How ISIS exploits young people in Iraq and Syria

Since their first appearance on ISIS propaganda, the group’s division of child soldiers known as the Cubs of the Caliphate have shocked the world. Although child soldiers have been used in many other conflicts in the past and across the world, the brutal singlemindedness of the group’s training methods and the use of graphic and gratuitous violence have nevertheless stood out.

Much has been written about the Cubs. The group viewed its child soldiers not only as cannon fodder but also as future citizens. It therefore sought to put them through training that not only immersed them in the militant lifestyle but ideology as well. Although many of the Cubs have been killed in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa, it is estimated that there are some 2,000 Cubs in custody in Iraq alone.

There are many debates on whether these child soldiers represent a threat for the future, whether they can carry on the group’s ideology even after the group’s demise and whether the children, many of whom were unwilling or unsuspecting victims of the militant group, can be salvaged and turned into productive members of the society that can help rebuild, not destroy their communities.

The Department of Conflict and Terrorism Studies has been conducting research focusing on the process through which the militants recruited and trained Cubs and identified six main steps.

The first is defined as seduction: the initial step of recruitment. Militants would set up open events, referred to as Da’wa (The Call) in the areas they controlled, inviting children to participate in competitions and offer them gifts and rewards to give a positive impression of the militants. Sometimes, money and the promise of riches were also offered, especially for teenage boys.

The second step is schooling. Since the wars in Iraq and Syria began, the education system in these countries virtually collapsed. Where ISIS took governance, it reopened the schools focusing on its own jihadist curriculum and made attendance mandatory. Schools offered a more direct, specialised way of radicalising children and pushing them to a Jihadist worldview.

Next step, an intermediate one, would see the militant leaders identifying and picking specialised tasks of the children based on skills. The selection of children for the Cubs would also take place here.

Afterwards, those children selected to be Cubs would be taken to specialised training camps in the group’s heartlands. These children would be joined by children of Yazidi and Christian backgrounds who were often forcefully taken or abducted by the militants. What followed was an intense training regime that sought to erode the children’s aversion to violence, isolate them from the outside world, program them in jihadist ideology and erode their local identities. This is noted to have been the most arduous part of the training, with failure entailing horrific physical punishments.

Afterwards, the Cubs would be given specialised tasks based on their aptitude and preferences. Footsoldiers would be given guard duty in ISIS-controlled areas while those chosen (or who chose) to become suicide bombers would receive additional training in explosives. Meanwhile, those who have shown aptitude in speechcraft or an ability to appeal to other children would join the group’s propaganda division, tasked with helping the militants recruit other children.

It should not be forgotten that many of them are victims themselves, having been recruited under false premises or due to the lack of any other options to feed themselves. Meanwhile others did not even have a choice and were forced from their homes and families to join the group.

It is true that some of these children may become risk factors in the future, but many are suffering from the experiences they endured under the group. Supporting specialised programmes and treatment to help these children adapt and reintegrate will be vital for the future.