The chilling image of five children staring into the camera with guns in their upraised arms as five grown men dressed in orange jumpsuits kneel in front of them, about to be executed, was posted by Islamic State extremists almost as a badge of honor.
According to the SITE counterterrorism website where the image was released Friday, the young boys were British, Egyptian, Kurdish, Tunisian and Uzbek — and featured in an IS video from Raqqa, Syria.
IS has increasingly featured children in its constant barrage of propaganda, a deeply disturbing sign of the extremist group’s profound level of psychological warfare.
The exact number of children who have been put through the Islamic State’s child soldier boot camp is unknown. The German magazine Der Spiegel quoted experts as saying about 1,500 boys were serving the militant group in Iraq and Syria.
One of the experts VOA talked with suspects there are that many in Iraq alone.
As the Iraqi Security Forces, with Kurdish troops and U.S.-led coalition support, converge on the IS stronghold of Mosul, there are growing concerns about what will happen to the children who have been forced to live under IS.
“There is no way we are prepared to manage the scale of what we see in front of us,” John Horgan, a professor at Georgia State University and an expert on terrorism and political violence, told VOA. "We are looking at a level of [child] mobilization that is unprecedented and increasing.”
Snipers and suicide bombers
According to Farah Dakhlallah, UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa spokeswoman, child recruitment has increased across the Middle East, and the roles that children are recruited into are changing.
“In previous years, children were in support roles,” Dakhlallah told VOA by phone from Jordan. “But in the past two years, they are taking on much more active roles, carrying weapons, manning checkpoints, being used as snipers and as suicide bombers.”
In Syria, children are increasingly being used in armed and combat roles by different parties to the conflict, at times recruited as young as seven years old, Dakhlallah said.
“Often we think this is happening without parental consent,” she said. But there may be instances where the parents have been complicit, further complicating the psychological picture.
"I've been studying terrorism for 20 years; I have seen nothing like this," Horgan said. "This is altogether different."
While organizations like UNICEF provide a level of psychosocial services to children who have escaped the conflict, experts warn that some children may have been severely brutalized.
“I don’t think we have a real understanding of what these kids have been through,” Horgan told VOA. “We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
IS has been grooming, training and indoctrinating children for several years and has also widened its recruitment approach to include children, encouraging entire families to join IS.
Children who have escaped have described the horror they have been through.
“Some children were sexually assaulted as part of their training. Some were beaten by sticks. They slept on flea-ridden mattresses and were beaten and bullied if they faltered even for a second,” Horgan said.
“IS executed children who showed signs of disillusionment or of missing their parent,” he added.
“These children did not emerge out of the ether in the last couple of months,” Horgan said. “[IS militants] have been grooming and indoctrinating kids for a few years now. I think it’s an investment in their future.”
In Iraq, UNICEF says it is working with the Iraqi government to improve juvenile detention centers and programs for children in detention, including those on security-related charges.
The U.N. agency is also advocating for training front-line security forces on child rights.
But Amnesty International has criticized Iraq’s judiciary structure as weak and opaque, and security officials as barely coping with the flood of people fleeing IS control. Hundreds of males have already disappeared from unofficial security screening points.
Asked whether the humanitarian agencies were prepared for the wave of children who will be emerging from Mosul as security operations ramp up to retake the IS stronghold, Horgan had only one word to say: