A new level of barbarity
Child soldiers are, sadly, neither new nor rare: The 13th-century Children’s Crusade, although largely a myth, was used to inspire European Catholics for centuries. In the Third Reich’s dying days, Adolf Hitler sent armed children into the streets to defend Berlin. In more recent times, insurgent groups such as the Lord’s Army in Uganda exploited child fighters — often children who had been orphaned or kidnapped.
Child Soldiers International, a British non-governmental organisation, estimates that as many as 100,000 children around the world may have been turned into soldiers.
And now the Islamic State (ISIS) has found a way to make a desperately tragic phenomenon even more horrific: the child suicide bomber.
ISIS and like-minded terror groups share a similar structure: Their leaders — usually safely ensconced in relative luxury far from the dangers of battle — devise increasingly perverse methods of inflicting death and destruction on innocent people. This often involves sending their followers — but never their own family members, of course — on suicide missions, the promised reward being heavenly glory.
Sending someone to their certain death requires a level of psychological exploitation and manipulation regardless of the person’s age. Numerous studies have shown that suicide bombers are often people whose relationships with their societies and families make them especially susceptible to manipulation.
And ISIS leaders have apparently realised that no one is more exploitable or manipulable than children, especially when there are so many children in their midst who are hungry, scared, homeless and orphaned.
When compassionate people see photos such as that of the bloodied 5-year-old Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, their hearts bleed. When ISIS leaders see such images, they think “possible recruit”.
Syria and Iraq — along with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — are filled with children like Omran. They are the most physically and psychologically vulnerable victims of the Arab world’s ongoing tragedies. They want what children the world over want: Love, safety, laughter and the freedom to explore the miraculous world around them.
What they have are despair and misery.
When an adult tells them to strap on a bomb-laden vest and that the result will be a rapid ascent into paradise, these children quite simply have no physical or mental ability to resist.
ISIS has proven (as if any of us ever had any real doubt) that there is no action — no matter how immoral, how inhuman, how much in conflict with the true teachings of Islam — that is too much beyond the pale, too despicable, to undertake.
The phenomenon of child suicide bombers will not go away until we — meaning the Arab world, the West and international organisations — sufficiently address the social and psychological tragedy that continues to afflict millions of people, including children, in Syria, Iraq and bordering nations.
Until we do, ISIS will have its cannon fodder and, as its caliphate crumbles, will be increasingly inclined to exploit it.