CAIRO— Al-Qaida linked jihadists in insurgent-held areas in northern and eastern Syria are targeting children as young as four-years-old and teenagers for indoctrination, conducting teach-ins, opening schools and training camps, say human rights activists.
The goal opposition activists and psychologists warn is a determined effort by al- Qaida to turn out a new generation of fighters, who will prove highly intractable and may turn out even more fanatical than the previous generation of al-Qaida adherents. Rehabilitation of children recruited as child soldiers at very young ages is notoriously difficult, according to therapists who have worked on treatment projects in Africa and the Middle East.
“You are seeing the jihadists trying to create a new pool of suicide bombers,” says psychotherapist Mohamed Khalil of the London-based Arab Foundation for Care of Victims of War and Torture. “You can influence children very easily,” he says. “They give these lost children in the middle of war an identity and prestige, telling them they are mature now and men. They saturate them with jihadist thinking and in effect brainwash them. They are co-opting them into a way of life that will be hard to shake off later.”
Videos show a concerted effort to recruit children
A recent spate of online videos on jihadist forums of Syrian children and teenagers undergoing jihadist instruction demonstrates the scale of the indoctrination and the effort expended on training and recruitment in the middle of the war. The videos supply ‘marketing’ material for al-Qaida and their sympathizers to propagate via the Internet jihadist thinking to children and teenagers beyond Syria in Europe and the Gulf.
One video posted to a jihadist web site shows a four-year-old child being taught by foreign fighters from al-Qaida offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, commonly known as ISIS, to fire an AK47 assault rifle. On the video, the child says he was born in Uzbekistan and explains he has been given the same name as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Jihadists surrounding him appear to come from Gulf countries, judging by their accents.
The video using the header “a message from one of the cubs of ISIS” was monitored by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-DC-based non-profit. Increasingly over the past decade, al-Qaida and its affiliates and sympathizers have been focusing their outreach and recruitment efforts at pre-teens, and even much younger children, according to the institute.
“There is a concerted effort by al-Qaida central and splinter groups – greater than ever – to concentrate on children,” says Steven Stalinsky, MEMRI’s executive director. “Al-Qaida has realized that this is an effective way for the group to spread its ideology and grow.”
Syria effort to recruit children more organized than elsewhere
While al-Qaida has targeted children before for indoctrination and recruitment – in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa – the effort appears greater and more organized in Syria. That’s in keeping, says Stalinsky, with a renewed focus on the young by al-Qaida’s media wing, al-Sahab. In an audio lecture released this year by al-Sahab, jihadist leader Maulana Asim Umar urges even the youngest Muslims to “not stay with [their] parents” and to leave the “luxury” of home and “city life” to wage jihad, like the Prophet Muhammad before them.
Opposition activists say ISIS has set up cadet camps in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta and in Rif Dimashq, the countryside around the Syrian capital that may house as many as 300 children. Some of the children are believed to be the offspring of foreign fighters; others orphans whose parents have been killed in the Syrian conflict.
This month the UN released a report accusing all parties in the Syrian civil war of committing violations against children, including the recruitment of them as fighters. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the suffering of children in the conflict as “unspeakable and unacceptable.”
Al-Qaida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has a parallel indoctrination and recruitment effort underway also and is overseeing its own training camps in Syria. A February 6 video monitored by MEMRI of the “Cubs of Jabhat al-Nusra” shows a large group of children attending a jihadist sharia school. Pulling up to the school in a bus, the children chant, “[Oh] our youth, come to the battles... [and let] the arrogant [and] stubborn fall. Tomorrow, tomorrow, we implement the law of our God, and the unbelieving idol shall fall.”
Psychotherapist Khalil warns: “Children have little understanding of killing and the permanence of death and when they fight they can be very harsh and very extreme because they can execute missions without fear and they can easily be trained as suicide bombers.”
Rehabilitation is difficult and long term consequences dire
He says rehabilitation of those recruited very young and their reintegration after a conflict is highly problematic. “I am expecting we are going to have some very serious consequences from this. al-Qaida is shaping a new generation of fanatics which will pose a serious threat not just to Syria, but to neighboring countries in the Middle East and Europe.”
MEMRI’s Stalinsky believes the consequences can already be seen outside Syria. “You see Muslim youth who aren’t even old enough to drive going by themselves from Europe and parts of the Muslim world traveling to Syria for jihad.” Two teens from Toulouse, France, ages 15 and 16, were apprehended in late January in Turkey on their way to join the jihad in Syria, according to Turkish authorities.
Stalinsky warns: “They are opening camps and schools which are indoctrinating young children – from Africa, the Middle East, and most likely in Europe too. ISIS even has a department of education, and have created textbooks.”
Along with the camps jihadist propaganda is glorifying a culture of martyrdom with children's deaths in fighting honored in videos and photos posted in social media. In a November 2012 jihadist video, a Syrian boy likely to be about ten-years-old is seen digging his own grave, saying, “Allah willing, I will become a martyr."