By Brian Fairchild, February 25, 2016
- The Islamic State regards its child-fighters as central to its grand strategy because they constitute the caliphate’s next generation, and it operates an extensive educational/training infrastructure that routinely produces them. Child-fighters are deployed as equals to adult fighters and assigned missions as suicide bombers, combatants, and as cold-blooded executioners. Their participation in violent operations is accelerating, and they will increasingly confront coalition forces on the battlefield, as well as on American soil in terrorist operations. They constitute one of America’s least understood strategic threats, but the U.S. is currently ill-prepared to deal with them.
On February 9, 2016, the US Director of National Intelligence testified before congress that the number of foreign fighters flocking to Syria and Iraq in the past few years is “without precedent”, reaching over 38,200 from 120 nations, including, at least, 6,900 from Western countries. This explosion is both alarming and historic. Western European leaders in particular were stunned by the November 2015 attacks in Paris, and they fear the worst is yet to come – intelligence indicates that the Islamic State is currently planning simultaneous attacks against several European cities.
But the explosion of foreign fighters tells only part of the story. There has also been a qualitative change in their character – they are more ideologically extreme, and much more brutal than the jihadists of al Qaeda. Because of the Islamic State’s (IS) widely disseminated propaganda of beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture, the revival of slavery, and the inhumane execution of prisoners, there can be no doubt that, even before they leave home, the thousands of radicalized Western Muslims that continue to flood into the Islamic State do so fully understanding and embracing its barbaric ideology and actions.
Of particular note, and the subject of this analysis, is that the Islamic State has intentionally and strategically focused its barbaric ideology on the most impressionable and vulnerable segments of its ever expanding population – its children, who constitute one of America’s least understood strategic threats. The evidence indicates that the number of pre-teen and early-teen child-fighters involved in combat and violent attacks is increasing.
NOTE: This report uses the time-tested intelligence analysis format of Facts, Findings, and Forecast. It will provide relevant facts from primary sources and then make general findings from those facts. Finally, it will forecast likely future strategic developments based on these facts and findings.
Islamic State strategy regarding child-fighters:
The Islamic State uses child-fighters as a fundamental part of its grand strategy. In the 12th issue of its official Dabiq magazine, the Islamic State revealed, for the first time, that a strategic document titled Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass “describes very precisely the overall strategy” that it has followed for over a decade. Indeed, it gives this strategic guide high praise stating that when its revered leader, Abu Musab az-Zarqawi read it, he commented – “It is as if the author knows what I’m planning.”
Management of Savagery, published in 2004 specifically to provide salafi jihadis with a strategic guide on how to successfully create a new Islamic caliphate, emphasizes that training Muslim youth in sharia law and military skill is one of the most important strategic goals for the jihad. So important, in fact, that it ranks fifth out of 12 key requirements it must accomplish to establish the caliphate. Indeed, the fifth requirement emphasizes the importance of:
- “Raising the level of faith and combat efficiency during the training of the youth of the region…and establishing a fighting society at all levels and among all individuals by means of making them aware of its importance.”
Management of Savagery insists that brutal violence against enemies must be constantly used, and that the education of Muslim youth must not be confined to the classroom, but that the caliphate’s next generation of leaders and fighters must be taught in the furnace and brutality of war, declaring:
- “Active jihad is the greatest means of educating the Muslims…By its means, true leaders will be brought forth… That is because speaking on the pulpit is easy and in the newspaper even easier and in books even easier than that. As for having (one’s) home destroyed and one’s family made homeless and one’s mother and sister torn to pieces, only the most extraordinary men are capable of (bearing) that. Great leaders and hardened troops will not come forth save in an atmosphere like this.”
Proof that the Islamic State has followed this strategic guidance is found in its own statements and videos, as well as in the reporting of journalists, the United Nations, and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations).
For example, the Islamic State has explicitly echoed much of the Management of Savagery’s guidance in its article The Lions of Tomorrow, which appeared in the March 2015 issue of Dabiq magazine, in which it said:
- “…there is a new generation waiting in the wings, eagerly anticipating the day that it is called upon to take up the banner of īmān. These are the children of the Ummah of jihad…The Islamic State has taken it upon itself to fulfill the Ummah’s duty towards this generation in preparing it to face the crusaders and their allies in defense of Islam and to raise high the word of Allah in every land. It has established institutes for these ashbāl (lion cubs) to train and hone their military skills, and to teach them the book of Allah…”
Islamic State Educational Infrastructure:
The militarization of pre-teens and early teens is also well documented by journalists, the United Nations, and Non-Governmental Organizations:
- A new study conducted by Georgia State University researchers and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, reveals that the Islamic State employs child soldiers in a uniquely different way than child soldiers were used in African conflicts where they were coerced into service and used as fodder. The Islamic State does not recruit children out of desperation to replace lost adult fighters, but treats them as equals “fighting alongside, rather than in lieu of, adult males and their respective patterns of involvement closely reflect one another”. Highlighting their fundamental value as the caliphate’s next generation, the study concludes that the Islamic State:
- “…is integrating children into its project in a way that is more reminiscent of a state than a non-state actor. It’s thinking with the long term in mind. It’s not just bringing children into its ranks and using them immediately on the battlefield. What it’s doing is bringing them in, indoctrinating them, training them, spending a lot of time instilling them with jihadist ideology.”
- Children are so important to the future of the Islamic State that in every location it rules, one of its first actions is to establish a system to indoctrinate them. According to a local teacher, after it took control of Deir az-Zor, Syria, the Islamic State shut down schools until all teachers could be re-educated according to its religious and ideological doctrine, and the curriculum could be radically adjusted. When the schools re-opened, gone were chemistry, physics, philosophy, the social sciences and math, replaced by courses on Islamic law, the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, biographies of Islamic leaders, and English translations of the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet).
- The June 2014 Human Rights Watch research paper “Maybe We Live, and Maybe We Die” revealed that “both children and adults who fought with ISIS consistently reported seeing children 13 years old or younger undergoing the same training and performing the same military duties as adults.”
- During the period of July to September 2014, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq received confirmed reports that children as young as 12 or 13 received military training.
- Yet another UN report described a school in Raqqa that trains over 350 boys between the ages of 5 and 16 “for combat roles”. This report emphasized that the Islamic State systematically uses education as a tool of indoctrination to ensure that the children grow up to be its loyal next generation, and it highlighted the fact that “children are gathered for screenings of videos depicting mass executions of Government soldiers, desensitizing them to extreme violence”.
Islamic State child-fighters are increasingly involved in violent attacks:
Islamic State schools and training centers are succeeding as a production line for fighters. Rising statistics show that once child-fighters are indoctrinated with jihadist ideology, they kill for the caliphate. From January 1, 2015 to January 31, 2016, at least 89 child-fighters died while fighting in battles, and sixty-six percent of them were between 8-16 years old.
Worse, their participation in violent operations is accelerating:
- “On a month-by-month basis, the rate of young people dying in suicide operations rose, from six in January 2015 to 11 in January 2016. The rate of operations involving one or more child or youth is likewise increasing; there were three times as many suicide operations involving children and youth in January 2016 as the previous January (2015).”
In a phenomenon unique to the Islamic State, it has specifically groomed pre-teen and early teens to be cold-blooded executioners:
- In March 2015, Islamic State videos highlighted two non-Arab boys estimated to be under 11, executing kneeling prisoners by shooting them in the back of the head. This execution was featured in the article The Lions of Tomorrow that appeared in issue 8th issue of Dabiq magazine:
- “It is these young lions to whom the Islamic State recently handed over two agents caught spying for Russian Intelligence and an agent caught spying for the Israeli Mossad, to be executed and displayed as an example to anyone else thinking of infiltrating the mujāhidīn… As expected, the kuffār were up in arms about the Khilāfah’s use of “child soldiers.”
- In a May 4, 2015 video a Caucasian boy of 14 is shown calmly selecting and loading a 9mm handgun and then executing a kneeling prisoner. Afterwards, he makes a statement vowing terror attacks around the world.
- In mid-July 2015, an Islamic State video highlighted a boy of no more than ten years old beheading an Islamic State prisoner.
- On February 6, 2016, the Islamic State released a video of an English-speaking boy around 10 years old beheading a prisoner and threatening the United States.
- On February 10, 2016, the Islamic State released a video of a four year old boy, pressing the detonator button to blow-up Islamic State prisoners handcuffed inside a car. The boy, Isa Dare, is the son of a radical mother who emigrated from Britain to Syria with Isa in 2012.
- In January 2015, an 11 year old suicide bomber named Abu Imara al Omri drove a truck laden with explosives into a group of Syrian soldiers in the town of Ghazi.
- In early July 2015, the Islamic State celebrated a 14 year old suicide bomber by the name of Omar Hadid al-Muhammadi who killed 50 Kurdish militants in northern Syria by driving a truck filled with explosives into a military checkpoint.
- In October 2014, Islamic State twitter accounts praised their youngest “martyr”, a 10 year old boy who was killed by coalition air strikes in Syria while fighting alongside his jihadi father.
- In March 2015, a 13 year old French boy was described as the youngest French “martyr” when he was killed while on patrol at an Islamic State border post in Western Syria near the city of Homs.
- In August 2014, a news article highlighted a young radical fighter named Younes Abaaoud, the 13 year old brother of Abdelhamid Abaaoud who was the Belgian ring leader of the November 2015 Paris attacks, who smiles for the camera as he holds his right index finger aloft while holding an AK-47 in his left hand.
- In November 2014, a video documents two French boys that look younger than 10, brandishing weapons and speaking fluent French telling other children “Over there, you’re in a country of infidels. Here, we’re mujahedeen. We’re in Syria, we’re in Raqqa here. It’s war here”.
Child-fighter lone wolves:
- In the November 18, 2015 issue of Dabiq magazine, the Islamic State lauded young jihadis for conducting attacks in their countries, specifically praising their youth and inexperience:
- “They did not use a younger age or lack of training as an excuse to be mere bystanders. They sacrificed their souls in the noblest of deeds in pursuit of Allah’s pleasure…Amongst these brave knights of tawhīd and jihad was fifteen-year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, who on “2 October 2015” struck the crusaders of Australia and killed one of their personnel…”
- In October 2015, Australian police revealed that a 12-year-old boy is suspected of helping Farhad Jabar attack the police officers in Australia.
- On April 23, 2015, British police arrested a 14 year old boy and charged him with 2 counts of inciting a person to commit an act of terrorism overseas. The boy, inspired by the Islamic State, was taken into custody after encouraging an attack against police officers in Australia. It was through the boy’s online communications with two 18 year olds in Australia that police uncovered an active plot by the two Aussie teenagers to run over a police officer with an automobile after which they would finish him off with knives, and then take his gun and go on a shooting spree.
- On May 27, 2015, A 14-year-old boy from Austria plead guilty to terrorism charges and was sentenced to a two year jail term for downloading bomb-making plans onto his PlayStation and for contacting Islamic State militants in Syria.
- On April 5, 2015, British anti-terrorist police arrested a 14 year old boy who was preparing for an act of terrorism on behalf of the Islamic State.
- The Islamic State’s strategic guide (Management of Savagery), as well as its declarations and actions reveal that it develops child-fighters as an essential part of its grand strategy designed to produce the caliphate’s next generation of “great leaders and hardened troops”.
- The Islamic State asserts that its child-fighters are religiously sanctioned. It explains in the Lions of Tomorrow, that today’s child-fighters are no different than the child-fighters that fought for the prophet Muhammad in Islam’s very first caliphate: (NOTE: Translations in parentheses were added by author for clarity) :
- “As expected, the kuffār (infidels) were up in arms about the Khilāfah’s (Caliphate’s) use of “child soldiers.” Yet this was the Sunnah (teachings, deeds, and sayings) of Allah’s Messenger (the prophet Muhammad)…who would allow those capable from amongst the young Sahābah (Muhammad’s companions) to participate in his battles against the mushrikin (polytheists)… And just as the children of the Sahābah stained their swords with the blood of yesterday’s tāghūt (tyrant)…so too will the children of the Khilāfah stain their bullets with the blood of today’s tawāghīt (tyrants)…”
- Under Islamic State rule the indoctrination of youth is routinely carried-out via an extensive educational/training infrastructure that successfully produces child-fighters who are deployed in the same manner as adult fighters: They fight and die side-by-side with their adult counterparts as suicide bombers, combatants, and executioners.
- During the first year of the caliphate, all Islamic State executioners were adult males. But, in March 2015, the Islamic State embarked on a calculated program to highlight pre-teen and early-teen executioners. This did not occur by happenstance, but because the caliphate finds unique value in using child-fighters in this role to terrorize its enemies, and to use as propaganda to recruit additional children.
- The Islamic State undoubtedly employs a selection process to identify child-fighters who are religiously, ideologically, and physically able to participate in higher level operations. Participating in executions to demonstrate their commitment and loyalty is likely part of this process. Indications are that this selection process was also used to select the fighters who conducted the Paris attacks. This was revealed when an Islamic State video, released after the attacks, highlighted the fact that all of the Paris attackers had previously executed prisoners.
- The Islamic State actively and successfully encourages young radical Muslims around the world to conduct lone wolf attacks in their countries by expending enormous resources to propagandize, radicalize, and recruit them. It is estimated that the Islamic State and its supporters produce 90,000 messages on social media each day.
- Islamic State child-fighters are not limited by nationality and race to only Arab children from Iraq and Syria, but they hail from numerous countries, including: Tunisia, Tajikistan, Morocco, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, Lebanon, France, Australia, Britain, Belgium, and Austria.
- Because the Islamic State regards child-fighters as its next generation, it will continue to indoctrinate and use them operationally throughout the areas it controls as long as the caliphate remains. The fact that these child-fighters are purposely groomed to take on the mantle of leadership in an environment where death and brutality are routine ensures the continuation of violent jihad for, at least, the next 25 years.
- Islamic State child-fighters will increasingly confront coalition forces on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and all the other areas the Islamic State controls (i.e. Libya, Nigeria, Yemen), as well as in terror operations in the U.S. and abroad.
- Inevitably, child-fighters will be used in terror operations in the United States. When this occurs, the Islamic State will likely maximize the propaganda value of these operations by ensuring that they are as brutal and horrific as possible.
- The United States is particularly vulnerable to attacks by Islamic State child-fighters because they are generally not considered to be threats, and they can easily enter the United States, either documented as the children of adult travelers, or via human smuggling networks. Once in-country they can easily be hidden in plain site by support networks and can carry-out their operational tasks unmolested.
- Because they have not heretofore been considered threats, there are currently no intelligence or law enforcement mechanisms, databases, or operations to track or neutralize child-fighters.
- The U.S. legal system is not designed to deal with cold-blooded pre-teen and early-teen suicide bombers and combatants. S. law currently protects all children under the age of 18 “minors” who cannot be given the death penalty in murder cases, and who must be afforded special legal considerations such as having a parent present during questioning, and serving prison time in juvenile facilities. As confrontation with child-fighters increases in the near future, new legal mechanisms will have to be created to deal with this new threat.
Brian Fairchild was a career officer in CIA’s Clandestine Service. He has served in Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and Afghanistan. Mr. Fairchild writes periodic intelligence analyses on topics of strategic importance.
 The Revival of Jihad in Bengal, Dabiq Magazine, Issue 12, November 2015, footnote 2, page 39.
 The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass, published online in 2004, Abu Bakr Naji, p. 58.
 The Lions of Tomorrow, Islamic State, Dabiq magazine, Issue 8, March 30, 2015, pgs. 20-21.
 Depictions of Children and Youth in the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Propaganda, 2015-2016, Mia Bloom, John Horgan, and Charlie Winter, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, CTCSentinel, February 2016, Vol 9, Issue 2, pgs. 29-32
 Depictions of Children and Youth in the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Propaganda, pg. 31
 Lions of Tomorrow, pg. 20