The so-called Islamic State militants appear to be recruiting and training children in Iraq.
The group features children in its recent stream of propaganda videos and photos.
They are portrayed in a variety of ways. Some children seem to play happily among smiling IS fighters. Other young boys, even babies, don black Islamic State garb as they pose next to automatic weapons and a black flag of jihad.
Other videos show toddlers firing automatic weapons they can barely hold. And other children are seen watching beheadings and standing next to crucified corpses.
During self-proclaimed Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s speech in Mosul in July, a cameraman included crowd footage that showed the face of a boy, who appeared to be about 10 years old, as among those awestruck by Baghdadi.
A common image of children in Islamic State videos is of prepubescent boys learning the various fighting skills it takes to wage jihad.
While other groups in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts have used children in various roles, the United Nations singled out the Islamic State group, writing in a recent report that 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."
That conclusion was based on interviews with more than 300 people who live or lived in Islamic State-occupied territory, according to the U.N. report.
"What is new is that ISIS seems to be quite transparent and vocal about their intention and their practice of recruiting children," Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF regional child protection adviser for the Middle East and North Africa, told the Associated Press. He used another term for the group.
"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," Chapuis said.
John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said children appear be used as servants.
“This is not a bunch of suicide bombers in the making,” Horgan said.
“There are multiple roles,” he said, including cleaning boots, cleaning weapons, participating in torture.
The use of children in propaganda has a long history.
Propagandists for China’s Mao Zedong and Germany’s Adolf Hitler made a point to feature children. Hitler is widely quoted as having said “give me a child when he’s 7, and he’s mine for life.”
After viewing an Islamic State video posted Monday that showed young boys engaged in martial arts, target practice using automatic weapons and various calisthenics, Horgan said videos like that send a very clear message, regardless of what activities the boys are engaged in.
“It’s a statement that [the Islamic State group] is investing in the next generation,” he said. “There’s an enormous psychological and strategic value that the group is going to perpetuate a multigenerational war.”
Robert Tynes, a political scientist at Bard College in New York, said Islamic State militants are making an investment in children for the future.
“When they show children training, they show that they’re committed to moving toward statehood,” Tynes said, adding that the message is that the Islamic State group is “setting up as a long-term institutional presence in the region.”
It’s a potent form of psychological warfare that Horgan said Islamic State militants do better than any group he’s studied.
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“They continue to breach what we thought was once unacceptable,” he said. “There is almost nothing that they wouldn’t consider,” adding that with IS, the “mobilization of kids … is now becoming routine.”
Joining the group
How children enter the Islamic State ranks varies.
In one case, Islamic State fighters threatened to behead the father of a young boy if he didn’t join, according to a report on CNN.
The boy, Mohammed, who was 13 at the time and has since left Syria, showed up at the Islamic State training camp, where he said he exercised, practiced using weapons and studied the Koran.
“I understood some things, such as praying and worship, but many words I didn’t understand, like infidels and apostates and why I should fight them," he told CNN. “Everyone pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
One part of his indoctrination included being desensitized to violence, he said, citing incidents in which they were forced to watch beheadings, crucifixions, lashings and stonings.
Children also fight and die.
“There was one of my friends who went with them for a battle and he was martyred in Deir ez-Zor when he fought the Free Syrian Army rebels with IS,” he said. “He was my age, 13 or 14 years old.”
According to Mia Bloom, a criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, in some cases Islamic State fighters will come to a village, kill the parents and take the children to “become a new family.”
“In some cases the parents are giving them up with full knowledge they’ll be indoctrinated at an early age,” Bloom said.
Still, she said outsiders lack a full understanding of the various ways and reasons children end up in groups like Islamic State.
Use of child soldiers
Child soldiers are nothing new to Iraq.
At the outbreak of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former dictator Saddam Hussein was believed to employ about 8,000 “Saddam's Lion Cubs,” who were desensitized to violence and taught terrorist and combat skills.
The Islamic State group has also referred to its child fighters as cubs.
Children were used by both sides in the Iran-Iraq War in the late 1980s. The Kurds, Iranians, Hamas and Hezbollah have all used children in a variety of ways.
In one recent Islamic State video, young boys appear to participate in a graduation ceremony. The boys are referred to as a "generation of lions, protectors of religion, dignity and land."
Children are given martial arts instruction in a recent IS video called 'Blood of Jihad 2.'
And once the children take to the battlefield, the payoffs can be big for those ruthless enough to employ them, Tynes said.
“You get the nationalism, you get [more troops] on the battlefield, and then if they die, you get martyrs,” he said.
Bloom added that images of dead civilian children have been used to stoke public outrage and draw recruits into the Islamic State group from the early days of the conflict in Syria. She said the militants could potentially use images of its dead child soldiers to further fan anger toward the Syrian and Iraqi regimes.
The toxic mix of psychological and tactical use of children is another reason the Islamic State group will be very hard to uproot.
“We can give up any notion of them fading away,” Horgan said. “They’re investing in their future,” adding that most terrorist groups fade away after a couple of years. “IS is planning ahead.”
Some information in this report came from AP.