Raised on Terror: ISIS's Focus on 'Indoctrinating' Children

Experts: Kids have appeared in 250 disturbing ISIS messages in last 6 months.

March 07, 2016, 3:19 PM

— -- Last month ISIS released the latest of its many propaganda videos featuring child fighters, this time showing a purported 15-year-old suicide car bomber -- a horrifying, but typical example of the youngsters who Western researchers say are increasingly used by the Syria-based terrorist group.

"It is the road to victory and Paradise, Allah willing. Let me just do the operation, because if I stay longer I might sin and the sins will increase," the teenage bomber said in the 22-minute ISIS video, in which he spoke atop a hill overlooking Dabiq, Syria. "I know my opponents are apostates who left Allah and His Messenger and became loyal to America."

In the past six months alone, minors have appeared in 250 ISIS messages, which have included a dozen releases depicting children as executioners of prisoners or "spies," according to the Quilliam Foundation, a London think-tank led by former jihadi Noman Benotman.

In early February, an ISIS video showed a boy appearing to cut the head off a man identified as belonging to an anti-ISIS group in Iraq and Syria. Just over a year before that, another video appeared to show a young boy executing two "spies" by shooting them in the head. In May 2015, the seven-year-old son of an alleged Australian jihadist was shown on social media smiling while holding the head of a Syrian soldier -- an image that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said was "really one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed."

The purpose of what researchers says is an unprecedented use of children in military roles as well as in a group's propaganda is not just to show that jihad under the black flag of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's caliphate is a family affair, but to scare the West by telegraphing that even if thousands of male fighters are killed, children will grow up and take their place.

"[Islamic State] leaders pay particular attention to children in their territory because the future of any state lies with the next generation. Therefore, the ‘caliphate’ is investing heavily in indoctrinating children with [ISIS] extremist ideology as early as possible," the Quilliam report said.

Researchers estimated that hardcore indoctrination to violence, including exposure to gory battle and execution videos -- to become desensitized to extreme carnage -- as well as weapons training, intensifies for children in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq between the ages of 10 and 15.

“Not only do training camps unsure the education of children in violent practices, but in public spaces, children as well as adults are routinely exposed to executions,” the report says. Citing a 2015 United Nations report, Quilliam said that ISIS has “reportedly encouraged children to participate in public brutality, including holding up decapitated heads or playing football with them.”

Another recent report published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center said some children in the occupied areas are indoctrinated with ISIS ideology as early as eight years old.

"The data unambiguously suggests that the Islamic State’s mobilization of children and youth for military purposes is accelerating," wrote the researchers in the CTC report last month, Mia Bloom, John Horgan and Charlie Winter.

ISIS itself promotes this in dozens of videos released over the past 18 months since al-Baghdadi seized Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and declared an Islamic caliphate he would lead. Children have been shown in schoolhouses learning shariah (Islamic) law and in other videos carrying out executions of prisoners using pistols.

The point of these messages is clear, one of the ISIS experts said. "Even if you kill the leaders, the kids will step into their fathers' shoes," ISIS researcher Mia Bloom told ABC News in an interview today.

And though there were doubts for a while that kids really fought alongside adults or actually carried out suicide bombings, it now is plain that they are engaged in both, say the researchers from Quilliam and those behind the CTC report, who are from Georgia State University.

The Georgia State researchers writing for the CTC found that ISIS has promoted the deaths of at least 89 child "martyrs" over the past year. Their analysis of data drawn from messages posted on ISIS social media determined that half of them were killed in suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks -- suicide car bombings -- and 30 percent perished in some form of combat, divided almost evenly between locations in Syria and Iraq.

Alarmingly, the number of suicide bombings involving kids is also "accelerating," the Georgia State researchers concluded in their CTC report.

"Children are fighting alongside, rather than in lieu of, adult males and their respective patterns of involvement closely reflect one another. In other conflicts, the use of child soldiers may represent a strategy of last resort, as a way to 'rapidly replace battlefield losses,' or in specialized operations for which adults may be less effective. However, in the context of the Islamic State, children are used in much the same ways as their elders," the CTC report said.

Both the Quilliam and CTC reports compared the ISIS strategy regarding children to the Nazis' priorities with the Hitler Youth program of the 1930s. In recent decades, non-state militants waging insurgencies have often kept child soldiers discreetly hidden from public view, but ISIS "bucks this trend brazenly by boasting about its young recruits," the Georgia State researchers noted.

"It gives the impression that the conflict isn't going to be one off or quick," Bloom told ABC News. "It's a really effective way of conveying the sense that 'we are going to be around for a long time'."

The man portrayed as the father of the 15-year-old suicide bomber in the ISIS video released last month bizarrely tried to defend sending his son off in a white, armor-plated Toyota SUV which he is shown instructing the boy to drive and detonate the explosives inside.

"I encouraged him to do the martyrdom-seeking operation. I told him that he will draw close to Paradise. They call it 'brainwashing'. Indeed, yes it is brainwashing. But why? It is due to the Book and the Sunnah [traditions of the Prophet Muhammad], praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. It is washing the brain from what is polytheist. That is the brainwashing," the father said.

The ISIS video ends with the SUV driving down a gravel road in Dabiq -- site of what ISIS believes will be the Armageddon showdown with "Crusader" forces from the West -- and an orange fireball mushrooming up from the horizon minutes later.

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