Children have long been a strategic target for ISIS militants. Their impressionable minds are easier to radicalise than those of adults, "tainted" by years under non-Islamic rule.
Of the estimated 6,000,000 people to have lived under ISIS rule at the height of their self-styled caliphate, 2,000,000 were children under the age of 15.
The militant group has always viewed children as vital for the survival of their caliphate. Their young age and early stage of development makes them highly impressionable, compared with adults who have been “tainted” by years of life under non-Islamic rule.
ISIS focused on schooling to provide indoctrination of the youth. The militant group would entice children to attend their schools by giving out toys and other treats, but in time the lessons would become more serious and would increasingly focus on teaching Islam and extremist ideologies.
Militants replaced text books in schools with their own published books. Each text book would contain thinly disguised propaganda and allusions of violence. A mathematics textbook would feature accompanying illustrations of guns and tanks; whilst history and science books contained the glorification of martyrdom. “The literature is a serious and systematic attempt at shaping young minds,” said Jacob Olidort, an expert on extremist literature who has analysed dozens of ISIS school text books. “The aim is of producing not just believers but militants.” The child militants were known by ISIS as the Cubs of the Caliphate.
Militants often showed violent propaganda videos to children, aimed at desensitising the Cubs towards violence, telling them that to be a suicide bomber was the highest calling for any pious Muslim. Lessons would also teach children how to operate weapons and explosives, as well as suicide belts.
Some children were further enticed through promises of wealth and “epic battles” against the non-believers. Other children belonging to minority groups were simply abducted and their parents murdered.
In Libya, 15 year old Abdelmoneem al-Duwaili fell victim to the militant group’s indoctrination and blew himself up during an attack on oil reservoirs in the Libyan port of Sedro. His parents knew nothing about his proselytisation at the hands of ISIS and only found out in news reports after the attack had taken place.
Al-Duwaili’s attack came after a direct order from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Libyan ISIS leaders to increase their number of child recruits. This comes as a latest attempt to compensate for the militant groups loss of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Aid workers are concerned that the level of exposure the children have received will trigger a cycle of violence and extremism that will long out-live the demise of ISIS. Psychologists have stated that children living under ISIS rule are profoundly traumatised.
The Institute For Global Engagement (IGE) are offering counselling services for families fleeing ISIS. “Everyone has been traumatised,” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of IGE. “We see children drawing pictures of watching ISIS chopping off heads”. Preventing the proliferation of extremist narratives, such as those perpetuated by ISIS, is dependent on extensive de-radicalisation and counselling initiatives.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) states that rehabilitation for the Cubs of the Caliphate is “absolutely possible”. Child soldiers are victims, rather than criminals. Consequently, rehabilitation through education and therapy is a far more pragmatic approach to de-radicalisation than the alternative of killing and imprisoning as many Cubs as possible. In Sierra Leone, the UN organised a highly effective programme of rehabilitation for child soldiers, which focused on reintegration with the child’s communities and families, vocational training and psychosocial therapy. Similar programmes in Iraq and Syria have taken inspiration from the Sierra Leone programme. Reuniting children with their families and encouraging them to engage in their community’s traditions and cultural practices can go extremely far in reminding them of their pre-ISIS lives.