In the string of grisly videos released in the past seven months, beginning with ISIS’ execution of James Foley through the February beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, there is one that haunts me most. It is not one that showcases the devastating brutality or barbarism of a beheading; rather, it is the video entitled “Uncovering an Enemy Within,” capturing a young Kazakh boy’s blank stare as he puts his gun to an alleged Russian spy’s head, the cold emptiness of a child indoctrinated out of innocence and trained to kill. There is some speculation that the video, which news outlets have had difficulty authenticating, may have been staged. Regardless, we have seen this boy in ISIS propaganda videos before, looking back at us, as fervent and dangerous as the most seasoned fighter on Syria’s frontlines.
This killer. This kid. This image is branded on my brain, but the philosophy that conceived of it is even scarier, a philosophy that promotes the reality of expendable children growing up in an environment that has normalized violence and has utter disregard for the humanity of “the other.” As captured so hauntingly in the blockbuster movie American Sniper, these children-turned-combatants, at the click of a clip, can reluctantly become targets for military sharp-shooters and drone strikes.
These sad, quiet thoughts become angry questions. What kind of an organization would use children in such a way, for propaganda purposes and in battle? How are extremist groups like ISIS recruiting or forcing children into this type of indoctrination? And what does it mean for the future of peace, tolerance and security if ISIS has built a system that produces future generations of combatants?
The use of children in conflict is not a new phenomenon. It is difficult to carve out a period in history during which children were not involved in warfare in some capacity. Even after the UN codified the ban on children in conflict with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, militant groups have still managed to incorporate youth into their violent struggle. In the past few years, Western millennial activists focused attention on the use of child soldiers by groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army or by rebels fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The civil war in Syria, however, has increased the number of children in conflict to staggering levels.
In June 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that all armed groups in Syria have recruited and used children—from Syrian government troops to the Nusra Front and ISIS. What sets ISIS extremists apart, more alarming and difficult to stomach, is their aggressiveness and their lack of any attempt to conceal their targeting and training of children. In fact, the ISIS propaganda machine has heralded it as a source of pride and a tactic to sow fear into the opposition.
One of the earliest examples of ISIS’ child indoctrination program made headlines in December 2013. ISIS released videos and still images of what was dubbed “Zarqawi’s Cubs camp,” a cute moniker for what was actually a summer terrorism camp. ISIS swept vast territory into its self-proclaimed Islamic State, making initial contact with children through public forums in town squares and mosques. These events included passing-out juice and candy while screening extremist propaganda. ISIS was essentially saying, “Here we are, your new leaders to keep you safe from Assad and the infidels. Would you like some sweets? Obey us or else.”
In territories under its control, ISIS group has systematically replaced secular schools with its own brand of education: a perversion of Islam devoid of ‘modern’ subjects like science. Families have the choice of a fundamentalist Islamist education or no education at all. In essence, ISIS has created a network of ‘feeder schools’ to fill its ranks. This strategy of indoctrination under the guise of education is similar to that employed by the Mujahedeen and Taliban in the 1980s, in an effort to mold Afghan children into loyalists.
ISIS has expanded its child recruitment campaign to Kazakhstan, as seen in the video “Race Towards Good,” and Iraq, according to the video “Blood Jihad 2,” where dozens of young males are seen receiving violent training from ISIS militants; one boy is being hit in the torso with a stick, another punched in the stomach. Both blows are inflicted by adults, yet are received without a flinch or hint of resistance. The cold looks and level of discipline under immense pain and abuse is quite chilling.
A key characteristic of ISIS child indoctrination is the use of extreme violence as a means to desensitize the youth. In addition to being subjected to outright torture, boys receive intensive military and ideological training. They are taught how to use multiple weapons, interspersed with teachings on jihadist interpretations of Islam. They are taught skills befitting a savage ISIS warrior, from leading executions to building suicide bombs. One Syrian boy, Jomah, who escaped after being wounded in battle, recalled the desensitization trainees underwent: a class of boys as young as eight were given a beheading lesson that ended with a severed head being passed around.
After several such training sessions, sadly, the members of ISIS' youth brigade become as accustomed to the gruesome product of a beheading as they would one of their treasures for show-and-tell.