Islamic State militants may be trying to counter increased pressure from U.S.-backed ground forces and the ongoing coalition air campaign by forcing more children to join their ranks.
U.S. officials have become the latest to join the chorus of voices accusing Islamic State of child conscription, saying the terror group recently sank to new lows.
“We're seeing them lowering the conscription age," Colonel Pat Ryder, U.S. Central Command spokesman, said Friday. “This again is an indication that they are scraping to replace the losses that they've experienced on the battlefield.”
Ryder said evidence indicates the conscripts are as young as 10 and are used in various capacities, including to fight.
Children have long been featured in Islamic State propaganda, sometimes touted as “Cubs of the Caliphate.”
In a recent propaganda video posted on an IS website, six children were featured carrying out the execution of prisoners. VOA could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.
U.S. military officials declined to say how many child conscripts were fighting for Islamic State. They acknowledged that the “overwhelming majority” of IS fighters are still military-aged males.
But according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group with researchers across Syria, IS recruited more than 1,100 children in 2015.
Researchers with Human Rights Watch said they were also hearing reports of the increased use of child soldiers by Islamic State. They pointed to U.N. findings that most of the 480 dead Islamic State fighters found after Iraqi forces retook the town of Baiji were children or teenagers.
As more Islamic State child conscripts find their way into battle zones, it could present U.S. and coalition forces with a dilemma.
"It definitely is not the coalition's intent to kill innocent women or children or any innocent person on the battlefield," said CENTCOM’s Ryder.
Still, he said, the presence of child conscripts would not cause U.S. bombers to call off a strike.
"The reality is, if an ISIL fighter is armed and attacking, that ISIL fighter is a target, a legitimate military target," Ryder said, blaming the terror group for putting innocents in harm’s way. “This is why this organization needs to be eliminated.”
This would appear to be in accordance with international law, which indicates children lose their special protected status in war if they directly engage in conflict.