It’s a chilling sight. Teenagers and even younger children, having been recruited by ISIS in Iraq, and can be seen with masks on their faces and guns in their hands patrolling the streets of Mosul. After capturing vast territory in Iraq, the brutal Islamist group recently declared a new caliphate, changing its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to simply, the Islamic State.
Before the extremist group took over, its reputation for cruelty, torture and killing preceded them. Young people were against the group. But now that they have taken over, young men and boys have signed up. Perhaps it was the allure of arms – of which the group has plenty. Maybe it was the thrill of being part of the winning team. Perhaps it was the fear of the consequences of not joining the victors.
Whatever the reasons, now the young soldiers’ greatest fear – having thrown their lot in with the Islamic State — is the prospect of the Iraqi army retaking the city.
Volunteers for the Islamic State in Mosul are generally between the ages of 10 and 30 years old. A recent report by Niqash.org featured the Islamic State’s youngest soldier, Abdullah, age 9, whose father and brother were killed in the fighting between the Islamic State and Iraqi security forces, prompting his enlistment into the group.
Abdullah patrols the streets of Mosul with a heavy machine who height is almost the same as his. At a store where Abdullah enters to buy candy and milk, another customer approaches him.
“I have a son your age but he’s not eager to carry arms,” says the man. “He spends most of his time on the computer.”
“Our children don’t waste time on electronic games or on watching cartoons,” answers a large, older gunman. Abdullah is apparently his charge. “They have a dream and their dream is to establish an Islamic state.”
Patting Abdullah on the shoulder, the gunman continues, “We have a lot of hope for Abdullah and other children his age. We believe they will conquer all of Iraq and Persia and that they will liberate Jerusalem.”
Those “hopes” are the grave concern of many parents and young men in Mosul who have not thrown their lot in with the Islamists. They fear that the insatiable appetite of the Islamic State will mean they will need more and more fighters, and that soon the group will begin forcibly conscripting the city’s youth.
One tribal leader has already reported that he received a request from the group for a specific number of “volunteers.”
In Syria, the use of children in battle is also a common occurrence, according to Human Rights Watch who has interviewed children who have fought on the battlefield as well as been used in the capacities of snipers, spies and medics. Children also manning checkpoints and being used to bring supplies and ammunition to the front lines in the middle of a battle.
Children are drawn into the conflict in various ways. Some, after participating in protests against the Syrian government, were arrested and tortured by Assad’s dreaded security forces. Some followed friends or relatives into the battle, especially since in many locations, schools have been closed.
The Islamic State, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, another extremist militant Islamist group, give children military training as part of their larger “educational” programs.
One teenager, “Amr” who joined the Syria rebels at the age of 15, said that the group specifically pushed children to volunteer for suicide bombing missions. Amr was able to escape the group before his “turn” for a mission came up.
Another teenager, “Majed” was recruited, along with other boys in his community through the promise of free education offered by Jabhat al-Nusra at a local mosque. He, too, reported being asked to sign up for a suicide mission.
“Sometimes fighters volunteered,” he said. “And sometimes [commanders] said, ‘Allah chose you.’ "