ISIS and Child Soldiers: Breaking Cycles of Conflict

Dustin Johnson

February 07, 2023

By: Dustin Johnson

In January, the Times of London published an insightful feature by Anthony Loyd about the use of children by ISIS. In the article, Loyd meets a 21-year-old man who had fought for ISIS whom Kurdish security forces had captured and tortured. The man had been recruited at the age of 13 by ISIS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and had spent the previous 8 years fighting and killing for the group. In this young man he sees someone whose formative years of childhood have been stolen, but has also missed the normal experiences that lead to adulthood:

There was something else there that lent him the fractured aura of youth: a peculiar absence of adulthood. As if somehow all that should have naturally evolved within his mind during his teenage years – rationale and reason, preconcepts and the roots of self-belief – were missing. Just the frightful postgraduation of terror remained, so that seated before me he was at once the echo of a lost boy and the whisper of an unformed man.

Loyd goes on to discuss the thorough system of indoctrination and normalization to violence ISIS uses on children to provide an unending supply of dedicated fighters, explicitly planning for a generational war. The longer ISIS continues to fight and be able to recruit children, the more Iraq, Syria, and the international community will have to deal with this challenge. For those under the age of 18 who are removed from the group, proper rehabilitation and deradicalization are needed, and there are positive signs for the success of such problems as Loyd discusses, and the Dallaire Initiative has advocated for in our partnership with the Quilliam Foundation.

For those who were recruited as children but are now adults, such as the young man Loyd interviews, trickier questions are raised, similar to those now facing the International Criminal Court in the case of Dominic Ongwen. For someone who is recruited as a young child, indoctrinated, and forced to commit violence by adults, what degree of responsibility before the law should they face? While the case of Ongwen is particularly extreme, as he rose from an 11-year-old abductee to be one of the top commanders in the Lord’s Resistance Army, this challenge will have to be faced for hundreds if not thousands of children who fought for ISIS.