Child Soldiers of the Islamic State: Comparing Recruitment Efforts between Africa and the Middle East

It’s been estimated that approximately 40% of child soldiers are active on the African continent. This bears testament to the climate of post-conflict societies in many African countries simmering on the edge of reverting back into civil war, where children were exploited into participating primarily for their loyalty, physical agility, psychological malleability and low maintenance. Post-conflict climates are widely characterized by widespread poverty, displacement, food and health insecurity, poor access to education and upward mobility, against the backdrop of ethnic militias and terrorist organisations pitted against government security forces. This state of insecurity has created environments conducive to the establishment of terrorist organisations in Africa affiliated with the Islamic State, their recruitment and upbringing of child soldiers within their strongholds. The same could be said of the Middle East, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, the main theaters of the United States’ war on terror, the encroaching Arab Spring and strongholds of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. However, in spite similar climates of poverty, poor governance and insecurity, the unique goals of regional chapters of the Islamic State ultimately determines the recruiting methods and use of child soldiers. So let’s explore this further:

The Islamic State: Iraq and Syria

What chiefly distinguishes the Islamic State from Al-Qaeda (which eventually led to their split) is the fact that the former is not just a jihadist group, but an aspiring state. With this goal in mind, it follows a long-term two-pronged strategy of-on the one hand-acquiring sources of revenue, territory weapons and fighters to sustain itself as a terrorist organization while also building societies through governance structures and systematic indoctrination through schools and religious institutions. In doing so, the Islamic State establishes a highly coordinated ecosystem that enables the continuation of the organization and its ideology in the face of tangible losses. The Islamic State, in essence, places a high premium on developing cognitive capital, an easily transferable and sustainable ‘asset’, among the wider community, which it considers an important source of the continuation of its statehood project.

Recruitment Methods

Pašagić says that “children who were recruited into the organization itself aren’t necessarily extracted from their regular communities.” This describes what essentially makes the Islamic State recruitment in Iraq and Syria, different from its affiliates in Africa. Firstly, Islamic State propaganda perpetuates the narrative of a ‘child friendly’ environment under its control, targeted at parents, demonstrating the glorified role their children could play as fighters and martyrs. In doing so, the Islamic State has successfully drawn in family units from even as far as South Africa to be part of the organization and state project. In doing so, a child’s family members are likely to be compliant or supportive of their recruitment and indoctrination in radical Islamic ideology. Furthermore, child soldiers are likely to be recruited from territory under Islamic State control or strongholds as opposed to acquiring child soldiers from other locations. With an estimated 2 million people who have lived under the Islamic State from its inception, the organisation had plenty of recruits to choose from, with many born under its Caliphate. 

Secondly, Morris and Dunning describe how the Islamic State’s formal education system forms the corner stone of indoctrination and recruitment of children. Teachers are trained to deliver lessons that focus on theology and military training of children as young as 10 years old. In doing so, the Islamic State’s schooling system speedily integrates children into its activities, exposing them to violent extremist ideology and weapons, often encouraging their participation in extremely violent acts. Students considered to show promise and skill in preaching and combat are rewarded with recognition and often used to recruit potential child soldiers, appealing to the relatability of their collective circumstances and the possibility of being like them. Islamic State recruiters also target mosques, as it’s considered one of the best places to acquire children who don’t necessarily attend school often due to being orphans. According to research done by Almohammad involving interviews with former child soldiers of the Islamic State, recruiters give speeches and preach at mosques to gain the trust of children, sometimes luring them to ‘orphan centers’ where basic supplies are provided as well as intense indoctrination.

Thirdly, the Islamic State organizes community outreach programs targeted at children (and parents) involving food, toys, Qur’an memorization contests and social engagements with recruiters, fighters and model child soldiers of the Islamic State. Community outreach programs also present a number of incentives for children to join the Islamic State, such as peer pressure, money and the desire to be brave. In an environment with extreme levels of socio-economic and political instability, tangible incentives are arguably one of the key motivations for children joining the Islamic State. This however, doesn’t negate more brazen strategies by the Islamic State to acquire child soldiers, which include mass abduction of children from their homes who they physically assault and threaten to comply with their orders. In 2015, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 800-900 children between the ages of 9 and 15 were abducted by the Islamic State in various locations in Mosul. Following the collapse of the Caliphate, many children roam both refugee camps and the streets of Iraq and Syria, vulnerable to the resurgence of the Islamic State while its Khorasan province rages on.

Roles of Child Soldiers

Recruited children occupy various roles, often depending on their gender or organizational needs. For example, young girls are assigned domestic and care giving tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and tending to wounded fighters. Girls are also often raped, forced into marriage and give birth to children who they are expected to raise and indoctrinate towards becoming Islamic State fighters or brides. Young boys are trained in military duties and fulfil the roles of preachers, soldiers, guards, suicide bombers and executioners. In some instances where there may be a shortage of fighters, young girls (and women) are included in military training and operations to carry out explosive attacks by launching grenades or as suicide bombers.

The Islamic State: Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger

In 2015, Boko Haram and pro-Islamic State members of al-Mourabitoun (now the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, followed by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in 2017 before being officially recognized by being referred to the Central African province (ISCAP) in an attack claim in 2018. This was followed by ISCAP publishing its first claim to attacks in the north eastern province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique by Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASwJ) in 2019, suggesting ties between the Mozambican group and the Islamic State. These Islamic State affiliates have capitalized on the state of insecurity they either found or established themselves, characterized by perpetual conflict and clashes with government security forces. For the most part, they’ve focused their efforts on waging insurgencies by targeting and killing innocent civilians, journalists, aid workers and security forces, damaging infrastructure, suspending normal activities and displacing thousands of people, creating pockets of strongholds mainly along borders with neighboring states. As they oscillate between losing strongholds, gaining vehicles and weapons, and losing fighters, all while projecting the goal of establishing an Islamic state, the groups are primarily interested in their survival. In doing so, the manner in which (women and) children are acquired suggests a means to satisfy short-term needs for fighters, caretakers and slaves by any and all means necessary.

Recruitment Methods

A common approach by Boko Haram, its West African (ISWAP) faction, the ADF, ISGS and ASwJ is the forced abduction of women and children. The infamous kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Chibok town in Borno state, Nigeria, is case and point of this type of modus operandi. The ADF has been kidnapping children since February 1998, when it abducted 30 girls and 3 boys from a school in Fort Port, and again 4 months later when it abducted approximately 180 school children in Kichwamba and Hoima, and again in November 2018, where attacks in Eringeti and Oicha led to the abduction of 10 people including children. According to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project, ASwJ begun abducting women and children in various locations around Cabo Delgado in May last year after raiding houses torching houses and beheading countless others including men.

Though it’s difficult to locate incidents linked to the ISGS in particular with regards to the recruitment of child soldiers, the targeting of schools by Islamist groups has been an ongoing occurrence in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, resulting in schools closing down for the safety of staff and children. By affecting long-term access to education and by extension, socio-economic opportunities, Islamist groups like the ISGS present themselves as the only viable option for survival. For fear of dying of hunger or being killed by other rival groups, children join Islamist groups for protection and sustenance. In a similar vein, the ADF offers false promises of free education to children who have never been afforded access to education due to poverty, while also targeting schools, forcefully abducting children, including school girls.  

There are however, three recruitment methods that are being used that are similar to the Islamic State in the Middle East. Firstly, it’s been reported that the ADF and Islamist groups in Mali are enticing children and their families with promises of employment and financial support. This may become a similar situation in Mozambique according to Jasmine Opperman, who claims emerging reports of insurgents being paid against the backdrop of continued kidnapping of women and children may create a larger crisis of child soldiers, something the country knows all too well from the civil war which ended just 28 years ago. Secondly, Zenn mentions in his latest book, states that not all child soldiers of Boko Haram are abducted from mainstream society, owing to the fact that the group has had access to hundreds of child soldiers born under its establishment since 2009. This may also be true of the ADF which has been in existence since 1996 and abducting children, many of whom have not been traced, along with their children. Finally, the ADF also acquires child soldiers from parents, who believe in the importance of one’s tribal obligations, patriotism and masculinity through military training from an early age while girls are married off to ADF fighters.

Roles of Child Soldiers

Women who have managed to escape captivity from ASwJ recall how abducted women are currently being held as sex slaves like many school girls captured by the ADF. Beyond these testimonies, there is no evidence through official Islamic State channels as to what the women and children abducted in Cabo Delgado are being used for, as no attacks or incidents have been reported to have included children. It’s also not exactly clear what the ISGS may be using child soldiers for at this stage as reports already fail to directly link them to specific incidents as it is. However, the United States Department of State mentioned the use of child soldiers by Islamist groups in northern Mali 3 years prior to the establishment of ISGS, which involved using children as prison guards, spies, fighters and checkpoint patrol units while young girls were sexually exploited (and child bearers as a result) while also being turned into domestic slaves. It’s fair to consider the possibility that the ISGS has been involved in any one-if not all-of these activities over the past 5 years of its existence.

Similar to the Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram/ISWAP have involved children in executions, as well as suicide bombings, including women, which has been one of its defining characteristics. Furthermore, women and children also play an important role within the ADF, as the former are often used for reliable guided transport, combat against government security forces and attacks on vulnerable locations like clinics and internally displaced communities (IDCs). According to the Congo Research Group, ADF videos from between 2016 and 2017 published by the ADF’s private social media channels revealed how women were not only involved in tending to wounded fighters and reading the Quran, but also training in combat like their children, involving martial arts routines and the handling of weapons.

To conclude, though there are similarities in the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the Islamic State in the Middle East and Africa, a fundamental difference between the groups in both regions is the fact that the former engages in active recruitment within a highly coordinated societal ecosystem to encourage and manipulate children into joining its ranks. This is due to the group’s perception of wider society as part and parcel of its statehood project as opposed to an environment to be detached and extracted from. Its affiliates in Africa however, are primarily concerned with survival and sustaining their campaign of terror, requiring human resources to participate in battle, tend to the domestic state of the camps and cater to the needs of fighters. In doing so, women and children serve as an important ‘package’, simply to be taken from mainstream society to meet the short to medium term needs of respective groups.

This comparison is not to make the point that recruitment methods by Islamic State affiliates in Africa are any less sinister or have any less severe repercussions upon children. It is more to demonstrate both how the longevity of terrorist organisations (like Boko Haram and even Al-Shabaab) and their ability to garner grassroot support and reconstruct society to make it part of its identity and long-term vision, perpetuates the continued existence of environments that create child soldiers. This means, tactical gains on the battlefield remain futile against the backdrop emerging generations of young fighters and communities still holding on to what they’ve always known to be and trained to fulfill.

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