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Minors at the service of the islamic state

In 2017, children were victims of attacks on a frightening scale due to the total disregard of International norms that protect the weakest.

As revealed in the Syrian observatory for human rights latest report, in the last days of combat (July 2017), IS suffered around 480 casualties, of which almost 300 were minors known as „Cubs of the Caliphate.” Those 300 children who were recruited by the Islamic State were killed when they were sent to the battlefront by terrorists in the fight against Iraqi troops and the International coalition for the control of Mosul in Iraq.

As expressed in the article that the Guardian published on February 2017 to the Quilliam’s report, in minors radicalization, the journal remarked howthe Islamic State was paying the smugglers fees of child refugees in a desperate attempt to attract new recruits. This fact highlights once again the potential vulnerability of unaccompanied minors to radicalization.Besides, this vulnerability is confirmed once more with the estimated figure of 88,300 unaccompanied minors that the EU statistics agency Eurostat identified in 2017 as missing minors which are at risk of being radicalized.

In addition to the Islamic State, such diverse groups as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the primarily Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) recruited and used children to their war objectives. Children have been used in hostilities in different roles as front- line fighting, which it is said, carrying out terrorist attacks, executions of prisoners or being suicide bombers. Others have supported roles as messengers, porters, smugglers or spies, even they have been treated as slaves and systematically subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation. In the light of this fact, it is very curious how they vary significantly in the strategies and the roles for which children were and are used, especially because it denotes how handy and manageable they are.Bearing in mind previous figures, it is not surprising that the UN’s children agency denounced on August 2017, that since January 1st of the same year, 83 children were used by Boko Haram (a Jihadist militant organization based in northeastern Nigeria, also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon)  to carry out bomb attacks in north-eastern Nigeria – four times higher than it was for the entirety of 2016.

In terms of deaths, according to a report published by the CTC Sentinel on February 2016, of the 89 cases of children studied, 39% died upon detonating a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) against their target. The 33% were killed as foot soldiers in unspecified battlefield operations, 6% died while working as propagandists embedded within units/brigades, and 4% committed suicide in mass casualty attacks against civilians. The final 18 % were inghimasis (derived from the Arabic “to plunge”), meaning they died in what we more commonly term marauding operations in which a group of mostly adult fighters infiltrates and attacks an enemy position using light automatic weapons before killing themselves by detonating suicide belts.

Concerning suicide operations, forty percent of the time, the children and youth died in operations targeting state security forces (including military and police targets). The 21% were killed fighting against paramilitary forces (militias and non-state opposition), and only 3 % carried out suicide attacks against civilians. No target was specified for the remaining 36 %.

With regards to examples outs the Syria conflict, we can also refer to the two girls, a 14 years old British national and an 18 years old Australian national that were arrested in 2015 in their respective homes countries for planning to attack on Anzac Day ( a official party for countries such New Zealand and Australia that is also celebrated in UK). A similar case that involves minors took place in Spain, the Spanish Civil Guard arrested on February 2016, in the town of Lucena, Andalucia, three minors accused of activities linked to jihadist terrorism. There were evidences by the police investigations that they were trying to access weapons and explosives. In particular, to data on how to getand how to use them. All those cases and figures can lead us to think that currently the use of children to carry out terrorist attacks, both in areas of conflict as Syria or Iraq and in the Western of countries or terrorist attacks in the West, is gaining a greater prominence and this undoubtedly occurs because  of the ease to recruit a child and shows how little protection they have, including from International community.

We can classify the reasons beyond the ideological ones, for which the minors are an easy target for organizations like the IS, in two main categories: one related with the nature of children and other related to the tactical and strategically aspects of IS whichalso addresses economic aspects and aim to ensure operational success.

Firstly, we should bear in mind that in some regions or collectives, this group is seen as a salvation against the threat of the government, the “western enemy” or even other violent local groups that are so – called faithless. In this sense, joining their ranks guarantees survival and protection. In some cases,aretheirs families themselves the ones that push and encourage the child to be part of the IS.  On the other hand, in populations where the ISis no longer strong or has lost most of the support from the local population, adults are likely to be difficult to recruit, while the recruitment of minors ensures geographical expansion as well as the control of the area although its support at first is weakened. We must admit that in terms of strategy it is a very practical and useful one, as allows the IS to continue with the control of a region or at least do not disappear from it aside from saving time to shift tactic towards regaining territory.

Secondly, some groups like the IS and Boko Haram, have intensified in the recent years the recruitment of children and the publication of videos and images on the Internet. These videos and pictures are material in which children were the perpetrators of cruel and extremely bloody scenes. The main objective of those images in these cases is to generate alarm in the International community and at the same time show the power and ruthlessness of the group.

Another approximation to tackle is the economic, since it is much more profitable to feed and take care of a child than an adult,
by the simple fact that children need less food that adults, therefore the cost of maintenance is cheaper for the group. Apart from that, the market for small arms in such countries especially in conflict areas is also a relevant factor, as it is little regulated or at least is easier to dodge. Smaller weapons are made more accessible to children who can handle them with much more ease than large caliber weapons, in this case the use of children as murders and perpetrators of a terrorist attack reduce itself the cost of the attack with do not necessarily means to reduce the effectiveness of a child who is used to apply violence.

We should not forget, on the other hand, that children are usually easier to manipulate than adults are and that it is relatively easy to generate a feeling of dependency and affectivity, especially with unaccompanied minors. They many time do not have a family environment that can dissuade them from starting as a child soldier. In addition, children tend to show their loyalty and respect towards the leaders they admire and respect relatively quickly which is a particularly relevant element when families intervene in the recruitment process, that is, when a sibling or family member recruits.

In a more tactical sense, children have been used to immolate themselves or perpetrate attacks such as those that took place in Germany in 2016 in which Germany narrowly avoided an attack on a Christmas market after a 12-year boy twice planted bombs that failed to detonate owing to their flawed design. The child was returned to his family in March after being held in a psychiatric hospital, according to a local media report.

Also in 2016, two 16-year-old suspected Islamists threw an explosive at a Sikh temple in the German city of Essen, injuring three people. The attackers were given prison sentences of seven years, and six years and nine months respectively.

The growth of minors’ recruitment in conflict areas as Syria is also evident, seeing that according to the CTC Sentinel report, from January 1, 2015, to January 31, 2016, 89 children and youths were eulogized in Islamic State propaganda. The 51% were alleged to have died in Iraq, while 36% died in Syria. The remainders were killed during operations in Yemen, Libya, and Nigeria. The 31% were Syrian, 25% Syrian/Iraqi, and 11% Iraqi. The remaining 33% were from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and Nigeria.

In some circumstances minors are much less aware than the elderly of the risks these situations involve, so they can handle anxiety much better and may in some cases be more effective than adults.

If we focus in the crisis in Syria, we assume that it has left more than 470,000 fatalities, (Syrian Center for Policy Research, 2016), including more than 12,000 children, and more than 7.6 million internally displaced persons. According to UNICEF, there are 8.4 million children affected by the conflict, either within the country or as refugees. In addition, there are 6 million Syrian children who need humanitarian assistance and more than 2 million can not receive it because they live in areas of difficult access or are besieged.

This situation has been the result of the violation of International standards and Law to Protect Children, of course, in the case of Syria, Humanitarian Law and its repeated prohibition of attacking civilian targets such as hospitals or schools, not only have not been respected, but have been systematically breached. It is therefore necessary to acknowledge that the safeguard of the rights of children that were so well written in the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been an absolute failure.

Children are the future of our societies as a whole, their education and care should be one of our priorities. In the case of Syria, the future of this people is devastating based on the situation of their children and youth, mostly displaced or in camps of refugees in countries neighboring Syria, while, the IS continues to recruit minors in areas such as Afghanistan and Lebanon. As established in the Geneva Convention and their Additional Protocols, people protected by International Humanitarian Law should remain a priority in conflict areas.

In the fight against Jihadism, avoiding the recruitment of children, we hurt the sustainability of Jihadism and avoid children to suffer undesirable situations, that in most cases provoke sequels that are difficult to overcome, it is also necessary to create alternative to children who had the misfortune to born at the wrong place.

It is essential to respect the existing mechanisms, mainly the International legislation, to fight against the new recruitment channels for minors that the IS is developing. The question at the moment once we analyze the previous data is whether we really want to apply International laws in this regard or on the contrary, in light of the data, International community is not interested in the application of the law that already exist? We must be aware that it is not necessary to create new tools or initiatives as long as we do not comply with those that already exist, so the task should be easier to perform of what being in practice.


Inmaculada Yuste Martínez, FUNDEA