From Boko Haram to ISIS, today’s armed groups are increasingly willing to use children in adults’ wars
On January 10th, in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, a bomb went off in a crowded market, killing 19 people and wounding 18. A day later, in the small town of Potiskum, a second bomb detonated, killing 3 and wounding 16. It had been a particularly bloody week for northeastern Nigeria; hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians were slaughtered in attacks across the region. Nevertheless, these attacks were distinctively heinous: ten-year-old girls are believed to have detonated both bombs.
The use of children in suicide bombings is unprecedented, but reflects the broader willingness of armed groups to make children both victims and perpetrators in armed conflict. Armed groups commonly use children as both symbolic and literal tools. Boko Haram frequently attacks schools, including the November 2014 killing of 48 in a Nigerian high school. The Council on Foreign Relations states that children under 18 are combatants in three-quarters of the world’s armed conflicts, with 80 percent of these conflicts involving children under 15. In 2005, 300,000 children worldwide were believed to be involved in armed conflicts from Colombia to Myanmar.
Children make convenient soldiers. They are easily manipulated and molded to the political or religious doctrine of armed groups. In some societies with many child soldiers, children under 15 make up nearly half the population. Now that weapons are smaller, lighter, and easier to use, they are more compatible for use by children. Using children in suicide attacks is the logical continuation of this trend. Strapping a child with a bomb can prove tragically simple, and a ten-year-old girl is likely to escape detection.
According to Human Rights Watch, the militant group Islamic State (ISIS), like other armed groups based in Syria, uses children as spies, battle nurses, guards, couriers, and soldiers. According to the UN Office for Children and Armed Conflict, ISIS has used children as young as eight as fighters. The Syrian activist group called Violations Documenting Center reported in June 2014 that 194 “non-civilian” male children had been killed since September 2011. ISIS recognizes that the image of the child, both as a victim and as a perpetrator, can be used as a representational weapon. On May 29th, 2014, 153 Kurdish boys, ages 14 to 16, were kidnapped on a school trip. They were imprisoned, repeatedly beaten, and forced to watch videos of ISIS’s crimes. Children are often victims in ISIS’s mass kidnappings, or are killed alongside their families.
ISIS believes that the realization of their mission requires the mobilization of every element of society, and that their ability to wield children as weapons reflects their power. In the group’s videos of beheadings, children are sometimes visible in the audience. Social media is a crucial element of the Islamic State’s efforts to recruit international fighters and cultivate fear. However, while the Internet permits the Islamic State access to an expanding audience, it escalates the degree of competition for attention.
In areas of prolonged conflict, children are often denied access to basic necessities, including schooling. ISIS offers children access to education, or pay equivalent to an adult’s. A November 2014 video claims that children’s education under the Islamic State begins with learning Arabic and studying the Qur’an, and continues with hand-to-hand combat and weapons training. A young Kazakh boy featured in this video was also depicted in another clip, released on January 13th, shooting two alleged Russian agents in the back of their heads.
Children’s active involvement in armed conflicts may reveal these groups’ unsettling long-term ambitions. The reappearance of the Kazakh boy may indicate that he is intended to become a symbol of a child’s role in the conflict- an example for social media-savvy young people to emulate. For the groups that use child soldiers, the loss of children in combat may be an acceptable sacrifice if they are able to inspire others to join the cause. The survivors may become future leaders, to bear their cause into the future.
It is essential for countries to enforce the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and to remove child soldiers from their governments’ armies. The January 28 release of 3,000 child soldiers from the South Sudanese army, and the UN’s subsequent provision of aid to the children, was described by Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict as a “step in the right direction.” She reminded the international community of the significant resources still required to give these children a chance for a better life. To prevent non-state actors from recruiting and kidnapping children, states must set the standard for treatment of their countries’ children. Former child soldiers, and those at risk of being kidnapped or recruited, must be integrated into society.
Defending childhood is key to protecting the future. To learn about PROOF’s Child Soldiers exhibit, please visit http://proof.org/child-soldiers/.