The so-called Islamic State group is recruiting children and sending them to die on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq at an “increasing and unprecedented rate,” according to a new study of the group’s propaganda.
The survey from Georgia State University academics analyzed 89 images of children and youth who the extremist group said had been killed while carrying out militant operations between Jan. 1, 2015 and Jan. 31, 2016.
These children were among some 1,500 young people that the militants have enlisted to fight, said Mia Bloom, one of the study authors. She estimated that there are likely thousands more children who are being indoctrinated by the militants and could serve as potential recruits.
"This study is hinting at the fact that the problems are much greater than we ever imagined,” Bloom said of the report, published Friday by CTC Sentinel, the journal of the military academy West Point's Counter Terrorism Center.
The study finds 21 children died in suicide attacks using explosive-packed vehicles in the first seven months of 2015 -- two and a half times the previous estimate. In fact, the rate of child casualties seems to be accelerating. Last January, six children died in suicide operations for the militant group. This January, the toll rose to 11 children, and the number of suicide bombings involving children tripled from a year ago.
This disturbing trend is likely to continue, say the study authors. As it loses territory, ISIS may resort to more suicide attacks and ambushes, two of the most common causes of child deaths in the survey, they said. Militant groups tend to use these types of attacks when on the defensive, either out of desperation or as a form of psychological warfare.
The militant group has forced, intimidated and recruited children into its ranks since its early days in Iraq, according to the United Nations. As the group expanded into Syria, split from al Qaeda and seized a wide stretch of territory in the region in 2014, its use of child fighters has swelled.
ISIS captured hundreds of children, especially Yazidis, during its advance. In territories under the group’s brutal control, fighters indoctrinate and recruit children through the school system and by desensitizing them to violence with public beheadings and crucifixions. Foreign fighters who have flocked to the region from Europe, Africa and the Middle East sometimes bring their children along to fight, too.
While an exact figure is hard to assess, one group reported that 1,100 children were recruited as fighters between January and August last year. Bloom estimates that at least 1,500 children are currently part of the core group of fighters. Friday's study sheds some light on who these young recruits are.
Of the 89 children killed since January 2015, 31 percent were Syrian and 11 percent were Iraqi. A further 25 percent came from one of those two countries but it wasn’t clear which. Others came from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Nigeria.
Most of the children -- 60 percent -- were determined to be between the ages of 12 and 16. Six percent were under 12 years old. The United Nations previously reported that children as young as 8 were trained to fight in ISIS military camps.
Children who escaped the group's clutches have described long, grueling months at military camps. "I saw a lot of people being tortured," a 14-year-old former child fighter told The WorldPost last year. "Every day they whipped people, even the children. Nobody was allowed to leave."
But ISIS differs from other militant groups in the way it uses children as fighters, the study found.
While other groups have deployed children to make up for a shortage of adult fighters or for specific tasks (like attacking civilian targets), ISIS uses kids in a very similar way to adult fighters. The study found child fighters were dying in broadly the same locations and types of attacks as adults were.
“Children are fighting alongside, rather than in lieu of, adult males,” the study says. “The use of children and youth has been normalized under the Islamic State’s rule.”
This poses a horrifying dilemma for local and international forces fighting to combat ISIS.
U.S. forces fighting the militant group “need to be able to make a nuanced distinction between a child, and a child who might be dangerous," Bloom said. "American police can’t even do that in our cities... The possibility for error is great, and the backlash could be horrific."
Further, the scale and methods of ISIS' youth recruitment make it even more complicated to help children who escape -- either during combat or in a future where the militant group is defeated. In other conflicts, religious institutions and children’s families play a critical role in reintegrating them into society, Bloom said. But with ISIS, the families are often implicated in their recruitment and the religious indoctrination runs very deep.
“We’re talking about taking children away from their parents, who have exposed them to this ideology and put them in danger, which is very challenging,” she said.
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