Ever since Islamist rebels newly in control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria declared themselves the Islamic State (IS) last year, children have featured prominently in the group's infamous propaganda.
IS militants have filmed kids watching public beheadings, training in hand-to-hand combat, firing weapons, distributing knives to men preparing to behead prisoners — and even carrying out executions themselves. On July 4, IS released a video showing children dressed in military uniforms shooting dead 25 Syrian regime troops in front of a large crowd at the old amphitheater at Palmyra. That video followed three others released in the previous month depicting children being trained to take captives, serve as snipers, and ambush moving vehicles.
Videos like those, along with information gathered from children who have escaped IS, suggest kids are being subjected to a systematic process of indoctrination as they're trained by the group to be fully fledged militants. They are what IS calls the ashbal, or "lion cubs," and upon completion of their training, children are deployed on and off the front lines. They act as fighters and guards, recruiters and bomb makers. And if the world hopes to one day entertain the idea of rehabilitating these children, the world must first understand how they are being groomed for such horrors.
We have spent the past year researching and analyzing IS propaganda across multiple languages, IS social media from several hundred online accounts, and interviews given by child escapees. And we have found that children come to IS in a variety of different ways. They are the children of foreigners who join the fight, the children of supportive locals, abandoned children found in IS-controlled orphanages, children coercively taken from parents, and runaway children who themselves volunteer for service to IS.
Hundreds of children have arrived in Syria over the past year or more. Two schools in the country, according to Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi of the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, are designated specifically for English-speaking children.
Since Syria fell apart, in fact, IS has assumed de-facto control over schools. Though many pre-Islamic State schoolteachers remain in Syria, they must now teach an IS-controlled curriculum to gender-segregated pupils. Attendance at schools doesn't appear to be forced, but parents willingly send their children. The curriculum is little more than indoctrination, and it serves as a way for IS personnel to talent-scout for children exhibiting academic talent or physical acumen.
In addition to using schools, IS lures children through gradual socialization. It does this in a number of ways, most notably through public events. Many are small-scale, attracting local children by offering free toys and candy in exchange for simply showing up. Kids may then be given the opportunity to wave the IS black flag. Such lures serve as a kind of macabre ice-cream truck, beckoning youth to learn more about what IS has to offer.
Children of all ages are routinely exposed to public showings of videotaped executions, which IS in turn films in an attempt to promote the idea that the public are supportive of such killings. But children also attend and are filmed at the executions themselves. Eager to see what's going on, they push through rows of adults to reach prime viewing positions for the graphic violence to follow. The visible reaction of some children to beheadings is simultaneously one of revulsion and curiosity. They are told by IS why the punishment is meted out, and thanks to the routine spectacle of such events, they soon consider normal what IS does to those who commit infractions.
IS engenders a sense of prestige and competition among children by signaling that not everyone will be allowed to become lion cubs. Younger students are groomed initially as spies, encouraged to inform on family members or neighbors who violate rules or criticize IS. Children allowed to progress to lion cub miltary training parrot the style of the adult role models, wear similar uniforms, and learn the vernacular of the group. They are taught about the enemy, and why the enemy must be eradicated.
Cub recruits routinely witness crucifixions, stonings, and beheadings. This serves not just to (de)sensitize the children, but to demonstrate loyalty and commitment to IS. Kids between 10 and 15 face a grueling physical and mental regimen that lasts, reports suggest, between 30 and 50 days. A crisis, such as a battle, may result in some children being pushed through more quickly.
Parents report that isolation from the family occurs at this stage. Some family members have been threatened with violence when they pleaded with IS commanders to see their children. Accounts given by child escapees paint a bleak picture of daily life in the camps. The children are mentally and physically exhausted, and sleep on flea-infested mattresses. But as no doubt intended, their experiences give rise to camaraderie and eventually deep pride in what they are able to endure.
The final test of loyalty is the execution of prisoners.
Graduates may then be assigned to checkpoint or bodyguard duty, and made to don suicide vests. Younger children who display aptitude for communicating ideology are deployed as recruiters, embracing a public speaking role in which they're often more articulate and persuasive than their adult counterparts. These children in turn lure other children.
IS propaganda videos show newly graduated lion cubs parading in full uniform, carrying weapons, in front of onlookers. The children are instructed to stand rigid while they're beaten with sticks by adult commanders. In the background, dozens of younger children can be seen looking on, seemingly impressed by the young masked recruits able to endure the physical rigors of "training."
Our research on conflicts from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland has taught us that the first priority of terrorist organizations is not figuring out how to destroy their enemies, but ensuring the survival of the organization itself. The Islamic State is far more than a simple terrorist organization, but there can be no doubt that it has embraced the need to groom the next generation.
If there is to be any hope of reintegrating those children who do survive, the world will require a level of coordination and creativity not seen in any past deradicalization program. And in contrast to the propaganda that is so vital to the image IS wants to project, the stories of child escapees need to be spread even further. These children not only have the power to inspire others to leave the Islamic State, they have the power to dissuade others — even those much older than them — from ever joining in the first place.
John Horgan and Mia Bloom are professors at Georgia State University. Their book, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, will be released in 2016. Follow Horgan (@Drjohnhorgan) and Bloom (@MiaMBloom) on Twitter.