In 2016, I published a report on the children of the Islamic State, trying to understand what their life was like within the terrorist organization.
This was not an easy thing to do. At the time, the group was still consistently releasing propaganda for its audience of followers. Over six months, our research team was able to collect 254 distinct events that featured images of children. These were recorded in their original Arabic form, and translated.
We found that children were used as soldiers, human shields, messengers, spies, and guards.
More interesting, however, was the finding that the path of a child soldier in Islamic State began in the classroom.
Extremist content within the education system was a crucial tool in the group’s indoctrination of children, and in shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation. Rules were determined and regularly released by the Diwan al-Ta’aleem, the Ministry of Education, and school attendance was compulsory for all children.
Subjects such as drawing, music, nationalism, history, philosophy and social studies were removed. Instead, they were replaced with memorization of the Quran, tawheed (monotheism), fiqh (jurisprudence), salat (prayer), aqeeda (creed), Hadith and Sura (life of Prophet Muhammad). Some subjects were purposefully limited – one Geography textbook, for example, only named continents, and a History textbook only taught Islamic History. Physical education was renamed ‘Jihadist Training’, and included workout routines and lessons on the assembly, firing, cleaning, and storage of light weapons.
Children who refused to conform to the orders of Islamic State were flogged, tortured or raped.
One of the policy recommendations put forward in this report was the question of what to do with these children once the Islamic State was defeated. Over two years have passed since releasing this work, and that is precisely the situation we find ourselves in today.
Programmatic approaches to reintegrate children who return from, or escape terrorist organizations, have tended to avoid violent extremism terminology. It is true those child soldiers escaping Islamic State share similarities with children who have undergone trauma in other ways. This can take the form of historical parallels to child soldiers from other conflicts, inoculation to domestic violence within a family, or time spent within gangs. However, avoiding the crucial role that de-radicalisation and re-education will play in helping children escaping or returning from terrorist organizations is a grave mistake.
Take the case of Y, a child, who in early 2015 returned to the United Kingdom from Islamic State. Just under three years old, the police removed the child from his mother’s care when Counter-Terrorism Officers arrested her.
The child was the subject of protective measures when he was taken from his mother, as well as interim care orders. At first he was placed with foster carers, then eventually with his paternal grandmother.
Unlike others, the British child returnee was not actively enrolled in education or training within the Islamic State. However, he endured a traumatic flight to Syria, and later became ill and was hospitalized in a detention center in Turkey. He was photographed in a number of poses taken with the intent of promoting violence and terrorism. For example, his was frequently photographed with an Islamic State logo balaclava and under the title “Abu Jihad Al Britani” next to an AK47.
There is a clear risk of emotional harm when the child becomes aware of these images in the future, and of his mother’s role in their production.
The scale and use of extremism within Islamic State’s educational curriculum, coupled with a child’s systematic normalization to, and resulting trauma from, acts of violence, will require a nuanced approach that must build on traditional demobilization, disarmament, and re-integration (DDR) infrastructure. Religious scholars, former extremists, researchers and de-radicalisation practitioners must be a crucial part of curriculum focusing on the re-education and de-radicalisation of children. I have previously advocated for the creation of new, and compulsory, Safeguarding and Resilience against Extremism (SRE) training to achieve this, and to involve young people in the development of de-radicalisation programming to ensure that it truly reflects their experiences.
SRE training must be delivered to all frontline practitioners engaging with children exiting terrorist organizations – whether they are teachers, foster parents, police, border control, nurses, or local authorities – to understand that the experiences of children who have been recruited and preyed on by groups like Islamic State will be very different from other childhood trauma. Actors within this network should be given SRE training to increase vigilance and enable them to spot smugglers, gangs, and terrorists that target children at various points, and often work together to achieve this. This will all involve recognition of the unique and sophisticated processes that terrorist groups use to radicalize children.
Only by doing so can we prevent their use, and prepare for their return.
View on In Homeland Security