Teenagers carrying weapons stand at checkpoints and busy intersections in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Patched onto the left arms of their black uniforms are the logos of the Islamic Police.
In Raqqa, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) group’s de facto capital in Syria, boys attend training camp and religious courses before heading off to fight. Others serve as cooks or guards at the extremists’ headquarters or as spies, informing on people in their neighbourhoods.
Across the vast region under ISIS control, the group is actively conscripting children for battle and committing abuses against the most vulnerable at a young age, according to a growing body of evidence assembled from residents, activists, independent experts and human rights groups.
In the northern Syrian town of Kobani, where ethnic Kurds have been resisting an ISIS onslaught for weeks, several activists said they observed children fighting alongside the militants.
It is difficult to determine just how widespread the exploitation of children is in the closed world of ISIS-controlled territory. There are no reliable figures on the number of minors the group employs.
But a United Nations panel investigating war crimes in the Syrian conflict concluded that in its enlistment of children for active combat roles, the ISIS is perpetrating abuses and war crimes on a massive scale “in a systematic and organised manner.”
The group “prioritises children as a vehicle for ensuring long-term loyalty, adherence to their ideology and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life,” it said in a report. The panel of experts, known as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, conducted more than 300 interviews with people who fled or are living in ISIS-controlled areas, and examined video and photographic evidence.
The use of children by armed groups in conflict is, of course, nothing new. In the Syrian civil war, the Free Syrian Army and Nusra Front rebel groups also recruit children for combat, said Leila Zerrougui, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict. But no other group comes close to IS in using children in such a systematic and organised way. And the effect is that much greater because IS commands large areas in which the militants inculcate the children with their radical and violent interpretation of Shariah law.
“What is new is that ISIS seems to be quite transparent and vocal about their intention and their practice of recruiting children,” said Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF regional child protection adviser.