Foreign Relations & International Law Terrorism & Extremism

When Cubs Become Lions: The Future of ISIS Child Soldiers

Staley Smith
Monday, August 10, 2015, 4:52 PM

It’s summertime in Raqqa, but rather than learning arts and crafts or singing campfire songs, children at the Farouq Academy for Cubs—an indoctrination and training center run by the Islamic State—are busy practicing beheadings.

Farouq Academy for Cubs in Raqqa, Syria

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It’s summertime in Raqqa, but rather than learning arts and crafts or singing campfire songs, children at the Farouq Academy for Cubs—an indoctrination and training center run by the Islamic State—are busy practicing beheadings.

One boy who escaped from Farouq Academy recounts a particularly gruesome training exercise to the Associated Press: The lesson of the day, the teacher announced: decapitating the infidels. Standing in perfect formation, each of the 120 youths was given a doll and a sword. Then came the tutelage: As part of their “re-education,” instructors showed the children footage of ISIS beheadings while explaining the proper technique for sawing off human heads. The boys, mainly ages 8 to 15, were then ordered to behead the faux “infidels”—their blonde, blue eyed dolls. The boys struck clean with their swords as the dolls’ detached heads fell to the ground.

But this is not just practice. In a recent piece authored for Vocativ, Shane Dixon Kavanaugh tells us of an ISIS film made in Palmyra, Syria. It shows a “handcuffed soldier, who confessed to being a Syrian army captain,” and a child ISIS recruit, “[c]lad in camouflage and clutching a small knife,” who “jerked the man's head back by his hair and put the blade to his throat.” Afterwards the killer “posed with the prisoner’s severed head.” Another Islamic State propaganda video shows a young boy laying on the ground, firing a machine gun during a training exercise—his body so small that the recoil bounces him into the air. Or consider the footage of an adult instructor, punching the young cubs and hitting their heads with a pole. Afterwards, he walks on the poles as the youths lie beneath them, on the ground. One more gruesome example: Earlier this month, ISIS released footage in which 25 child executioners lined up behind Syrian soldiers. The boys proceeded to shoot the captives in the back of the head while a crowd watched.

The Islamic State is bringing more and more young Muslim boys into its ranks—and through methods ranging from inducement to coercion to abduction.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that more than 1,100 children have joined the cubs of the caliphate since the beginning of this year. The terror group has one goal: to ensure “long-term loyalty, adherence to [ISIS] ideology and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life,” according to one U.N. Human Rights report. ISIS, which refers to the children as “ashbal”—Arabic for “lion cubs”—takes pride in turning its young upstarts into full-blown jihadists, suicide bombers and serial beheaders. And while there are no hard figures for exactly how many cubs are taking participating in ISIS training programs currently, the group claims to be running hundreds of youth camps throughout territories under its control.


All this presents profound legal and policy challenges.

In some cases, the legal framework is pretty well developed. Under international law, children, by their very nature, are to be protected and sheltered from the burdens of war—and without regard for the identity of the party (state actor, non-state actor) imposing those burdens. The Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I, for example, hold that children affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection; the latter instrument also states that children must “not take a direct part in hostilities” and that “conscripting or enlisting children” into armed forces or groups constitutes a war crime in any armed conflict. (The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute says roughly the same; in the United States, the 2008 Child Soldiers Accountability Act takes an analogous approach in its domestic law.) Meanwhile, the United States makes a practice of naming, shaming, and blocking trade with governments that recruit minors into their militaries. And although there is not yet a universally accepted minimum permissible age for the recruitment of soldiers, there is nevertheless a ubiquitous understanding that the threshold should not fall below 15 years of age. So far as recruitment goes, then it’s a matter of apprehending and prosecuting the culprits (which can be awfully hard in places like Syria and Iraq these days).

But the front-end recruitment of underage terrorists—and the legal mechanisms for preventing that—are only half of the story. Attacks by children affiliated with the likes of ISIS can also pose serious (if not especially new) moral dilemmas: Child terrorists are themselves the victims of most heinous war crimes; yet at the same time, they can and do threaten their opponents with lethal force. That issue, too, has been addressed, if not as extensively as recruitment. Some jurisdictions tackle it directly, in rules of engagement issued to their forces; the U.S. military does not. Instead it seems the United States has approached the problem of child terrorists on the battlefield on a case-by-case basis. To name one well known example, during the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government came under fire for its handling of the case of Omar Khadr, the first minor to be charged with a war crime and prosecuted in a military commission since World War II.

Moreover, putting aside the question of combat, it is also not clear how best to disarm child terrorists, demobilize them, and reintegrate them into society—especially given that, in the ISIS context, family structures often have dissolved and children have been inculcated with a radical ideology.

Of course, while they may be new in conflicts in which the United States is engaged, child soldiers are not a recent or even rare phenomenon. During the conflicts in Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and Liberia, militants often abducted children from their families and forced them to fight for various political causes. The history of these cases, while tragic, reveals that child soldiers can successfully be reintegrated. In all three, the linchpin of success was family reunification. Family members can provide support, security and a reference point for children by offering “different ways of dealing with the reality they are immersed in and offering alternative answers to threatening situations.” Following the Sierra Leone Civil War, which is widely considered the most successful Western-led stability and support operation, children underwent psychological treatment and participated in educational and recreational activities at interim care centers before being reunified with their families. And almost all former Sierra Leonean child soldiers who have been demobilized since 1999 are now reunited with their families which, along with community support programs, has been critical to their successful reintegration. Likewise, in a follow-up survey of former child soldiers in El Salvador, “84 percent reported that their family played the most important role in their transition to civil life.” Liberia was along similar lines: The most important reintegration factors in the West African country included the establishment of a “normal” environment, a sense of forgiveness through religious and cultural ceremonies, and family reunification and support.

How well do these historical examples map on to the ISIS context? As experts have observed, the discouraging answer has to do with two distinctive features of ISIS’ tactics that both stand to frustrate rehabilitation efforts.

First, many of ISIS’ child soldiers were not abducted from their families, as in Sierra Leone and other cases; instead, their parents knowingly and quite willingly sent them to terrorist training and indoctrination classes. Professor and terrorism expert Mia Bloom describes the five categories of ISIS cubs as: “those born to foreign fighters or emigrants; those born to local fighters; those who had been abandoned and found their way into ISIS-controlled orphanage; those coercively taken from their parents; and those who voluntarily joined the Islamic State.” Reflected in this taxonomy is the fact that the majority of children in ISIS custody weren’t kidnapped or conscripted by by ISIS at all—though, of course, some surely have been, particularly Yazidi boys. Instead a great many children attending ISIS training camps have parents who are themselves full fledged members or sympathizers of the Islamic State, and have encouraged their children to develop extremist ideology and persuaded them of the honor of fighting and dying in the name of Islam. This poses an obvious, significant obstacle to family reunification. The Islamic State’s strategy makes it impossible for children to “reconnect with family loyalties and their religious, traditional, and moral values after leaving the forces”—much of what brings children into ISIS’ clutches in the first place.

The other factor, which deserves far more consideration than it has received to date: ISIS’ notoriously hardline and extreme views. In the past, when child soldiers were forced both to commit and to endure heinous acts of violence, they typically were not motivated by religious extremism; rather, they were involved in a political conflict. Bloom notes one exception: the child soldiers fighting for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in the Philippines, did so for evidently religious reasons. But the Islamic State has gone beyond simply training children, and forcing them to fight—the approach taken by the war criminals of, say, Sierra Leone—by also indoctrinating its youths with an extreme jihadist narrative based on distortions of the Islamic faith. According to Bloom, this represents a break with “the treatment of child soldiers in Africa, who generally [did] not receive any sort of education ... Liberian and Ugandan militias did not run schools to groom the next generation of fighters.” Instead, the African militias utilized child soldiers “as the cannon fodder, making education irrelevant. They were not interested in creating ideological agreement—they needed bodies to fight.” ISIS seems to recognize it will need a cadre of young recruits to carry forward its grandiose vision of a lasting Caliphate. Thus it carefully has designed its system, which churns out not just mindless drones, but competent young militants who may truly embrace every aspect of its teachings.


The international community faces an immense counterterrorism problem: how to handle the perhaps thousands of child soldiers recruited and radicalized by ISIS. It has taken only the most tentative, initial steps in this regard, by monitoring the issue as it continues to worsen.

Rehabilitation efforts will need to be multifaceted in order to de-radicalize and reeducate these children, in addition to addressing the psychological trauma they suffer. Employment and educational opportunities as dictated by local security conditions will greatly influence the success rate of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs in post-Islamic State Iraq and Syria. And, given the importance of ideology to ISIS’ recruitment, successfully reintegrating ISIS youth will depend heavily—perhaps most of all—on the ability of clerics, educators and others to counter and undo a terrorist belief system that has been forced on some of ISIS’ youngest victims. It’s a challenge for which we must be preparing now.

Staley Smith previously was a National Security Intern at the Brookings Institution. She spent the past year studying in Jordan and Israel and will graduate from Johns Hopkins University in 2016 with a major in political science.

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