Child soldiers: victims of an expanding practice by al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria

A recent spate of videos showing children and teenagers in Syria attending al-Qaeda-linked training camps has raised alarm among activists and observers, who say this practice by al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) exploits children and turns them into fighters.

One such video, which appears to show a 4-year-old boy being taught to fire a weapon by fighters from ISIL, has sparked condemnation and calls for immediate action to end this practice.

In the video, posted anonymously on a jihadist website under the header “A message from one of the cubs of ISIL”, the child wears a black mask and fires an AK-47 rifle amid shouts of encouragement from bystanders.

He introduces himself as the namesake of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying he is from Uzbekistan and belongs to ISIL, while men with Gulf accents ask him to repeat the phrase “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”.

Another video shows boys under the age of 18 undergoing military training in an ISIL camp in Deir Ezzor called “Ashbal al-Khilafa” (Cubs of the Caliphate), their faces covered with black masks.

Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, has its own child recruitment camps such as one called “Ashbal Jabhat al-Nusra” (Cubs of Jabhat al-Nusra) in eastern Damascus, as shown in a video it broadcast last week. The video shows dozens of children younger than 10 years old being taught the group’s interpretation of sharia

In a recently-published report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the suffering of children in Syria since the start of the conflict as “unspeakable and unacceptable”.

The February 4th report, which covers the period from March 2011 to November 2013, accuses all parties to the conflict in Syria of committing grave violations against children, and accuses armed opposition groups of recruiting children.

The recruitment of child soldiers in war-time has devastating effects on the psyche of a child, Egyptian child psychologist and Ain Shams University lecturer Enas al-Jamal told Al-Shorfa.

“This child grows up on violence and the use of force, while internally suppressing fear that could erupt at any time after he is moved away from the fighting,” she said.

Children who have been recruited need special psychiatric care and rehabilitation, al-Jamal said.

“However, the difficulty in rehabilitation stems from the fact that they were subjected to comprehensive brainwashing that turned them into killing machines convinced of the legitimacy of murder and suicide via suicide bombings,” she said.

Children ‘have no choice’

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates seek to recruit children for several reasons, said Cairo University psychology professor and family relations consultant Waliyuddine Mukhtar.

“The first is that children, especially those under 10 years of age, cannot think for themselves, in other words they are controlled and have no choice,” he told Al-Shorfa. “Thus, saturating them with jihadist ideology and ideas, especially persuading them to carry out suicide operations, is very easy compared to older [recruits].”

“As a result, years from now, a new generation of youth will emerge and pose a very serious threat not only to Syria, but to surrounding countries as well,” he added.

Al-Qaeda also recruits children because they generally tend to imitate adults in situations of warfare and fighting, Mukhtar said.

These child recruits must be removed from the arena of weapons and undergo rigorous psychotherapy so they can be reintegrated into a family environment and subsequently into the community, he said.

“Otherwise, should the Syrian conflict end without these children undergoing therapy, a generation of criminals will emerge in non-wartime,” he said.

A lost generation

The al-Qaeda camps are an attempt to brainwash children and create a generation that has been taught to use violence and is physically and psychologically prepared to obey orders in the name of “jihad” and religion, experts told Al-Shorfa.

“Al-Qaeda’s focus on spreading these videos and images carries two messages,” said al-Qaeda affairs specialist Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Ahmed, who is retired from the Egyptian military.

“The first urges older youth to volunteer to join its ranks,” he said. “The second brainwashes those who subscribe to its ideology into pushing their children to join the fold under al-Qaeda’s banner as soldiers from childhood.”

In Syria, this practice goes beyond the recruitment of legal minors, Ahmed said, as the ISIL video reveals that now even children under the age of five are being recruited and trained.

News about the setup of training camps for children in Syria, in particular al-Zarqawi’s Cubs, “is a very serious indicator which requires immediate and precise action”, he said.

Al-Qaeda is well aware that shelling these camps is not an option, especially as these children are unaware of what they are doing, “and that is why it has publicised it”, he said.

Orphans and the children of foreign fighters

ISIL fighters set up al-Zarqawi’s Cubs camp in Ghouta, Rif Dimashq, said Tariq Abdo, co-founder of “No more recruitment or use of children in armed action in Syria”, a Syrian youth initiative working on the ground to curb this practice.

“Entering [the camp] or even getting close to it is almost impossible,” he told Al-Shorfa. “The training cycles for children are very long compared to the cycles for young men and adolescents trained by ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

No one can say anything conclusive about the identities of these children or their parents’ whereabouts, he said, but the disappearance of many of the children who lost their parents in opposition-held areas “increases the likelihood that ISIL recruited them and merged them with other child soldier recruits at al-Zarqawi’s Cubs camp”.

These groups also recruit the children of jihadists fighting in the ranks of ISIL, including the children of Arab and foreign fighters “who came to wage ‘jihad’ in Syria”, Abdo said.

This has become public knowledge in opposition-held areas, he added.

Abdo’s initiative works with international human rights organisations and the UN to curb this practice and to identify the actual number of child recruits in the ranks of armed jihadist groups, which it estimates is at least 300 at ISIL bases and training camps, he said.

“Many children under the age of 15 were observed performing guard and surveillance duties alongside adult fighters,” Abdo said.

“The matter requires urgent action by countries that care about the Syrian issue to put pressure on these groups to stop these abuses of children,” he added.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have repeatedly condemned the use of children in military operations and have demanded the UN take resolute measures to stop this practice, he said.

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