Since its declaration of a Caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State (IS) has released a number of publications depicting children participating in rallies, undergoing training, undertaking combat operations and even executing prisoners. Armed groups exploiting children in warzones is nothing new and across Iraq and Syria, many factions have been accused of employing children as spies and messengers to actual soldiers. However, the scale and sophistication employed by the IS in attracting, coercing, training and indoctrinating children into its cause is particularly noteworthy. Referred to as the “Cubs of the Caliphate” (ashbal al-khalifa), these children are not just a present-day threat on the battlefield, but a potential threat for the future, as the question of what happens to them once the Islamic State is defeated remains,
For armed groups and insurgencies, using children in their operations have a number of pragmatic benefits: Children often appear less suspicious to security forces, are easier to indoctrinate and often difficult to fight against for a number of practical and political reasons. The IS is certainly aware of these benefits when it includes children in its operations. However, the IS’ motivations for recruiting children extend beyond simple pragmatism. By training children in not only warfare but also ideology, the IS seems to be working towards consolidating its state-building project and making sure that even if its organisation comes to an end, its ideology will persist. Moreover, although the IS has attracted a number of foreign fighters into its fold, it has consistently failed to attract the loyalty of major jihadist organisations or worldwide grassroots support. The fact that the IS seems to not just train children as soldiers but raise them as a new generation of citizens loyal to its cause supports the notion that it has “given up” on gaining the support of the adult population in the areas it inhabits.