Islamic State moulds children into new generation of militants

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By: Jessica Stern

France’s first air strike targeting Islamic State (IS) in Syria is reported to have killed 12 children recruited by the jihadist group.

Their deaths have highlighted how the young populations of Syria and Iraq are being moulded into a new generation of militants, writes Jessica Stern.

IS recruits children to use them as human shields, fighters, suicide bombers, snipers, and blood donors.

In July 2015, IS released a video of what is believed to be the group’s first recorded beheading by a child soldier. Children have also reportedly been instructed by IS militants to shoot captives.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in July 2015 that IS had used as many as 19 children as suicide bombers. The report announced that at least 52 children under the age of 16 had died fighting for IS so far in 2015.

Residents of Raqqa told Syria Deeply that children were taught in ISIS training camps how to behead another human being, and were given blonde dolls on which to practise.

One child told Human Rights Watch: “When [IS] came to my town… I liked what they are wearing, they were like one herd. They had a lot of weapons. So I spoke to them, and decided to go to their training camp in Kafr Hamra in Aleppo.”

He attended the camp when he was 16 years old, but the leader told him he preferred younger trainees.

Systematic indoctrination

IS is what sociologist Erving Goffman referred to as a “total institution”, which he defined as one that “has more or less monopoly control of its members’ everyday life”.

Like other total institutions, IS aims to create a new form of man.

Young children are easier to mould into the IS vision of this new man.

This is a hallmark of a total institution – seen when Pol Pot experimented with creating a utopia in Kampuchea (the name used for Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge controlled it) in the 1970s, using methods not that different from those employed by IS.

The idea was to create an entirely new society, uncontaminated by the values the Khmer Rouge aimed to stamp out.

Children were seen as the least corrupted by bourgeois values and would be educated “according to the precepts of the revolution”, which did not include traditional subjects.

As was the case for the Khmer Rouge, the children of IS are both victims and perpetrators of terror.

As psychiatrist Otto Kernberg explains: “Individuals born into a totalitarian system and educated by it from early childhood have very little choice to escape from total identification with that system… Totalitarian educational systems permit a systematic indoctrination of children and youth into the dominant ideology”, especially when they are young.

Financial incentives

According to the research of Mia Bloom and John Horgan of Georgia State University, IS follows a trend of training ever-younger operatives.

By doing so they hope to ensure a new generation of fighters.

Leadership decapitation is significantly less likely to be effective against organisations that prepare children to step into their fathers’ shoes.

Some of the children come with their families from abroad, to grow up in what their parents see as a pure Islamic state.

They learn to say that they are citizens of this Islamic state rather than from their country of origin.

But financial desperation is also a factor.

IS heavily taxes populations under its control in Iraq and Syria while raising the prices of essential goods

The economic situation is further exacerbated by US-led coalition air strikes, which have disrupted the oil-based economy upon which many civilians’ livelihoods depend.

As a result, Iraqis and Syrians have found themselves bankrupt with no means to provide for themselves or their families.

This financial burden has pushed some parents, particularly in Syria, to send their children to fight for IS in order to make a living wage to support the family.

In Raqqa, IS pays parents and bribes children to attend its training camps.

In June, the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict reported that in some cases, child soldiers have been paid salaries of up to $400 (

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