraq has reached a new level of totality. The shattered societies are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, and all social groups have mobilized portions of their population that they would not otherwise – specifically women and children – to counter existential security threats. Second, within Syria and Iraq, ISIL is targeting young impressionable minds as part of a campaign to change religious and societal norms. Third, Western counterterrorism systems are not designed to track or counter child combatants, and groups may be able to exploit our vulnerabilities. Last, ISIL envisions a multigenerational conflict, and their campaign to recruit and train children suggests that they are using their moment of strength to prepare for a lengthy fight.[3] In any post-conflict scenario, it will be extraordinarily difficult to identify young fighters and execute a successful demobilization and de-radicalization program.

A New Trend
On January 13, 2015, ISIL released a video entitled “Uncovering the Enemy Within,” which showed a young Kazakh boy executing two alleged Russian spies.[4] In the video, the narrator accuses two prisoners of being sent to gather information on ISIL. He then reads a Quranic verse, and the boy uses a handgun to kill the two captives. At the end the boy vows, “I will be the one who slaughters you, O Kuffar. I will be a mujahid, insha’allah.”[5] The propaganda video seeks to generate fear in multiple audiences. It also attempts to convey that ISIL has broad social support. The video suggests that violence has become a family affair – with children traveling from distant lands with their parents to participate in the fighting. ISIL is seeking to inspire other youth to participate in the violence. The group’s focus on children is also a warning to the West that they are preparing for the long fight.

These videos illustrate an important shift in jihadi warfare. The use of children in direct combat was not common in early al-Qa’ida groups. Al-Qa’ida certainly trained and indoctrinated children in order to prepare the next cohort of fighters, but they did not see youth as an element of their combat power. Within Syria and Iraq, ISIL appears to be reversing this trend and is using children in attacks against enemy positions.[6]

A recent Human Rights Watch report indicates that ISIL intentionally recruits children to conduct attacks against enemy strong-points.[7] ISIL frequently forces children to participate in conflict, often against their parents will.[8] The group runs several camps near Kafr Hamra and Allepo, al Raqqa, Homs, Damascus, and Al-Bukamal in eastern Syria.[9] ISIL videos released in the fall of 2014 show children as young as 12-13 years old in military training camps near Mosul.[10] Training and indoctrination also occurs online, in informal settings, and in town squares throughout ISIL-controlled territory. Children are forced to attend local demonstrations and watch as ISIL punishes those that have violated Sharia law.[11] ISIL propaganda shows that they force children to help administer justice and even participate in beheadings.[12] Many children report that they were lured into the group during these local rallies, that their families supported their participation in jihad, and that leaders provided some moderate financial compensation for their service.[13] In schools throughout ISIL-controlled territory, they have also replaced existing social studies and religious curriculum with curriculum that supports their objectives and ideology.[14] Their efforts seek to desensitize the youth, spread the group’s vision, and maintain the fear necessary to control the population.

The number of youth participating in combat is reportedly increasing. In April 2014, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) military commander claimed to have captured 30 children between the ages of 13 and 15.[15] The FSA reportedly sent the children to isolated camps to conduct de-radicalization.  Religious leaders and male relatives spoke with the children in an attempt to counter ISIL’s narrative and to correct erroneous religious teachings. Former ISIL fighters also confirm that children are used on the battlefield, and Kurdish forces report that they have fought against kids in Iraq. ISIL’s own documents show that they used children in suicide operations during their offensive in Salah al-Din Province.[16] They continue to use them to man checkpoints along their lines of operation and to conduct security patrols in major cities, including Mosul.[17]

The recruitment of youth may demonstrate that ISIL is desperate and that it is struggling to fill personnel shortages. ISIL may have been overambitious when it attacked into Iraq, and it may now be overextended. Leveraging youth may be a way to bolster their numbers, extend their governmental control, and defend their contested borders. However, it may also illustrate that the group seeks a levee en masse and sees the youth as a way of lengthening the conflict. The group may see child combatants as an added capability that has greater utility over time. ISIL’s documents suggest that they are not simply cannon fodder meant to delay the advance of rival security forces. The leader of the Kafr Hamra training camp summarized the groups vision for the young recruits, “tomorrow, they’ll be a stronger leader or a stronger fighter.”[18]  Although ISIL’s militarization of youth is troubling, children have been used as combatants throughout history.

An Old Trend
ISIL is not unique in their desire to recruit, radicalize, and arm children. All combatants in Syria and Iraq, including the Yazidis and Kurds, have mobilized and armed their adolescent populations to bolster their strained security forces.[19] Other al-Qa’ida affiliates have used children in combat to various extents over the past decade. The Taliban began using children as suicide bombers against Afghan and coalition security forces as early as 2007.[20] In 2012, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Dine recruited or forced Taureg children to fight in northern Mali.[21] In mid-January 2015, Boko Haram used three 10 year old girls to conduct suicide bombing attacks in northeast Nigeria.[22] And on February 22, reports emerged of a 7 year old girl killing herself and five others in a Boko Haram attack.[23] Other unaffiliated groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, maintain programs to indoctrinate youth with violent anti-Semitism and have used them to target Israelis in the past. Nevertheless, ISIL has advertised their use of children in lethal operations more than any other modern jihadist group.

The employment of child soldiers is also not limited to Islamist militants, and jihadi ideology is not directly to blame for the increase in child combatants. Most Communist insurgencies during the Cold War either used children in combat or had youth education programs. The Peruvian Maoist group Sendero Luminoso, for example, frequently abducted children from villages and took them to remote training camps in the jungle for indoctrination.  The narco-terrorist groups that evolved from Sendero Luminoso still continue this practice in the countryside.[24]

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) used children to commit war crimes in the 1990s during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The RUF exploited children because they were cheap and easily manipulated into conducting extremely brutal acts of terrorism. In 1997, the group relied on children to help facilitate Operation No Living Thing, the infamous assault on Freetown that sought to exterminate government supporters.[25] Child soldiers also participated in the RUF’s amputation campaigns and guarded slaves in RUF-controlled alluvial diamond mines. During the post-conflict phase of the war, the United Nations spearheaded the demobilization process.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMISL) became the longest and most expensive UN peacekeeping mission in history. UNAMISL disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated 75,490 combatants throughout Sierra Leone, including 6,845 child soldiers.[26] UNAMISL isolated the children and provided them with security, food, and recreation. It also provided them educational outlets to channel their energy. Many children were placed into structured educational programs because their families had perished in the war.

States have also advanced programs designed to increase nationalism and militarization in their youth. The most extreme example is the Hitler Youth program which indoctrinated children with Nazi ideology, taught them military skills, and prepared them to fight for Germany. Likewise, Mao Zedong encouraged youth, known as the Red Guards, to enforce Communist rule within China during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards gathered intelligence, reported on suspected counter-revolutionaries, and participated in some violent acts on behalf of the party.

A Strategic Decision?
ISIL considers recruitment of children as a central component of their strategy and critical to their long-term success. Whereas other insurgencies use children to fill their ranks because they are easy to manipulate and cheap, ISIL understands that it must leverage the youth to achieve its grandiose vision. ISIL must continue to fight to maintain control and expand “the Caliphate.” Western states hold an overwhelming advantage in conventional military power, and this means that ISIL is highly unlikely to achieve its central objectives in the near-term. Accordingly, a very long-term protracted strategy is the only feasible option for victory. ISIL’s recent actions indicate that its leaders understand how difficult it will be to accomplish these objectives and that the struggle will continue for many generations. ISIL’s leaders understand the need to incorporate secessionist mechanisms and to cultivate the next generation of holy warriors.[27] A fighter in Raqqa advanced this logic, “For us, we believe that this generation of children is the generation of the Caliphate…the right doctrine has been implanted into these Children. All of them love to fight for the sake of building the Islamic State.”[28] Perhaps ISIL’s leaders hope that a modern Saladin will galvanize the jihadist group and lead them to victory.[29]

A More Dangerous Threat
ISIL’s use of child soldiers posses a unique counterterrorism challenge because they are especially capable of exploiting Western vulnerabilities. Children, escorted by adults who are not known to be affiliated with terrorist groups, are likely to pass through security. Western culture discourages scrutiny of children and this normative behavior creates a counterterrorism weakness. Human trafficking networks provide another means to move children between the Middle East and Europe. Currently, there are no mechanisms to gather intelligence and track children that have been involved in combat within Syria and Iraq. Therefore, it is possible for ISIL to train a child in Syria and move them into Europe without detection.

Once inside Europe, support networks can conceal the child until they conduct an attack. State counterterrorism and policing forces focus their intelligence resources predominantly on adults associated with jihadi networks. Children can avoid some level of monitoring and are likely to provide fewer indicators prior to an attack. Additionally, children that participate in fighting suffer significant mental and emotional trauma. Those adolescents currently fighting in Syria and Iraq may be a lost generation, and might pose a greater security risk to the West as they mature and become capable of traveling on their own.[30]

The Long-Term Problem
The mobilization of the youth makes ISIL especially difficult to eradicate. Even if allied forces are able to defeat ISIL as an organization in Syria and Iraq, it will be difficult to translate those gains into a broader strategic victory. ISIL realizes that the youth are the center of gravity, and they have made a concerted effort to recruit and radicalize. They have thought strategically and accounted for their weaknesses as an organization. If they fail, the next generation is already trained, imbued with jihadist ideology, and inspired to begin their own insurgent groups. This is the implementation of Usama bin Laden’s desire for a self-perpetuating jihadist movement.

The demobilization, de-radicalization, and reintegration of ISIL’s child soldiers is an especially difficult problem. UNAMSIL is the best example of a Western-led stability and support operation that was able to successfully disarm, control, and reintegrate child combatants into society. The program lasted from 1999 to 2005 and required 17,500 peacekeepers.[31] Any post-conflict operating environment in Syria and Iraq will likely be too insecure for a similar international peacekeeping effort. The costly occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with contemporary fiscal realities, make Western governments reluctant to support such actions. Therefore the UNAMSIL template is not feasible.

A more practical approach in a post-ISIL world will likely require local forces to control, secure, and account for the children during the demobilization and reintegration process. Local clerics, educators, and other influential leaders will have to engage to counter ISIL’s message. Children that have extended family members or peers that support ISIL’s vision will be especially resistant to any reconditioning. The reintegration of the youth will also require new education and employment opportunities. Failing to provide the youth a sense of purpose or to channel their energy will result in recidivism. The West and its regional allies will have to provide local leaders with financial, administrative, and technical support for these efforts. Saudi Arabia runs some of the most advanced de-radicalization programs in the world, but the Saudi programs have had mixed results.[32] Future programs within Syria and Iraq will be exponentially more difficult.

As the Iraqi government prepares for the Mosul offensive in April or May 2015, they should consider how to recondition the Sunni youth that have lived under ISIL’s control for nearly a year. The “Cubs of the Islamic State” are a critical component of ISIL’s long-term vision and a serious counterterrorism challenge for Western states. In order to defeat a multigenerational movement, we must impede ISIL’s efforts to recruit and indoctrinate youth. We have the capability to challenge ISIL’s message on social media and elsewhere online (although we still have significant room for improvement in this area), but they have the unfettered ability to influence the next generation within the territory that they control. The West will likely feel the effects of ISIL’s youth training programs in the future.

Major Cole C. Pinheiro graduated in 2014 from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS), Georgetown University with a Masters in Security Studies. He is a 2004 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a Major in the United States Army and is currently assigned as an Instructor of International Relations in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Cassandra Vinograd, “ISIS Trains Child Soldiers at Camps for ‘Cubs of the Islamic State’,” CBS News, November 7, 2014.

[2] “’Maybe we live, Maybe we die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, 2014, pp. 20-24.

[3] Abdel Bari Atwan argued in his book After bin Laden: Al Qaeda, the Next Generation, that the second generation of jihadists would be younger, less theologically grounded, fanatically dedicated, and more violent. This second generation would be raised on jihadist rhetoric and not as formally educated in Islamic law. ISIL and their brutality reflects the rise of this post-Usama bin Laden generation.

[4] See ISIL video, “Uncovering the Enemy Within,” al-Hayat Media Center, January 13, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ISILs forerunner, Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, began using children in suicide attacks as early as 2007.  (See: “’Children used’ in Iraq bombing,” BBC News, March 20, 2007).

[7] “’Maybe we live, Maybe we die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, 2014, p. 20.

[8] Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq: 6 July – 10 September, 2014, United Nations p. 17.

[9] Cassandra Vinograd, “ISIS Trains Child Soldiers at Camps for ‘Cubs of the Islamic State’.”

[10] See ISIL videos, “Blood of Jihad” & “Blood Jihad 2” Providence of Nineveh Media, October 12, 2014 and November 24, 2014.

[11] “Grooming Children for Jihad: The Islamic State,” Vice News, August 13, 2014,.

[12] See ISIL pamphlets showing children participating in beheadings in al-Raqqa & Homs, and hand-cuttings in Aleppo.,,

[13]  “’Maybe we live, Maybe we die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, 2014, pp. 20-24.

[14] See ISIL pamphlets for schools in al Raqqa, Damascus, and Aleppo.,,,

[15]  “’Maybe we live, Maybe we die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, 2014, p. 21.

[16] See ISIL pamphlet showing their use of a young boy as a suicide bomber in Saladin Province, Iraq.

[17] Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq: 6 July – 10 September, 2014, United Nations p. 18.

[18] Ibid.

[19]  “’Maybe we live, Maybe we die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, 2014.

[20] Mia Bloom and John Horgan, “New terror weapon: Little girls?” CNN News, January 7, 2007.

[21] Rudolph Atallah, “Prepared Statement at Hearing on ‘The Tuareg Revolt and the Mali Coup’,” United States House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, June 29. 2012, p. 43.

[22] Alexander Smith, “Boko Haram AppearsAbducted Girls as Suicide Bombers: Experts,” NBC News, January 16, 2015.

[23] “’Seven-year-old girl’ kills herself and five others in Nigeria suicide bombing,” Agence France-Presse, February 22, 2015.

[24] Carmen Alvarado, “Peru: Officials Rescue Children Kidnapped by Shining Path,” Infosurhoy, September 28, 2012.

[25] Greg Campbell, Blood Diamonds, (Westview Press: 2004), pp. 79-98.

[26] “Fact Sheet 1: Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration,”  UNMISL, December 2005.

[27] See ISIL’s video, “The Generation of the Caliphate,” January 7, 2015,  The video gives the impression that the next generation is critical for accomplishing their long-term objectives.

[28] “Grooming Children for Jihad: The Islamic State,” Vice News, August 13, 2014.

[29] Western invaders seized Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.  Saladin retook the city on 2 October 1187. Saladin was part of the third generation of fighters to confront the Crusader armies.

[30] Kate Brannen, “Children of the Caliphate,” Foreign Policy, October 24, 2014.

[31] “Fact Sheet 1: Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration,”  UNMISL, December 2005.

[32] Marisa L. Porges, “The Saudi Deradicalization Experiment,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 22, 2010.

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