Rehabilitating child soldiers in the Middle East

The issue of child soldiers is a modern blight with a long historical pedigree. Once the norm, documented back to the classical world and prevalent till the 19th century, the phenomenon was thought to be slowly disappearing as the modern nation state came into being. Yet it is now seen in almost every continent and in almost every conflict, though rarely among formal militaries.

Absolute numbers are impossible to come by and even the U.N. no longer gives precise numbers on the children involved. According to Nick Scarborough, administrative officer of Child Soldiers International, “all numbers we quote are estimates, and even estimates are not available for all situations of conflict…However, the fact that seven national armies and 50 armed groups are listed by the U.N. secretary-general as parties that recruit and use children points to the persistence and severity of the violation.” Boys account for most child soldiers, especially in the Middle East, but around the world it is estimated that some 40 percent of child recruits are female, who are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and other forms of violence.

The Fourth Geneva Convention states that “conscripting or enlisting children into armed forces or groups constitutes a war crime in any armed conflicts.” In 2000 the Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child raised the minimum age for recruitment and direct participation in conflict to 18. Since 2002, 123 countries have ratified it. But progress has been slow. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1612—which set up a monitoring, reporting, and compliance mechanism—notes that much works remains on this agenda, especially since most egregious violations are by non-state actors.

In the Middle East all sides in the ongoing conflicts have been accused of using child soldiers, with the forcefully displaced at special risk. Documented instances range from Shia militias in Iraq, anti-regime rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, pro-regime Syrian militias, as well as Afghan Shia units recruited under Iranian oversight and even with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Child soldiers are also a feature of the war in Yemen and are used by the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK,  in Iraq and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.

But it is the Islamic state group’s ’ use of child soldiers that has attracted the most attention—not simply because of the notoriety of the group but because of the distinctive role IS “cubs of the caliphate” play in the group’s internal and external narrative.

Much attention is devoted in the Western and broader media world to IS using children as executioners or suicide bombers—practices used consciously by IS to desensitize children and initiate a brutal “new normal.” Yet “the presence and participation of children in the comprehensive corpus of IS propaganda extends beyond ultra-violence. On an almost daily basis, children are featured in multiple contexts, from highly publicized executions and training camps to Quran memorization fairs and dawa (proselytizing) caravans.” It is through a process of selection from the larger population of children under their control that IS selects its “cubs.” Many are abductees or orphans such as the Yazidis and others, but  “an increasing percentage of children are joining IS as a result of a grooming process in which [IS] instills a sense of commitment and camaraderie.” Academic research sees this in stages “from currently available data, (there are) six stages of child socialization to [IS]—Seduction, Schooling, Selection, Subjugation, Specialization, and Stationing.” Some are children of foreign families that have willingly come into IS territory, highlighting another rare phenomenon—child soldiers enlisting with the acquiescence of their families including local families who are supportive or desperate for monetary and other benefits.

For IS, children are not mere cannon fodder as child soldiers often are, but comprise a long-term vision and a recognition that the current effort to build a caliphate may fail in the face of overwhelming military pressure. An IS fighter summed up this line of thought: “For us, we believe that this generation of children is the generation of the Caliphate…the right doctrine has been implanted into these children. All of them love to fight for the sake of building the Islamic State.”

As the defeat of IS in Mosul and Raqqa inches closer, the question of how to reintegrate the broader mass of children under their sway as well as the tougher issue of rehabilitating the cubs looms. As Mia Bloom from Georgia State University states this “will require a level of coordination and creativity not seen in any de-radicalization program so far… requiring a multi-pronged approach that addresses the psychological trauma suffered by the children and … re-education so they can unlearn [IS’] distortions of the Islamic faith.” Families usually play a critical role in reintegration; yet, here families may have been the facilitators and children may have to be separated from them, adding to the trauma.

The cubs aside, rehabilitation and reintegration will also be needed for the thousands of other child soldiers, whatever their affiliations. Just as the threat from IS and other similar groups is global, the response to the challenge of rehabilitation must also be global in mobilizing funds and expertise.  Otherwise, we will only facilitate the gestation of another generation of terror.