The Children of Islamic State

The House of Commons was the scene of the March 9 launch of a report entitled The Children of Islamic State, compiled by the Quilliam Foundation in collaboration with The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Combining historical research with primary and secondary source data analysis, the report was researched and analysed over six months from 2015-2016, and based on IS propaganda. It is the first database of its kind and contains studies of child soldiers in various countries and time periods, with a key focus on the current situation for children within Islamic State.

On the panel to discuss the report’s findings were its three authors, Nikita Malik and Noman Benotman, both from Quilliam, and Dr Shelly Whitman, Executive Director of The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. The event was chaired by Dr Julian Lewis MP.

In his opening remarks, Dr Lewis spoke of the ‘all too familiar ring’ of dictatorial regimes, in their pursuit of power, brainwashing the next generation and creating future time-bombs. He drew comparisons between the brutal methods used by Islamic State and the Nazis, and questioned the religious basis of IS ideology, adding that the group is now losing its asset of invisibility and thus making itself more vulnerable. Dr Lewis praised the report, which he called ‘chilling’, before handing over to the panel.

Nikita Malik discussed the main findings of the report, including how children are recruited to Islamic State, often directly by way of abductions but also more indirectly by coercion through fear; their roles within the ‘caliphate’, ranging from messengers and spies to executioners, as well as propagating its expansion, ensuring its future existence and increasing global fear by breaking international norms of how we view brutality; and the impact that becoming soldiers has on children who are exposed to and hence normalised to violence. The report also highlighted how children are regarded as more lethal fighters than the current crop of adult soldiers, as they have been indoctrinated into extremist values from birth, via schools and training camps, rather than being converted to radical ideologies.

Malik then outlined the policy recommendations for countering IS brainwashing of children and the subsequent physical, mental and emotional trauma they suffer. These included the creation of support networks and a special commission to oversee re-integration of children into more mainstream society; the facilitation of de-radicalisation procedures; and the promotion of positive peer-to-peer mentorship to prevent more radicalised children from further indoctrinating less radicalised ones. Re-education, Malik concluded, should focus on debunking the credibility of biased Islamic State narratives and replacing them with positive alternatives.

Dr Shelly Whitman stressed the importance of multi-disciplinary organisations in countering the use of child soldiers, and gave some background on such groups. The use of child soldiers is not, she urged, happenstance; it is strategic and well-planned. Drawing parallels with the Nazi regime, she said that for them, using children was a last resort, whereas for IS it is the first choice, as children will likely remain indoctrinated into adulthood. The West has been completely ineffective at addressing this problem, said Dr Whitman, and is unprepared to deal with it in the context of DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration). A strength-based approach is what is needed, she argued, rather than a trauma-based one.

She also warned that the cyclical elements of conflict can be felt globally, citing the example of Sudan, where former child soldiers are now hardened adults. With the refugee crisis bringing this issue closer to European shores, Dr Whitman said this will be the whole world’s problem in the long term.

For Noman Benotman, one of the main focuses of the discussion was the purpose of the report, which was to raise awareness of the situation regarding child soldiers and their role in Islamic State’s message to the West: ‘Your war against terror is a failure because we own the future generations.’

Benotman also looked at language in the debate, considering definitions of the words ‘child’, ‘victim’ and ‘terrorist’ and assessing their accuracy as they are applied in various contexts. The report looks at different cultural notions of childhood and asserts that there is no single, universal definition.

Islamic State is trying to create a ‘pure’ new generation that will share its absolute ideology and counter Western strategies, said Benotman. Yet he saw child soldiers as in some way the ‘weak link’ in IS propaganda, as we do not see images of children being martyred for the cause, unless to demonise the West.

A lively Q & A followed, with questions and comments from the audience and panel regarding integration and education levels among immigrants in Europe, recruiting mechanisms within Islamic State, the growth of global focus on the use of child soldiers, preventing violent (and non-violent) extremism, and whether ideology has any place within religion.

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