Islamic State recruits, exploits children for many roles in Iraq, Syria
Teenagers carrying weapons stand at checkpoints and busy intersections in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Patched onto the left arms of their black uniforms are the logos of the Islamic Police.
In Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital in Syria, boys attend training camp and religious courses before heading off to fight. Others serve as cooks or guards at the terrorists’ headquarters or as spies, informing on people in their neighborhoods.
Across the vast region under ISIS control, the group is actively conscripting children for battle and committing abuses against the most vulnerable at a young age, according to a growing body of evidence assembled from residents, activists, independent experts and human rights groups.
In the northern Syrian town of Kobani, where ethnic Kurds have been resisting an ISIS onslaught for weeks, several activists told The Associated Press that they observed children fighting alongside the terrorists. Mustafa Bali, a Kobani-based activist, said he saw the bodies of four boys, two of them younger than 14. At least one 18-year-old is said to have carried out a suicide attack.
In Syria’s Aleppo province, an activist affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army said its fighters encountered children in their late teens “fairly often” in battles against the rival Islamic State group.
It is difficult to determine how widespread the exploitation of children is in the closed world of ISIS-controlled territory. There are no reliable figures on the number of minors the group employs.
But a United Nations panel investigating war crimes in the Syrian conflict concluded that in its enlistment of children for active combat roles, the Islamic State is perpetrating abuses and war crimes on an enormous scale “in a systematic and organized manner.”
The group “prioritizes children as a vehicle for ensuring long-term loyalty, adherence to their ideology and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life,” the panel said in a recent report. The panel of experts, known as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, conducted more than 300 interviews with people who fled or are living in ISIS-controlled areas, and examined video and photographic evidence.
The use of children by armed groups in conflict is, of course, nothing new. In the Syrian civil war, the Free Syrian Army and Nusra Front rebel groups recruit children for combat, said Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict.
“What is new is that ISIS seems to be quite transparent and vocal about their intention and their practice of recruiting children,” said Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF regional child protection adviser for the Middle East and North Africa. “Children as young as 10, 12 years old are being used in a variety of roles, as combatants, as messengers, spies, guards, manning checkpoints, but also for domestic purposes like cooking, cleaning, sometimes providing medical care to the wounded.”
“This is not a marginal phenomenon. This is something that is being observed and seems to be part of the strategy of the group,” Zerrougui said.
The effect is that much greater because ISIS commands large areas in which the terrorists inculcate the children with their radical and violent interpretation of Shariah law.
“They are abducting children and forcing them to join; they are brainwashing children and indoctrinating them to join their group. All the tools used to attract and recruit children are used by this group,” Zerrougui said, adding that children as young as 9 or 10 are used for ‘‘various roles.”
In areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, the Sunni terrorists have closed schools or changed the curriculum to fit with their ideology. Their goal, according to the United Nations, is to use education as a tool of indoctrination to foster a new generation of supporters.
Residents of ISIS-controlled areas said the terrorists are teaching children at school to become fighters.
One resident in the Iraqi city of Fallujah described seeing his 6-year-old son playing with a water pistol in front of the house and screaming: “I am a fighter for the Islamic State!”
“I waved him to come to me, and I broke the gun in two pieces,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his life.
He said he and his son recently stopped at an ISIS checkpoint. His son shouted, “We love the State!” One of the fighters asked, “Which state?” When the son replied, “the Islamic State,” the fighter “told him, ‘Good boy,’ and let us through,” the resident said.
The incident persuaded the man to move his family to the northern city of Kirkuk, now in Kurdish hands.
“The boys are studying, not to learn, but to become mujahedeen,” he said.
Earlier this year in Syria, the Islamic State abducted more than 150 Kurdish boys, held them in a school in Aleppo province and showed them videos of beheadings and attacks, while subjecting them to daily instruction on extremist ideology for five months, U.N. and Kurdish officials said. The boys were later released.
In Raqqa province, an anti-ISIS activist collective has documented the presence of at least five known youth training camps, one specifically for children younger than 16 in the town of Tabqa. The collective, named Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, has released a video showing children crawling under barbed wire as part of their military training.
In a report released this year, Human Rights Watch interviewed four former ISIS child fighters in Syria who described military training with the group. One, Bassem, who joined the group at 16, said he left after being seriously wounded by shrapnel in battle. A 17-year-old, Amr, told the group that children in his unit signed up for suicide missions — and that he was pressured to do so, too.
Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to ISIS areas from all over the world, many of them with their families.
A video emerged this month showing two boys, both speaking perfect French, holding guns aloft and claiming to be in Raqqa. They stand on a dusty street; a man walks by and takes no notice of their weapons. The boys, who look much younger than 10, say they’re from Strasbourg and Toulouse. French prosecutors have opened a formal investigation to identify the children.
“Over there, you’re in a country of infidels. Here, we’re mujahedeen. We’re in Syria. We’re in Raqqa here,” one of the boys says in the video. “It’s war here.”