Since its rise, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has prominently featured children in its propaganda. In the past few weeks, the group has released three short videos of children, whose ages range from 10 to 15 years old, in training and one in which children feature in their videos of atrocities. One video depicts young boys participating in a live-fire exercise inside an ISIS “kill house;” that is, an indoor firing range used to train recruits with live ammunition on how to infiltrate a residential structure and take control of the premises. The children learn how to approach and enter the property before moving from room to room. They learn how to subdue and remove an occupant to use as a potential hostage. The children are trained as snipers and taught how to ambush a moving vehicle. A video released on July 4 showed children executing 25 Syrian soldiers and in a 22-minute video released from the Speicher massacre in Tikrit, children were among the executioners.

To ISIS, children are not just valuable propaganda; they are full-fledged militants who can kill. They are what ISIS calls the “Cubs of the Caliphate,” a phenomenon we studied for our forthcoming book, Small Arms: Children and Terrorism, which is about the many ways in which terrorist organizations recruit children worldwide. After careful analysis of ISIS’ propaganda, social media, and interviews with child escapees conducted by other journalists and aid workers, we have a clearer picture of the ISIS recruitment and training model.

To ISIS, children are not just valuable propaganda; they are full-fledged militants who can kill.

The children of ISIS fall into five categories: those born to foreign fighters or emigrants; those born to local fighters; those who had been abandoned and found their way into ISIS-controlled orphanage; those coercively taken from their parents; and those who voluntarily joined the Islamic State. The children in training camps tend to be those who have been taken from families or found in orphanages. Children in ISIS-controlled schools, on the other hand, tend to be those whose families volunteered them. An increasing percentage of children are joining ISIS as a result of a grooming process in which ISIS instills in them a sense of commitment and camaraderie. While the actual number of children fighting in Syria is unknown, the Syrian monitoring group Violations Documenting Center documented 194 deaths of “non-civilian” male children between September 2011 and June 2014. In June 2015, the United Nations reported that 271 boys and seven girls were recruited by groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish People’s Protection Units, ISIS, and al-Nusra Front. In 77 percent of these cases, children were armed or used in combat. Almost one-fifth of them were under the age of 15.

This pattern differs from the recruitment of child soldiers in many other places, particularly within African nations, where the children groomed for combat are mostly orphans. Generally, they do not have living parents and are either abducted or leave their caregivers behind. Militants then socialize them to form close ties with the group, thus replacing their family. In this regard, ISIS recruitment patterns are more similar to the Philippines’ Moro Islamic Liberation Front. There, parents are also present and likewise encourage their children to engage in conflict. A recent example of ISIS fighters bringing their children to a combat zone can be found in the United Kingdom, where the Dawood sisters—three siblings in their early 30s born in the United Kingdom—left their husbands to join ISIS, taking their nine children to Syria with them in the process. Before that, in February, four girls from London’s Bethnal Green Academy disappeared. The missing girls’ parents have since confirmed that their daughters have married foreign ISIS fighters.

Screenshot of ISIS child recruits in training.

There are hundreds more foreign children who have similarly arrived in Syria from Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. When they get to Syria, they may be enrolled in one of many religious schools, two of which cater specifically to English speakers. These schools represent one aspect of ISIS’ strategy of transforming children from bystanders to fully-committed competent fighters—a systematic and institutionalized form of child abuse that involves six different phases: socialization, schooling, selection, subjugation, specialization, and stationing.


ISIS initially lures children not through indoctrination, but by gradual socialization. It does this in a number of ways, but most visibly through public events aimed at raising awareness about the opportunities ISIS can offer. Some of these meetings, often on a small scale, attract children by offering free toys and candy for just showing up. Local children at these “meet and greet” events can help out by waving the ISIS black flag. Such enticements serve as a kind of macabre ice-cream truck, beckoning local kids to come out and learn more about what life is like with the so-called Islamic State.

Under ISIS, children are routinely encouraged to witness public executions. At first, children are exposed to filmed executions, and eventually attend live events. In propaganda videos, children can be seen pushing through the rows of adults to reach a prime viewing position. The children quickly learn why corporal punishment is meted out, and thanks to the routine spectacle of such events, soon internalize this violence and consider it to be normal.

The children of foreign fighters in particular learn that even peripheral participation is rewarded. In ISIS propaganda videos, they are carefully posed in front of the camera and coached by those filming on how to behave. In some cases, the children are praised for wielding a weapon or holding up the decapitated heads of ISIS’ victims.

Children systematically learn ISIS’ ideology, bringing them closer to each other as well to ISIS members who scout for children with the talent to earn “Cub” status in one of the group’s dedicated training camps.

In this respect, ISIS is like many other militant and extremist groups. Many militias force the children to engage in horrendous acts from day one in order to prevent them from defecting. By forcing the children to get involved in horrendous acts, the militias ensure that their family members will not accept their return. It is one of the ways in which the militias close all options for escape. Within ISIS, however, children engage in brutal acts with the encouragement and approval of their parents. Violating social norms does not cause the child to be excluded with no way home, but rather is a way of participating as an insider.


After casual meet-and-greets, the next step in the indoctrination occurs through recruitment within the regime’s free schooling programs. After Syria devolved into chaos, ISIS assumed de-facto control over many schools and mosques. Although many of the original Syrian school teachers have remained in their positions, they must now teach an ISIS-controlled curriculum to gender-segregated pupils—one that includes weapons training and intense ideological conditioning. Attendance at schools does not appear to be mandatory, but many parents willingly send their children. In a few reported instances where parents refused to comply, they were threatened.

At these schools, children systematically learn ISIS’ ideology, bringing them closer to each other as well to ISIS members who scout for children with the talent to earn “Cub” status in one of the group’s dedicated training camps. The educational programs stand in contrast to the treatment of child soldiers in Africa, who generally do not receive any sort of education. During their respective campaigns, Liberian and Ugandan militias did not run schools to groom the next generation of fighters. If anything, the children were seen as mere cannon fodder, making education irrelevant. They were not interested in creating ideological agreement—they needed bodies to fight.

A screenshot from an ISIS training video.

Here, ISIS shares more in common with the Sri Lankan militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which used propaganda in schools to attract young recruits. Similar policies were followed by the Maoists in Nepal when they fought against the country’s monarchy during the decade-long civil war that began in 1996. According to Rajenda Shakya of the SNV Netherlands Development Organization, the Maoists used mass-schooling to build a sense of identity in young children through a standardized curriculum. The rebels provided mandatory access to education for girls, eliminated discrimination based on caste, forced teachers to comply with their rules and regulations, and banned the study of Sanskrit. The Maoists’ underlying view was that schooling was essential to the creation of a new generation of enlightened revolutionaries.

Like the Sri Lankan and Nepalese groups, ISIS engenders a sense of pride, prestige, and competition within the students in its “Cubs club.” Not every child will be eligible for military training, either. Younger students are initially groomed as spies and encouraged to inform on family members or neighbors who criticize ISIS or violate its severe implementation of Sharia law. These young recruits know that if they do a good job, they could make it to Cub training.

If they do, they undergo an equally systematic process that involves indoctrination and physical training. The children parrot their adult role models: they wear similar uniforms and learn the vernacular. The children are taught about “the enemy” (all non-believers) and why they must be eradicated.

When it comes to military training, there are some significant contrasts between ISIS cubs and the tactics taught to child soldiers during conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. African militias regarded children as low-skilled members of the military who were only valuable because of their youth and sheer availability. Stuart Maslen, Coordinator of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, has argued that child soldiers in Africa received little training and were frequently massacred. Those children who refuse to follow orders or try to escape are simply killed. By contrast, the Tamil Tigers gave new recruits a wooden rifle to prepare them for using a weapon. Maslen, as well as Chatham House’s Asia Fellow Charu Lata Hogg, states that children first serve as messengers and spies, but are used as combatants by around the age of ten when they are strong enough to shoot a gun. Boys may also receive combat training sooner than girls. Among the Palestinian militant groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) recruits children for cultural and educational activities, during which they are evaluated for membership. However, voluntary membership into the PLFP is permitted only at the age of 18.

ISIS has designed a systematic process of churning out not just mindless drones, but competent young militants who truly embrace every aspect of its teachings.

Like other children in ISIS-controlled territory, ISIS Cub recruits routinely witness crucifixions, stonings, and beheadings. But the Cubs progress from witnessing executions to accompanying prisoners to their death. In one case Cubs distributed knives to adults before a mass beheading, and, finally, over the past 14 months, in several instances they have carried out executions themselves. This is the final, and most extreme test of loyalty within the organization.

The accounts of former Cubs given to local NGOs paint a bleak picture of daily life in the camps. Children are pushed to their mental and physical limit, forced to sleep on flea-infested mattresses. And yet, their experiences foster a sense of camaraderie. These close bonds eventually turn into deep pride for what they are doing. Child soldiers in African conflicts, on the other hand, did not receive a gradual introduction into military life. They were separated and isolated from their families at the very beginning—moved away from their traditional villages or forced to kill family members in order to destroy their option of returning home.


Although ISIS Cubs have multiple or even overlapping roles, many of them enjoy specialized tasks. Some are assigned to checkpoint or bodyguard duties, which may also involve donning a suicide vest, even if they will not serve as suicide bombers. ISIS, however, has recently begun to use 14-year-old suicide bombers this summer. Children who display an aptitude for communication and have a deeper grasp of the ideology are deployed as recruiters, adopting public-speaking roles that allow them to recruit fellow children. Child recruiters not only spur adults into action, they also lure more children into their fold with the promise of status, purpose, and admiration from the militants and the public alike.

Newly graduated Cubs are publicly paraded in full uniform with plenty weapons to signal their strength and discipline. In propaganda videos, they are instructed to stand still while enduring a beating from their adult commanders. In the background, dozens of younger children look on curiously and admiringly. The cycle repeats itself with each wave of graduates pulling in more child recruits.

Terrorist organizations’ first priority is survival, and so ensuring the continuity and longevity of the group is key. ISIS is far more complicated than terrorist organizations of the past, and so are its efforts to groom the next generation. ISIS may well be aware of the recruiting principles established by many militant groups around the world, but it is pioneering its own form of survival by combining intense physical and military training with deep levels of psychological indoctrination rarely found even in adult terrorist recruitment. In fact, ISIS has designed a systematic process of churning out not just mindless drones, but competent young militants who truly embrace every aspect of its teachings.

In the literature on child soldiers in Africa, children are recruited not for the future but for the present. Many are killed in battle and few progress up the ranks to become adult leaders of the group. ISIS takes a longer view. And so what seems to have worked for several of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs in Africa (transformative roles aided by family, community, educational and religious authorities) may not work in Syria, as these institutions have been coopted, controlled, and distorted by ISIS.

If we are to have any hope of reintegrating those children who do survive and leave ISIS, one thing is certain: It will require a level of coordination and creativity not seen in any deradicalization program so far. Demobilization will require a multi-pronged approach that addresses the psychological trauma suffered by the children (resulting from watching executions) as well as the effects of having participated in acts of violence. The children will need re-education so they can unlearn the distortions of the Islamic faith, as well as vocational training. These children will likely have problems of socialization, as they may lack empathy and suffer from attachment problems. While programs to treat children in militant organizations exist (for example, Sabaoon in Pakistan’s Swat valley), the children’s family play a positive role in reintegration. With ISIS, it is the family that encouraged and exposed the children to the violence in the first place and so children will have to be separated from the family members—making normalization all the more challenging. While this will certainly be complicated, we have no choice but to begin planning for it now.

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  • MIA BLOOM is a Professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Dying to Kill: the Allure of Suicide Terror and Bombshell: Women and Terror.
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