Rehabilitating children who escape from Daesh will help stabilize the Middle East
UNIPATH STAFF | Photos by Reuters
Kneeling down to kiss his father’s hand, 11-year-old Abu Imara al-Omri says a final goodbye before blowing himself up in a truck full of explosives. Daesh, which captured this chilling farewell in propaganda photos in January 2016, claimed at the time that the boy’s suicide helped to take the village of Ghazl near Aleppo, Syria, according to CNN.
Daesh is not the first terrorist group to recruit children as soldiers, but recent studies suggest its use of children far exceeds that of groups in other conflicts. It’s no secret that Daesh routinely integrates children into its military operations — often with parental consent.
From January 1, 2015, to January 31, 2016, Daesh propaganda eulogized 89 children aged 18 or younger, according to a report from the Combating Terrorism Center. During this period, the number of young people dying in suicide operations rose from six per month to 11 per month. The rate of operations involving one or more children also increased, with three times as many suicide operations involving children and youth in January 2016 compared to January 2015.
Mia Bloom, one of the report’s authors, told CNN that the database of 89 children is just a “snapshot” of a larger phenomenon; she estimated that Daesh has recruited at least 1,500 child fighters.
“The data unambiguously suggests that [Daesh’s] mobilization of children and youth for military purposes is accelerating,” she and co-author Charlie Winter concluded in the report. “It is clear that [Daesh] leadership has a long-term vision for youth in its jihadist efforts.”
Daesh has made clear its intent to raise the next generation of jihadists, calling them the “cubs of the caliphate.” In a recent publication of English-language online magazine Dabiq, Daesh encourages mothers to sacrifice their sons for the self-proclaimed Islamic state. The article reads: “As for you, O mother of lion cubs … And what will make you know what the mother of lion cubs is? She is the teacher of generations and the producer of men.”
A unique challenge
Daesh’s systematic exploitation and manipulation of children present a unique challenge to the coalition as it conducts operations on the battlefield and begins rehabilitation of former Daesh sympathizers. The long-term effort to uproot Daesh will be more complicated than killing terror leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his fighters.
“There’s the question of what to do about potentially thousands of indoctrinated children left behind,” the authors said. Daesh “is thinking with the long term in mind. It’s not just bringing children into its ranks and using them immediately on the battlefield. What it’s doing is bringing them in, indoctrinating them, training them, and spending a lot of time instilling them with jihadist ideology.”
As small numbers of children either escape or defect from Daesh, and as more accounts emerge of children’s experiences, Iraq and its allies must urgently address the rehabilitation and reintegration of former youth militants. These children — in addition to the more than 2.1 million children in Syria alone who do not attend school because of the conflict — will be highly vulnerable to future recruitment, even after Daesh itself is defeated.
Children who lived under Daesh control — even if they weren’t fighters themselves — have also been subjected to intense indoctrination. In Mosul, Daesh members gave sermons at Friday prayers, posted billboards at major intersections, and distributed posters and fliers to promote its narrative. Occasionally, it also set up movie screens in city centers showing films to intimidate locals and generate new recruits.
To target children, Daesh created its own academic curriculum, used throughout the territory it occupied, which focused on religious themes and Daesh nationalism. Though as many as 70 percent of parents in Mosul reportedly withheld their children from these Daesh-organized programs, Daesh punished parents by charging a fine to those who kept their children from school. In addition, Daesh ran youth camps and set up mobile trivia games and Quran memorization contests, awarding prizes to the winners.
The indoctrination of children is all the more worrisome in light of concerns about an emerging “Virtual Caliphate,” a radicalized community organized online, that empowers the global Salafi-jihadi movement and could operate independently of Daesh, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War. In a study of Daesh’s information operations, the institute argued that this Virtual Caliphate could perhaps slip beyond Daesh’s grasp, morphing into a “broad and diffuse violent movement that is harder to predict and disrupt than previous strains of international terrorism.”
The crucial fight against Daesh’s exploitation of children will — and does — begin at school. For children whose families fled Daesh, this takes place in camps for internally displaced people.
At the Jadaa displacement camp in Iraq, the Iraqi government and United Nations partner to educate an average of 250 children each day, although numbers vary as families are displaced and others return to villages retaken by Iraqi forces. Children focus on Arabic and English writing lessons, as well as math, science and Islamic studies. The latter is key to undoing indoctrination some children were subjected to under the extremists, said Mohammed Othman, who heads one of the two schools in the camp.
Nura Al Bajari, a member of the Iraqi parliament from the province of Ninewa, said resuming education for children who have been out of school was key to Iraq’s post-Daesh future.
“These children talk only of blood and fighting. They need classes that focus on human rights and community life,” she said.
A variety of governmental and academic organizations have proposed broader solutions for purging society of Daesh’s dangerous ideology. A Rand Corp. analysis called on Twitter to continue its campaign of suspending accounts of those propagating terror. “This campaign likely harasses Daesh Twitter users and forces them to lose valuable time reacquiring followers, and may ultimately push some to use social media channels that are far less public and accessible than Twitter,” the report said.
Another technique, as Dr. Sam Mullins of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies wrote in an essay for Unipath, is to reveal the hypocrisy of Daesh’s actions. “Showcase the reality of life inside a terrorist organization, in contrast to the glossy propaganda and naïve expectations of recruits,” he wrote.
Dr. Hussein Alawi, chairman and founder of the Akkad Center for Strategic Affairs and Future Studies in Iraq, suggested a need for programs that supplement anti-terror information campaigns, in some cases using a focus on citizenship and national unity. “Build operational, intellectual, judicial, developmental and social lessons to re-instill humanitarian, national and social values in the hearts and minds of those affected by extremist and takfiri ideas,” he wrote.
In October 2016, the Abu Dhabi-based anti-terror center Hedayah launched “Creative Minds for Social Good,” a public-private initiative with Facebook and the U.S. State Department, to counter terrorist propaganda by creating positive online content and promoting credible voices in the Middle East. Experts from advertising, creative, digital and production companies served as advisors on the project.
“This pioneering initiative recognizes the growing vital role of communications, particularly social media platforms,” said Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, chairman of Hedayah’s steering board.
Along those same lines, the United States is taking an online marketing approach to reaching specific audiences, putting messages on Facebook that target people who have indicated by their online activities that they may be considering extremist ideology. When certain words or phrases are searched that reveal an interest in Daesh or other groups, Google posts ads on the page that link to anti-terror YouTube messages.