They are known as the cubs of the caliphate, youngsters enlisted by the Islamic State, which views them as “the generation that will conquer Baghdad, Jerusalem, Mecca and Rome.”
The West and the Middle East communities from which they have been recruited see them as a grim threat, the deadly legacy of a murderous caliphate on the brink of military defeat.
As the terror group’s territory shrinks in the face of offensives on IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the militants have highlighted in a series of chilling videos in recent months what they hope will be in store for their enemies. The militants are counting on the revenge of the lion cubs, the child soldiers they have been enlisting in northern and eastern Syria and western Iraq, and grooming determinedly since Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the emir of all Muslims in June 2014.
Steeped in a culture of martyrdom, the threat posed by the cubs — both to themselves, as well as others — is worrying de-radicalization experts, who fear Western governments are not giving enough thought about what to do with them.
Western governments are the most likely to come up with the resources, analysts say, needed to rehabilitate IS’s cubs. There is little in the works, though, being planned to shape or establish rehabilitation programs, according to rights groups and charities working to reintegrate child soldiers in other conflict zones.
They say that when they raise the issue of the cubs, they are battling a prevalent attitude among Western officials that these child soldiers are different from those in other conflicts and maybe beyond rehabilitation.
“It would be a terrible mistake to think that because someone was a cub for a year or two, they are lost forever - they can be saved and rehabilitated,” says Mia Bloom, a Canadian academic, who is co-authoring a book on jihadist child soldiers.
“Not only have Western governments not started to calculate what would be involved in a successful rehabilitation program, they don't even want to consider that the four-year-old is not culpable,” she argued. Of the cubs who are the sons and daughters of foreign fighters, Western governments often are trying to slam the door on them. “In many cases they have canceled the passports, revoked citizenship,” said Bloom.
"What we are seeing with many of the Western governments is a complete rejection of the children because they fear they could be potentially members of sleeper cells or time-bombs waiting to explode,” she said.
Bloom worries that will be a self-fulfilling prophesy, if programs aren’t established quickly to start the long and expensive process to reintegrate them, which she insists is possible.
Experts point to the successes achieved by clinical psychologist Feriha Peracha, who has been overseeing a project partly funded by the Pakistani Army to de-radicalize and rehabilitate young Pakistani militants recruited by the Taliban.
When Peracha first got involved in rehabilitation efforts in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2009, she was terrified, fearing initially the radicalized youngsters could kill her at any moment. But she quickly began to sympathize with the boys, aged between eight and 16, who she saw were brainwashed, had been taught by rote the Koran in Arabic, and trained to be killers.
Her deprogramming efforts have drawn wide praise since then.
"We have reintegrated 192 without any recidivism,” said Peracha. She said the two most important aspects that have ensured success are maintaining “monitoring up to five years after reintegration, and ensuring alternative life opportunities and goals for the boys.”
Peracha says it can take six months to four years to reintegrate a young militant depending on the factors that pushed them into militancy. Teenagers take longer than pre-teens. Each student costs approximately $200 to $350 per month.
In Syria and Iraq, the challenge is even greater. The Islamic State has enlisted thousands of youngsters, some as young as four years old, in northern Syria and Iraq, indoctrinating them ideologically, and training them as suicide bombers, spies and as executioners.
And there has been no let-up in the effort. In March, the militants’ weekly online magazine, Al-Naba’ highlighted IS’s determination to continue to groom youngsters even in the face of battlefield losses.
If anything, there seems to be a greater urgency in the militants’ recruitment efforts. The high casualties IS has sustained partly explains the continued enlistment of kids.
In a video released last year by IS of the training of recruited pre-teens and teenagers in in Syria’s Al-Khayr province, the narrator concludes ominously, “Even if we are all eradicated and no one survives, these cubs will carry the banner of jihad and will complete the journey.”
Many cubs will survive the offensives currently underway against the terror group - 2,000 suspected cubs currently are in detention in Iraq. Rachel Taylor of Child Soldiers International, a nonprofit based in London, says throwing cubs into detention centers isn’t an answer.
Taylor says that doesn't mean refraining from punishing those who are guilty of war crimes, but not all of them should be treated as terrorists. “We need to recognize that they are children who have been exploited. Stigmatizing them can be as psychologically damaging, if not more so, than the trauma they underwent as child soldiers,” she added.
“They need education, jobs and a role; you have to offer them stable, productive alternatives to violence, otherwise you will add another cycle of violence,” she warned.
Taylor disputes the idea that somehow the cubs of the caliphate are different from child soldiers in the Congo or Colombia. When it comes to recruitment, the drivers are the same, she argues. “The ideology is secondary - the drivers are lack of security, desire for revenge, desire for a role, the need to find food, shelter and support and to seek material benefits,” she said. The role of parents in recruitment is often crucial, she notes.
That certainly seems the case in Syria and Iraq. According to several studies, and from anecdotal information gathered by VOA from refugees since 2014, youngsters who joined IS were often coerced to do so in different ways, ranging from being cajoled by parents, to kidnappings from orphanages. Some parents were eager for at least one of their children to enlist because of the monthly payments IS paid the families of cubs; but others did so because they agreed with the terror group’s ideology.
The role of families in the recruitment complicates rehabilitation. The standard practice for reintegrating child soldiers is to reunite them with their families as quickly as possible; there are dangers, though, if the parents were complicit in the recruitment. One answer would be to require whole families to go through a rehabilitation program.
“There is not a one-size-fit-all,” cautioned the Canadian academic Bloom. “We are going to need programs that are suited to every level of involvement - from those like the girls, who witnessed violence, to boys who have shot someone or cut off someone’s head or detonated an explosive device,” she said.
Doing that while conflict rages will be impossible, de-radicalization experts say. Trying to do it even post-conflict will be a challenge, especially in wrecked communities, where families will be mourning the deaths of relatives amid an atmosphere of anger and grievance.