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Cubs in the Lions’ Den: Indoctrination and Recruitment of Children Within Islamic State Territory


The full report can be accessed here. Read on for the Executive Summary.

• Over the course of its ‘Caliphate’ project (2014–2017), the Islamic State group (IS) sought to indoctrinate, recruit and operationalise children to both populate its ‘state’ and swell its army. In order to design effective initiatives to rehabilitate and reintegrate children born and/or raised under IS rule, the motivating factors behind their initial association with the group must be explored.

• Unlike foreign minors radicalised to travel (or forcibly brought) to Iraq and Syria, localised recruitment of children within IS territory cannot be separated into delineated or sequential stages of ideological enticement and training. Instead, IS created a holistic and immersive strategy to radicalise minors, combining formal and informal, direct and indirect, cooperative and coercive, and individual and systematic methods of simultaneous outreach and indoctrination.

• Informed by official and unofficial IS propaganda, this merged radicalisation stage of IS’ initial interaction and indoctrination of children is characterised by six concurrent and interrelated sub-categories or ‘pathways of influence’.


Pathways of Influence
• Kidnapping and forced conscription: As part of its process of territorial expansion, IS kidnapped thousands of children from orphanages, schools and family homes. It is estimated that children under 14 account for over a third of the 6,800 Yazidis abducted in Sinjar in 2014, with a further 800–900 reported to have been kidnapped from Mosul.

• Desensitisation to violence: IS’ widespread publicity and enactment of brutality within its territory served to ‘normalise’ children’s exposure to violence and death. Children were encouraged to watch public stonings, amputations and beheadings, serving to stem natural feelings of disgust or fear. Such emotional ‘reprogramming’ culminates in children’s acceptance of violence as a ‘natural’ way of life, and facilitates the progression for children to conduct violence themselves as combatants, torturers and executioners.

• ‘Positive’ governance: In the context of on-going conflict and widespread deprivation, IS proved itself as effective governors, reportedly reducing crime and providing public goods and services. For children, IS exploited Syria’s plummeting rates of literacy and school attendance. IS successfully transformed the classrooms of its 1,350 primary and secondary schools into recruitment arenas, delivering its restricted ideological curriculum to over 100,000 male and female students.

• Social factors: Through isolation from countervailing influences and information, IS sought to foster an ideological echo chamber among children. Symbols of group membership – including uniforms, weapons and gifts – played on local children’s financial motivations for enlistment and fuelled peer pressure to conform to and join the privileged ‘in-group’. Combining rewards of status and camaraderie, the group exploited children’s desire for a sense of purpose and belonging. Through social bonding, physical adventure and ideological purification, with roles for even the youngest recruits, IS sent a clear message that it valued Syria and Iraq’s children.

• Loss/replacement of positive role model(s): With a civilian death toll of over half a million Syrians (with 4,166 civilian fatalities in 2018 alone), IS responded to children’s desire for vengeance, family income or simply a new role model to follow. For the ‘cubs’ (boys), trusted figures of fathers, businessmen and community leaders were replaced with hypermasculine fighters flaunting wealth, status and an outlet for adventure and aggression.

• Trusted adult influencers: Although many children reportedly enlisted ‘voluntarily’, the family unit remains a critical influencer for recruitment. Privately, IS relied on and encouraged parents to integrate ideological indoctrination into the ‘normal’ parental upbringing of children. Publicly, the trust afforded to teachers and educators reduced children’s critical analysis of information and instruction. Trusted figures ‘normalise’ the process and create a false safe spaces, removing barriers to children’s acceptance of IS’ one-dimensional ideology.


Conclusions and Recommendations
• IS successfully identified the social, economic and ideological needs of children within its territory, delivering tangible opportunities for young recruits to engage and build a future for themselves and their community. Thus counter-efforts also need to be physically supported, demonstrating and delivering on commitments to rebuild communities and improve living conditions. Without tangible long-term effects and outlets for children’s activism, radical ideas and governance structures will continue to hold influence.

• IS’ governance practices provided an effective draw for adult and child recruits; yet, not only can weaknesses be exposed, but positive lessons can be drawn for future efforts to stabilise and govern the region. Examples include IS’ app-based educational tools, overcoming issues of school closures or shortages in teaching staff. Such measures can be imitated to provide a cost-effective system of positive engagement and education of children in liberated areas.

• Efforts to provide a counter-point to IS communications can use the group’s own actions as evidence of narrative hypocrisy and exploitation of children. Display of IS’ hyper-violence, to which children have already become traumatised and desensitised, must be avoided. Instead, hypocrisies such as use of children as human shields for cowardly adult militants or practices of kidnapping and forced conscription inherited from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime can expose the harsh reality of IS’ actions.

• In addition to positive messages, children also need positive influencers and role models to follow. Rather than the short-term privileges of income and status, trusted adults and peers need to highlight the long-term impacts of association with the group, including stigmatisation, prosecution and statelessness. Alternative identities and life paths will allow children to earn the respect of their communities and enable them to play an active role in rebuilding their communities in a post-IS era.