ISIS Relying More on Children to Do Its Dirty Work

March 24, 2015 Updated: March 24, 2015

ISIS is good at one thing: committing war crimes.

Earlier this month, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) video footage apparently showed a child—who looks no older than 14—shooting a man accused of spying in the forehead on a grassy hillside. Also in March, it was reported that a 13-year-old French boy became the youngest ISIS fighter to die in Syria.

And before that, ISIS also published a video of young children partaking in military drills as a bearded instructor tells them what to do. 

Adding to ISIS’s list of human rights violations and war crimes, an activist group on Tuesday said that ISIS has already recruited 400 child soldiers in 2015.

The child soldiers are apparently active in Syria, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters on Tuesday in an exclusive report.

The so-called Cubs of the Caliphate are used because children are easy to brainwash, said Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Observatory. “They use children because it is easy to brainwash them. They can build these children into what they want, they stop them from going to school and send them to IS schools instead,” he told Reuters.

A 13-year-old French boy was killed fighting for ISIS, according to reports on Tuesday. (Twitter screenshot)
A 13-year-old French boy was killed fighting for ISIS, according to reports. (Screenshot via Twitter)

What ISIS is doing isn’t anything new for terrorist groups, says Mia Bloom, a professor with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts.

“Child soldiers are predominantly orphans that the group subsequently takes in and ‘adopts,'” she writes for Foreign Affairs. “Since these child soldiers are largely coerced into joining, they undergo more rigorous training and are indoctrinated through violent group activities to build their loyalty to the group.”

But Bloom notes a few differences among ISIS’s child soldiers and child soldiers used in conflicts in Africa and South America. In particular, ISIS encourages its members to bring their families.

“Family units also remain intact in many of the terrorist organizations, as many men who join ISIS take their families along with them,” she writes, adding, “Members are encouraged to train their children to become the next generation of jihadists.”

ISIS also apparently uses bribes to get parents of the children to give up their sons to military camps for training, where they fire live rounds, drive, and fight in mock battles. They use children as informants and guards, according to Reuters. 

 (Screenshot/Video released by ISIS)
(Screenshot via video released by ISIS)

But the prevalence of ISIS’s use of child soldiers suggests the group could be having problems finding new recruits. Only 120 adult fighters joined the terrorist organization’s ranks since the start of 2015, Abdulrahman said.

So, is ISIS losing the fight?

Yes and no, said Ret. Gen. John Allen earlier this month. Allen is President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to fight ISIS.

He said there has been “a growing dissent in ISIL’s command structure,” referring to another name for the terrorist group.

Allen said ISIS is losing territory in Iraq and Syria because it is poor at actually governing its populace, and is meanwhile facing problems in its ranks, according to DefenseOne. But he stipulated that the current Iraqi government isn’t ready to hold territory in places like Mosul, where ISIS has set up shop.

In a report last year, Human Rights Watch explained that many children who are recruited by extremist groups in Syria are vulnerable.

They “have seen their relatives killed, schools shelled, and communities destroyed,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, who is Middle East children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The horrors of Syria’s armed conflict are only made worse by throwing children into the front lines.”

It’s illegal for children under the age of 18 to participate in armed conflict under international law. Using children under the age of 15 is consider a war crime.

“Such children are robbed of their childhood and exposed to terrible dangers and to psychological and physical suffering. They are placed in combat situations, used as spies, messengers, porters, servants, or to lay or clear landmines. Girls in particular are at risk of rape and sexual abuse,” says Amnesty International.