Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Since its declaration of a Caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State (IS) has released a number of publications depicting children participating in rallies, undergoing training, undertaking combat operations and even executing prisoners.
Armed groups exploiting children in war zones is nothing new and across Iraq and Syria, many factions have been accused of employing children as spies and messengers to actual soldiers.
However, the scale and sophistication employed by the IS in attracting, coercing, training and indoctrinating children into its cause is particularly noteworthy.
Referred to as the “Cubs of the Caliphate” (ashbal alkhalifa), these children are not just a present-day threat on the battlefield, but a potential threat for the future, as the question of what happens to them once the Islamic State is defeated remains.
Armed groups and insurgencies, using children in their operations have a number of pragmatic benefits: Children often appear less suspicious to security forces, are easier to indoctrinate and often difficult to fight against for a number of practical and political reasons.
The IS is certainly aware of these benefits when it includes children in its operations. However, the IS’ motivations for recruiting children extend beyond simple pragmatism.
By training children in not only warfare but also ideology, the IS seems to be working towards consolidating its state-building project and making sure that even if its organisation comes to an end, its ideology will persist.
Moreover, although the IS has attracted a number of foreign fighters into its fold, it has consistently failed to attract the loyalty of major jihadist organisations or worldwide grassroots support.
The fact that the IS seems to not just train children as soldiers but raise them as a new generation of citizens loyal to its cause supports the notion that it has “given up” on gaining the support of the adult population in the areas it inhabits.
The purpose of this report is therefore to analyze how the IS recruits children into its cause, whether through forceful means like kidnap and coercion or through means based on enticement to encourage children to join voluntarily. It then looks into the training camps and schools operated by the IS to see how the children are gradually de-sensitized to violence trained in combat and ideology.
How the Islamic State recruits children
The IS uses a wide variety of tools to recruit children into its cause, both voluntarily and involuntarily.
More often than not, these tools are part of the IS’ wider state-building apparatus and are deployed alongside other projects aimed at the general population in areas it has under its influence.
This report has identified five primary sources of underage recruitment for the IS:
Public Events, Projects and Services
Enticement and Gifts
Kidnapping and Forced Recruitment
Children of Islamic State Supporters
Public Events, Projects and Services
As a result of the Syrian Civil War and the US occupation of Iraq and the subsequent insurgency, many areas across Syria and Iraq have suffered from endemic insecurity, scarcity and unavailability of public services.
Under these circumstances, one of the Islamic State’s greatest sources of legitimacy in the areas it controls has been the restoration of security and services in the areas it controls.
The IS is well aware of the propaganda value of such efforts and in the areas it has limited control over or has not consolidated yet, it tends to engage in a “charm offensive” designed towards familiarizing the locals with the positive side of the IS.
Referred to as Da’wa (“the call”), these events cost the IS little but can build up tremendous grassroots support.
Da’wa sessions involve distribution of food and drink, informing the locals about “matters of their religion”, and informing the locals of its policies in a manner that will avoid backlash.
Although aimed at the population as a whole, these events have a specific youth focus due to the IS’ aforementioned long-term planning and its seeming distrust towards adults.
Observers report that in Aleppo, the Da’wa sessions aimed at youth involved competitions and contests with prizes for winners, Qur’an reading sessions, video viewing parties to regale them with “epic battles” and members of the organisation handing pamphlets to children.
The education sector has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in Syria since the beginning of the civil war, with many schools either damaged by fighting or being used to house refugees.
Syria’s pre-war literacy rate of %90 has plummeted and it is estimated that 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school.
The education vacuum has proven ideal recruitment tool for many of the armed groups in Syria, including the IS.
The IS has provided shelter and education for many out-of
school children in the region, grooming them for recruitment in the process.
In areas it has tighter control, the IS has also re-opened schools, instituting a curriculum that emphasizes religious education and pro-IS ideology.
Although most Islamic State school activity falls under training and indoctrination (and will therefore be analyzed in the relevant chapter), in a region where there are few-to-none alternatives for education left, they are also a major source of initial exposure and recruitment for the organization.
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