ISIS turning children into battle-hardened killers
Urfa, Turkey - Children in Syria have been killed, displaced, deprived of education, forced to work or beg in the streets and, most alarmingly, recruited as child soldiers and suicide bombers in the conflict that has devastated their country for more than four years.
A recent video showing children killing 25 Syrian soldiers in the amphitheatre of the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Islamic State-controlled central Syria sent shivers across the country and outraged rights groups.
According to a prominent local figure who escaped from Palmyra, the killings were committed May 25th, a few days after the Islamic State (ISIS) seized control of the area. “The soldiers were cold-bloodedly killed with firearms by minors who were brought in from Raqqa province,” he said on condition of anonymity. There is no exact figure on the number of children recruited by ISIS since it overran large areas of Syria and Iraq just over a year ago, but they are believed to be many hundreds and referred to as “cubs of the caliphate”.
A non-ISIS opposition field commander in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor pointed out the Islamist group “has sought right from the beginning to recruit child soldiers because they are easier to control and can be used in suicide attacks“.
He said ISIS set up its first child recruitment centre near the Omar oil field in Deir ez-Zor where more than 250 children have been indoctrinated at the hands of Saudi, Chechen, Tunisian and Turkish fighters. “In the beginning, the issue was kept under tight secrecy but, after sighting them in the battlefield, I tried to know more about that phenomenon. However, the kids remained tight-lipped, refusing to talk about what they have been learning,” the commander, who fought against ISIS, said on condition of anonymity.
Recruitment is carried out in several phases, encompassing physical and psychological tests in addition to religious learning. A former ISIS fighter, who fled from Raqqa to Turkey, gave the example of some 400 minors, aged from 14 to 17, who received training in August 2014 at ISIS’s main military camp of Akayrashi, some 25 kilometres east of the city of Raqqa.
“In the first three days, the children were given very little food and water and kept the whole day under the scorching summer sun. On the fourth day, they were offered the choice to stay or quit, and only 70 wanted to continue the training,” said the ISIS deserter who asked to be identified as Abu Abdallah al- Fourati.
“Those who remained were greeted by the camp’s governor, or ‘wali’, who told them ‘we deliberately gave you a hard time in order to find out who would be able to resist and become a real jihadist’,” al-Fourati said.
ISIS has since established young “jihadist schools” in several areas in Raqqa province. The centres succeeded in attracting a large number of children who were fascinated by the militants’ fatigues and show of force.
Ibrahim Ahmad, a teacher in Tal Abyad, camped outside one such school for two days in order to fetch his 14-year-old boy who had joined the group without his knowledge. “I spent two days begging the wali of the school, an Egyptian, to let my child go. He was very rude to me saying ‘the blessing of jihad came to you and you are rejecting it’… but at the end he agreed to give me back my son.”
Ahmad has since fled to Turkey with his family, fearing that his son would try to join the militants once again. “There were some 550 interned minors in that school, learning sharia (Islamic Law) at the hands of teachers from the Gulf countries, Egypt and Tunisia. After three months of indoctrination, they are shifted to Akayrashi camp where they get intense military training to become fully fledged fighters,” he said.
ISIS officials try to woo children with money, weapons and demonstrations of force and power. Although children are not recruited by force, they tend to join the camps because they are left without school, no work and nothing else to do all day, Ahmad argued. Financial incentives for their families are yet another factor encouraging child recruitment, with every child getting 50,000 Syrian pounds ($200) a month, he added.
The child soldiers are often used to man checkpoints or to gather intelligence from areas outside ISIS control, as children easily pass unnoticed. But some children are recruited for more violent purposes, including for suicide attacks.
On July 6th, ISIS announced it had carried out two suicide attacks against Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), one in Hasakah province and another in Ain Issa in the northern part of Raqqa province. The attacks, which killed 16 and wounded 27, were perpetrated by two 15-year-old boys.
According to al-Fourati, more than 15 suicide operations were carried out by child soldiers in the Kurdish city of Kobane during fighting between ISIS and the YPG in early 2015. “Child soldiers do not participate in the fighting but help in transporting ammunition and passing messages between fronts. However, car bombs and explosive belt attacks seem to be the perfect task for them,” he said.
The imam of a mosque in Raqqa, who asked to be identified as Abu Mohannad, charged that ISIS has been brainwashing children with promises of heaven and rewards for “jihadi martyrs”. Quoting sources inside ISIS, the cleric said: “They had more than 1,500 child soldiers a year ago but I believe the number has doubled since. Most of them are would-be suicide bombers, as they compete among each other when there is a plan for suicide attacks.”
Rights groups and child associations have repeatedly voiced concern about the plight of Syria’s children, warning that a whole generation could be lost to delinquency and violence. According to the United Nations, more than 2.1 million children in Syria are no longer able to attend school due to the war.