Rising Threat: The Islamic State’s Militarization of Children


The following article was submitted by Suarez Specialist Instructor Danny Ammons.

Rising Threat:  The Islamic State’s Militarization of Children

In the opening scene of “American Sniper”, the sniper spots a woman and child exiting a building.  The woman hands the child what looks like to be a grenade and the child starts running towards American troops.  The sniper had to decide to take the shot and eliminate the threat even though it was a child.  The sniper then had to kill the woman because she then posed a threat by picking up the grenade and headed towards the American troops.  The sniper fortunately made the right choice by using deadly force but now has to live with the fact he killed a child.

These are the new contours of the battle against the Islamic State. A growing body of evidence makes clear that the Islamic State (IS) is actively exploiting children on the battlefield in order to gain the upper hand against stronger and better armed adversaries. Most recently, on August 20th, 54 people were killed and 66 injured at a wedding in Turkey, and the alleged perpetrator was a 12 to 14-year-old boy wearing a suicide vest. Five days later, the Islamic State released a video of five young boys dressed in desert camouflage executing at point-blank range five Kurdish fighters.

The rate at which the Islamic State is recruiting, training, and exploiting children presents a new set of challenges for U.S. warfighters and law enforcement. Not only do we risk overlooking the threat posed by children, assuming their innocence, but we also run the risk of moral injury and increased rates of PTSD to those who must confront this threat. This paper looks at how the Islamic State is militarizing children in order to better prepare the United States to face this new and rising threat.

The Historical Role of Children in Terrorism

The use of children in war is not an innovation of the 21st century.  It dates back hundreds of years to the mid-evil times.  While the exploitation of children for military purposes has a long history, in the past 25 years its prevalence has grown, particularly in terrorist operations.  While terrorist organizations have regularly relied on children in different supporting roles, one can see a dramatic difference from al Qaeda to ISIS. Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad on Americans, dated September 2, 1996, encouraged the participation of young men in jihad:

“There is nothing strange about this: Muhammad’s companions were young men. And the young men of today are the successor of the early ones.”

However, this position was later contradicted by the al Qaeda Training Manual discovered in 2000, which states:

"The requirements of military work are numerous, and a minor cannot perform them. The nature of hard and continuous work in dangerous conditions requires a great deal of psychological, mental, and intellectual fitness, which are not usually found in a minor.”

This did not stop Al Qaeda from using abducted children to retrieve weapons from the battlefield, get through checkpoints and act as suicide bombers; but they did not as a rule recruit and specifically train child fighters.  ISIS, however, has developed a complete system for grooming, recruiting and training minors as jihadists.

ISIS’s Use of Children: Reasoning

The eighth issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine, features an article titled “The Lions of Tomorrow.” Although brief, it introduces the Cubs of the Caliphate and explains their importance to the Islamic State:

The Islamic State has taken it upon itself to fulfill the Ummah’s duty towards this generation in preparing it to face the crusaders and their allies in defense of Islam and to raise high the word of Allah in every land. It has established institutes for these ashbal (lion cubs) to train and hone their military skills, and to teach them the book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). It is these young lions to whom the Islamic State recently handed over two agents caught spying for Russian Intelligence and an agent caught spying for the Israeli Mossad, to be executed and displayed as an example to anyone else thinking of infiltrating the mujahidin.

The Islamic State justifies their use of child fighters, by saying,

“And just as the children of the Sahabah stained their swords with the blood of yesterday’s taghut (idolator)…so too will the children of the Khilafah stain their bullets with the blood of today’s tawaghit (idolaters).”

ISIS has and is continuing to prime its children inside the Caliphate to become the jihadis of tomorrow, and they are using the teachings of Mohammed to justify these actions.

ISIS’s Use of Children: By the Numbers

Children are being recruited or abducted by ISIS at alarming rates.  ISIS targeted schools and mosques to recruit 400 children in 2015 alone.  In addition to those recruited, it is estimated in June 2015 that ISIS abducted 800 – 900 children between the ages of 9 & 15 years old.  Of grave concern are the estimated 700,000 refugee children out of school at the end of September 2015 as a result of the Syrian Civil War. That is a large and vulnerable population that the Islamic State is likely tapping into, providing services and education that the children otherwise would not receive and in turn recruiting countless more Lion Cubs. One expert estimated that the Caliphate has at least 1,500 children in its ranks.  ISIS uses mass media to perpetuate its propaganda around the world in multiple languages while using child jihadists to recruit other children to fight for ISIS.  Once a child is taken and put into one of 24 run ISIS schools, they are subjected to the training and beliefs of the Caliphate.  These religious schools are paired with physical training camps, where children are taught fighting and weapons skills. Some were even made to decapitate blond-haired dolls as practice for real life executions.  The Islamic State is not only using these schools to recruit fighters, but also as a means of investing in children so that their “radical message endures beyond the group itself.”

ISIS Youth Supporters in the United States

The Islamic State has not limited its recruitment or use of children to within its borders. The United States is experiencing a deadly combination of increased levels of youth recruitment and training in Islamic State-held territory paired with high numbers of youth radicalized by ISIS on U.S. soil.  ISIS is targeting a much younger audience internationally and domestically through social media platforms, popular hashtags and their own apps such as “Library of Zeal’s Alphabet.”  The vocabulary and images throughout the app includes tanks, guns, rockets and specifically jihadist terminology.

Since March 2014, 110 ISIS supporters have been interdicted in the U.S. Of those, nearly 60 percent were between the ages of 15 and 25 years old. Even more concerning, 41 of those interdictions were potential or attempted domestic attackers, with 54 percent of those domestic attackers falling between 15 and 25 years of age. (see chart)


Threat to Our Warfighters and Law Enforcement Officers

The engagement of child soldiers both abroad and domestically in support of or inspired by the Islamic State will greatly challenge American warfighters and law enforcement officers.  Abroad, our warfighters face strategic limitations when facing insurgencies and terrorist organizations in the form of our rules of engagement. Generally, American ROE “give American soldiers the option of using force only in the face of a ‘hostile act’ or ‘hostile intent,’ or when an enemy fighter has been ‘positively identified.’”  Once the enemy is engaged, ROE dictate which, how, and where weapons can be used, and indicate the command chain that can authorize the use of each weapon. 

The constraints imposed by our ROE are magnified when facing child combatants. Our rules state that children are civilians, not combatants, and we are mandated to avoid any attack where civilians are present. In America’s airstrike campaign against ISIS, it is reported that the Obama Administration has repeatedly made the decision to leave known military targets intact so as to avoid any civilian casualties.42 The Islamic State not only flagrantly disregards the laws of war—using child soldiers, killing civilians, and enslaving enemies—but they also “launch international propaganda campaigns when our painstaking targeting proves to be the least bit imprecise.” If American soldiers are forced to engage children on the battlefield against the Islamic State, the propaganda value gained by ISIS will be significant—not only will American morale take a dive, but ISIS will undoubtedly gain countless recruits as a result.

Finally, it is important to consider the moral hazard associated with facing children on the battlefield. The Islamic State has assumed the risk of using children—alienating potential supporters and inciting stronger retaliation from its opponents—because the U.S. is forced to assume the costs—upholding the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement, increasing American opposition at home, and alienating any potential allies in the region—which outweigh those risks. Not only would this challenge our ROE, but it could also cause severe psychological and moral injury to our troops, who are taught to protect and value the life of a child.

ISIS’ employment is also a threat and endangers our law enforcement officers here in the U.S.  Of the 22 domestic ISIS plotters age 15 to 25 interdicted in the U.S., seven targeted law enforcement officers and seven targeted members of the military or military installations in America. In addition to this direct threat, there is also a domestic weak spot of concern.

According to our Transportation Security Administration, children under eighteen are not required to have ID to travel domestically.  This makes tracking the movements of child jihadists extremely difficult.  Furthermore, children 12 and under can leave clothing and shoes on while going through airport checkpoints.  With longer lines and times at these checkpoints, ISIS would consider this a favorable soft target for both ISIS supporters using radicalized children to avoid suspicion.

According to a U.S. Southern Command intelligence report, Sunni extremists are already utilizing Latin American smuggling routes to cross the border into the United States.  There is a good chance ISIS will turn to theses smugglers to bring children into the U.S. while the surge of unaccompanied minors is high paired with the U.S. policy to accommodate these children coming from Latin America.  This creates an additional vulnerability ISIS and its supporters could exploit to infiltrate and attack America.

The Islamic State has warned us:

“Beware, we have what we need to defend ourselves: well-armed soldiers are ready to kill you…Your blood will flow for your heinous crimes…  Beware, we are ready to fight back. Our swords are sharpened to slice necks… Beware, men are ready to blow themselves up, ready to respond to the evil you have brought. Beware, your roads will soon be rigged with mines by well-trained and determined brothers. Beware, your end is already planned. Our warriors are everywhere, ready to sacrifice themselves. Beware, our orphans are growing. They feed their thirst for revenge in rage.”  The United States should heed this threat before today’s Cubs of the Caliphate become tomorrow’s Army of Jihadis waging war on American soil.