Watch above: Britain’s ITV News obtained video of young boys holding assault rifles in a convoy of ISIS-flagged vehicles in Mosul, Iraq. (ITN/YouTube)
Militants in Iraq appear to be luring young boys into the violent conflict that is stretching across a wide swath of the country.
Britain’s ITV News obtained video of two boys holding assault rifles in the back of an Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militant-flagged vehicle, as a convoy rolled through the city of Mosul on Monday.
ITV News reported the video was taken late Monday, as the convoy of captured Iraqi army vehicles.
While it has not been confirmed if the boys in the video are indeed child soldiers recruited by ISIS, the footage emerged just two days after Human Rights Watch reported the extremist group had “systematically sought to recruit children” in neighbouring Syria — where it is one of several groups fighting against government forces and other rival rebel groups in the country’s civil war.
“Islamist groups such as ISIS have more aggressively targeted children for recruitment, providing free lectures and schooling that included weapons and other military training,” the New York-based organization reported based on witness interviews.
“Residents of areas controlled by ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra say these groups have reached out to young people, including children, in systematic ways, entering schools and providing education in mosques that includes weapons and military training,” the HRW report stated.
The HRW report focused on several groups fighting in the Syrian conflict, not just ISIS.
But, the organization said it had credible reports ISIS and others have “used children under 15 in combat or support roles.”
According to the UN, under human rights law 18 is the legal minimum age at which individuals can be recruited for armed conflict, but the recruitment and use of children under 15 to be soldiers is “prohibited under international law… and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.”
But child recruitment is still happening and it’s not a big surprise for some advocates that ISIS is doing it in Syria and possibly Iraq.
“Pretty much every major conflict that you’re going to look at in the news… children are being used and recruited,” said Dr. Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative at Halifax’s Dalhousie University.
Whitman said the use of children in armed conflict isn’t slowing down and the international community needs to put more focus on preventing that from happening in the first place, rather than de-mobilizing and rehabilitating children after the fact.
She took particular note of militant groups recruiting abroad, including in Canada, and suggested the luring of foreign fighters can begin with those who aren’t yet adults.
“Just because it’s young men that you might be seeing [in] the images going into some of these places, from Canada, it doesn’t mean that the recruitment isn’t starting much earlier.
“As long as one has access to a computer, it could start at a much younger age,” she explained.
With most children having access to the Internet and groups such as ISIS using social media and online forums to reach out to potential recruits, Whitman said this is an issue Canadians should be paying attention to.
Global News reported last week a Somali-Canadian man from Calgary was seen in a video, released by ISIS, burning his passport and warning Canada and the U.S. that ISIS “will destroy you.”
Farah Mohamed Shiradon’s appearance in the video follows the death of two other men from Calgary who were killed fighting with militants in the Middle East.
But unlike recruitment in Syrian and Iraqi communities, ISIS isn’t necessarily reaching out to those directly affected by conflict or even individuals coming from disadvantaged situations.
“In terms of the recruitment from Canada, it’s not the poor kids. It’s not the kids from impoverished backgrounds that we need to be worrying about,” Whitman pointed out. “It’s actually the kids that are coming from the middle class [who] are being recruited and used.”
She added groups such as ISIS present a “distorted version of reality” or a sense of belonging that appeals to young people who may be vulnerable to radical ideals.
Whitman said the Child Soldier Initiative has begun discussing the problem with law enforcement officials in Canadian cities, such as Calgary, and will soon launch a program with police in Toronto “to see how we can tackle this problem, with them, within their communities.”
She also said interfaith religious leaders from around the world have approached the Initiative to have training, similar to how the organization trains militaries, to prevent the recruitment of child fighters.
The UN estimates there are between 250,000 and 300,000 children who have been recruited as soldiers around the world.
There are 129 countries, including Iraq, that have signed the UN’s Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which prohibits the recruitment of anyone under the age of 18.
While the protocol is signed by governments, militant groups are bound to it and can be held accountable for recruiting underage fighters.