Rehabilitating the Children of ISIS: A Comparative Case Study of Armed Groups and Child Soldier Reintegration
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) routinely kidnaps, recruits, and employs child soldiers to carry out its operations. In recent years, ISIS possessed major land holdings in Syria and Iraq, and has carried influence on a global scale; however, the overwhelming international military response to ISIS’ brutality has largely driven this terrorist organization out of its formerly held territories. As ISIS members are displaced through battlefield losses, reintegration of former ISIS members remains a key challenge globally. ISIS has frequently used children as a part of its military operations, and hundreds of these children have been indoctrinated into ISIS ideology. The international community now faces a critical issue with the rehabilitation of ISIS children. This population was raised in a hyper-violent environment and has largely never been exposed or integrated into conventional society. As these children and their families flee to non-ISIS controlled areas or home countries, they pose a lifelong terrorism threat to the international community.
Rehabilitation case studies from other international non-state groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Lord’s Resistance Army, show that a variety of reintegration strategies have been carried out to deal with the issue of former child soldiers. In applying these reintegration strategies to the case of ISIS children, several challenges must be addressed. International ages of criminal responsibility, the willingness of states to accept reintegration aid, provision of basic care to children and their acceptance back into communities, the establishment of long-term access to care, and the availability of reintegration metrics, are all necessary considerations in the establishment of reintegration processes.
If former ISIS children are to have any hope of rehabilitation, reintegration programs must be internationally mandated. Many states currently choose to reject international child rehabilitation assistance from organizations like UNICEF, and instead opt to prosecute former child soldiers. In place of treating children criminally when they lack true agency in armed conflict, reintegration programs rehabilitate them as victims. In barring former ISIS children’s access to rehabilitation, they may continue on a path of violence, allowing a new generation of individuals indoctrinated into ISIS ideology to further radicalize. This poses a security threat not only to the nation housing the radicalized former child soldiers, but to the entire international community.
The United Nations’ Definition of a Child Soldier
The United Nations (UN) states that the use of children in military conflict is a grave human rights violation. The UN, with its internationally recognized standards for ethics of armed conflict, states that a child soldier is any person under the age of 18 belonging to or being utilized by an armed group. The UN also states that child soldiers may be fighters, but also may be used as cooks, sex workers, spies, or in other roles on behalf of an armed group.
The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) assists former child soldiers in post-conflict zones internationally. While UNICEF offers reintegration programs, many states choose to rely on their own government-run programs or opt to hold children criminally responsible for their involvement in armed conflict. Individual governments’ laws and practices regarding the allowance of aid serve as an influential determining factor in the treatment and outlook of child soldiers post-conflict.
Necessary Elements of Child Rehabilitation
Reintegration research has shown that a child’s rehabilitation following their involvement in armed conflict is reliant on several factors. These factors include the personality and resilience of an individual child, the presence of an outside support network or program, and a family or caretaker that allows a child the possibility to reintegrate back into the community. While these three factors represent the minimum, generalized standards for rehabilitation, they can be difficult to achieve in war-torn countries.
The Children of ISIS
ISIS has used children as an integral part of its organization and operations for several years and has acquired children through a variety of means. The children of ISIS have been nicknamed “cubs” by the group and have been referred to as the “Cubs of the Caliphate” by ISIS and the international media. Children are acquired by ISIS both through voluntary means and by force. Among child soldiers worldwide, ISIS children are unique in that their extended family is likely to live or work in ISIS territory, and also more likely to be compliant with a child’s indoctrination into violent ideologies. Children are quickly integrated into ISIS society, learning about weaponry, militarism, and ISIS ideology in the Caliphate’s school system. These children often witness, experience or are forced to take in part the traumatic events that come with living in a hyper-violent society, including physical violence, torture, and sexual assault.
ISIS has emphasized the use of its child members in recent propaganda. The group has released several propaganda videos as a part of the “Cubs of the Caliphate” series. The 2016 “Cubs of the Caliphate Military Training Camp – Wilāyat Khurāsān,” video footage shows child soldiers training and practicing weaponry. Other videos from Wilāyat al-Raqqah (the ISIS Raqqa province) and Wilāyat al-Khayr (the ISIS Syria-Iraq border province) depict students undergoing weapons trainings, praying, and learning the ideology of ISIS in schools. These videos were distributed for recruitment purposes, likely targeting children and families. The videos indicate that ISIS has normalized the integration of children into violent behaviors. They depict ISIS society as a place acceptable for raising children. These videos also have a high production value, suggesting that careful planning and resources were devoted to the making of this series. This depiction of children as key members of ISIS society may be an integral strategic point for ISIS recruitment of potential child members or families.
In addition to highlighting ISIS’ “child-friendly” environment as a presumed recruiting tool targeting families, the group has featured children as martyrs and fighters in many eulogy statements. In a Georgia State University study, researchers compiled data from ISIS eulogies, which are regularly released by ISIS. These eulogies have information regarding martyrs and deceased fighters. Between 2015 and 2016, the researchers uncovered 86 eulogies. The deaths of these child fighters and martyrs occurred in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Nigeria. The primary cause of death was the child fighter operating a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED). Others died as foot soldiers, in suicide operations, or while operating as recruiters. This information shows that ISIS children are not exclusively working towards an education in religious studies and weapons training as other propaganda may suggest. Instead, the group is employing many young people as military operatives. Furthermore, this study only garners data from deceased child soldiers; this indicates that likely hundreds more children have been involved with ISIS military operations.
Primary source documents regarding ISIS’ intake of new children into the group also illuminate ISIS’ acceptance of children as active members of their society. Entry paperwork for newly arrived ISIS fighters collected by researcher Aymenn Al-Tamimi show information that newly arrived members are required to provide the organization upon entry into Islamic State territory. The forms ask new fighters to specify their age; new members between 5 and 15 can check in as ashbal, or cubs, while persons above the age of 15 are considered adults. By formalizing the way child newcomers are registered by ISIS administrators, it is clear that ISIS has a system in place to accept these new children into their military and civilian operations.
ISIS acquires child soldiers through a variety of means, including conquering new territory and persons, kidnapping children, members bringing their own children into ISIS territory, and through community outreach events targeted towards children. Children within ISIS’ conquered territory must attend ISIS public schools, where they learn the organization’s ideology in a curriculum emphasizing organizational religious compliance, and military tactics. The ISIS school system encourages children to demonstrate loyalty to the organization, allowing them to emotionally justify violence and actions against the group’s enemies. However, ISIS is also reported to have successfully conducted mass kidnappings of children. Hundreds of children in Iraq have reportedly been taken from their homes by ISIS fighters over the years. Captured children who do not comply with ISIS orders are often physically harmed, and therefore are forced to adopt the ideology and social system to survive. Finally, ISIS has hosted public child recruitment events, with ISIS fighters handing out toys and food items to children. These events are likely designed to gain favor from children in order to further integrate them into the ideology, and to make children look forward to joining ISIS military ranks once their education is complete. ISIS community integration impacts children’s belief and value systems, which has been reflected in the values and beliefs of children who have been taken out of ISIS territory. While children generally are in much safer environments after leaving ISIS territory, they may still regard ISIS outsiders as infidels, or uphold ISIS traditions and rituals.
Despite ISIS’ recent losses in Iraq and Syria, the group continues to recruit and kidnap children. The 2017 Report of the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict explicated the continued recruitment of child soldiers by ISIS, despite the group’s loss in land holdings. Many children are still being kidnapped in the Middle East, particularly by ISIS in the Khorasan Province. The UN has stated that at least 224 children were verifiably recruited or kidnapped by ISIS in 2017. These children were used in a number of capacities, including as suicide bombers, fighters, and slaves for fighters.
The 2017 UN report also denotes the prosecution and imprisonment of over a thousand children in Iraq for fighting on behalf of ISIS. In Iraq, children can be considered criminally responsible for any action they commit, starting at age 9, and face criminal penalties similar to that of adults. These children are being held in detention facilities across the country on charges related to their ISIS association. The UN Secretary General stated in response to this treatment of children in Iraq, “I urge the Government to treat all children formerly associated with armed groups primarily as victims… and to use detention only as a last resort… the United Nations stands ready to support the Government in developing and implementing reintegration services for children.”
Many children, post-involvement with ISIS, are currently receiving no reintegration services or psychological assistance by domestic or international bodies. The age of criminal responsibility in other countries where ISIS utilizes child soldiers is similarly low, at 10 years old in Syria, and 7 years old in Nigeria, Yemen, and Libya.
While very few resources currently exist for children fleeing ISIS territories, a handful of rehabilitation programs have been established for minority groups affected by ISIS. Limited reintegration programs have been privately created for Yazidi children in Iraq who were either under the age of 9 when involved with ISIS, escaped from ISIS territories, or somehow avoided criminal prosecution. Founded in late 2017, one Yazidi camp in Iraq provides treatment for former child soldiers through allowing affected children to live together in a center, and encouraging them to create art about their experiences. Children at this center are also given access to group and individual therapy, where they may discuss the trauma of living among and fighting for ISIS. The program assimilates them back into Yazidi culture and religious practices, and they are integrated back into the community and placed with relatives when possible. In some cases, however, children have been rejected by family members upon their arrival back from ISIS territory.
In order to determine best practices for the reintegration of ISIS children, lessons learned may be applied from other violent non-state groups that have utilized child soldiers. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Lord’s Resistance Army from Colombia and Uganda, respectively, have been deemed terrorist organizations by the United States and have extensively relied on the use of child soldiers in their operations.  Additionally, both groups’ recruitment methodologies share key similarities with ISIS’. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have recruited many child members based on ideology and voluntary assimilation, just as ISIS has. The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped nearly all of their child recruits, which is a tactic that ISIS has used as well. Different examples of rehabilitation strategies can be observed from the aftermath of these groups in their respective nations. Child reintegration aid has been primarily state-run in Colombia and provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Northern Uganda. While exact metrics on child soldier reintegration have not been released in the case of either group, qualitative outcomes and best practices can be applied to determine how different child reintegration strategies may impact the “Cubs of the Caliphate”.
Case Study: The Reintegration of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s Child Soldiers
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian terrorist organization, used child soldiers for decades in its armed operations against the Colombian government. The FARC’s philosophy was based upon communist ideologies and held a major presence in Colombian society. The compelling ideology of the FARC, coupled with a prevalence of impoverished children in Colombia, drove many children to join the group without force. This group serves as a valuable case study for the purpose of studying the reintegration of child soldiers, as government resources have been uniquely integral in the rehabilitation of FARC child soldiers.
In August of 2016, the FARC entered into a peace agreement with the Colombian government, turning over its last weapons to the state. The peace deal, as a part of an ongoing list of FARC concessions since May 2016, also resulted in the immediate release of the group’s child soldiers. It is estimated that at least 11,000 children had been recruited and utilized by the FARC in its armed operations since the 1970s. These children reportedly joined the group through a combination of both recruitment and kidnappings. Many children joined voluntarily due to the group’s proclaimed ideologies.
In response to this peace deal and the release of FARC children, the Colombian government has worked with UNICEF to begin reintegration programs for these children. The children that have come out of violent roles in the FARC are treated as victims and are typically not prosecuted. The former child soldiers are instead placed in designated government centers. The children are often placed far from their home-regions, which can serve as a positive aspect in terms of their anonymity and safety, but negative in that they are working to integrate into an unfamiliar place. The children live for two years in these centers, undergoing schooling and assimilation back into conventional society. The children are provided with counseling, and the state ensures that their basic and emotional needs are met. Additionally, children engage in community service as a part of this program.
Some of the potential negatives of this program include its two-year duration, bureaucratic nature, and lack of evaluative data. Children who are released from the program often require longer term care than solely what is accomplished over a two-year period. If they are not fully rehabilitated in that time period, they run the risk of rejoining violent gangs or other groups in Colombia. Furthermore, there have been reports of some children being denied rehabilitation because they were released informally through FARC, rather than formally declared to the Colombian government as a released former child soldier. This is likely a bureaucratic issue involving a state-run program’s documentation and identification process for former child soldiers. Regardless of their formal, documented releases, children should be provided rehabilitation as a default. Finally, metrics are not reliably kept on the effectiveness of these programs. While surveys have been released on children’s positive feedback of the overall program, where these children go at the end of the rehabilitation period is not provided as a readily available statistic. This program, having only begun in 2016, also cannot provide long-term data.
Case Study: The Rehabilitation of Former Lord’s Resistance Army Child Soldiers
The wake of the atrocities from the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, provides a second perspective on child soldier rehabilitation. Throughout Joseph Kony’s reign as a warlord during the insurgency in northern Uganda, he and his soldiers kidnapped more than 20,000 children across Uganda, employing young boys as child soldiers and girls as wives of fighters. These children were forced to fight on behalf of the Lord’s Resistance Army against the Ugandan government, and at points within the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Lord’s Resistance Army’s child recruits were gained almost exclusively through abduction, but often became more willing to fight for the group as they were assimilated. The war in Uganda lasted roughly 20 years before Kony was driven out of Uganda altogether, his army largely disbanding. The reintegration of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s child soldiers since the reduction of conflict in 2008 has been subject to extensive humanitarian aid and academic studies.
Children from the Lord’s Resistance Army have faced a variety of challenges since leaving the group in 2008. As children returned to their hometowns, communities were often unsupportive due to the children’s former associations with the Lord’s Resistance Army. These children also lacked proper education, and experienced mental instability due to the trauma they witnessed on the battlefield. Studies have shown that the Lord’s Resistance Army used a variety of tactics to assimilate children into the group: the organization’s newly abducted children were surrounded exclusively by those fully assimilated into the ideology and were isolated from other new child members, religion and witchcraft were used to scare them into submission, and the group facilitated the creation of a child’s new identity.
The reintegration approaches for children leaving the Lord’s Resistance Army have varied widely, as a variety of organizations have opened assistance programs in Uganda. Generally, these reintegration programs have focused on of family and community-based approaches. The humanitarian organization World Vision used a center-based approach in Uganda, allowing former child soldiers to live at an intake center where they were provided counseling, both in groups and individually. The children’s families were allowed to see them at intervals, so the children could reintegrate with them over time. They were housed at the center for up to three months. Local organizations have also combined community care with center-based strategies, giving the children a short period in a center for medical rehabilitation, and reuniting them with their families soon after. Children are then able to participate in rehabilitation programs while living amidst the community.
Despite the variety in rehabilitation methodologies, studies on former Lord’s Resistance Army child soldiers have shown that trauma-focused treatment over a short period was most effective in reducing post-traumatic stress disorder for these children. While exact metrics are not available for overall success rates of these reintegration programs, there have been cases of child soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army who remain outcast by their communities and impoverished due to their former involvement with the LRA. To fully address the emotional and social wounds that the Lord’s Resistance Army inflicted on these children, longer-term assistance programs may be necessary to continue former soldiers’ educations and provide them with a viable source of livelihood.
From the FARC and Lord’s Resistance Army case studies, it can be noted that a variety of reintegration strategies effectively assist in the rehabilitation of former child soldiers from terrorist organizations. Colombia utilized primarily government-run rehabilitation programs, while Uganda allowed NGOs and local community organizations to provide gradual reintegration with communities and families. Both instances feature available counseling for individual children, allow former child soldiers the opportunity to work with their communities, and present children with support networks. In short, the criteria allowing the possibility for rehabilitation after extreme trauma was likely met by the referenced case study programs.
The international community must implore Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Nigeria to accept international aid from NGOs and the UN, and to criminally prosecute youth only as a last resort. Instead, these children should be treated as victims. ISIS has forced them to endure trauma and atrocities, and they have been coerced in their young age to accept a violent ideology. In the referenced case studies, the individual states’ allowance of aid provisions was instrumental in giving children access to reintegration programs.
Secondly, basic services like counseling, community-based rehabilitation, and support networks must be in place as a resource for these children if they are to discontinue ISIS ideology adherence. As the majority of states where ISIS has captured or recruited children possess unstable governments, this will likely necessitate that NGOs like World Vision and UNICEF lead the effort, rather than government-run programs like that of Colombia. Furthermore, the issue of community support and acceptance will have to be dealt with in a different manner than that of the referenced case studies. Reintegration into communities is inherently difficult when some ISIS children were never integrated into a non-ISIS community to begin with. It is likely that center-based approaches will be better suited to these children, providing them access to an accepting community within a center, or through very gradual integration into another willing community or home.
Finally, the issue of long-term access to rehabilitative care arose in both case studies, as did the availability of evaluative metrics. While short-term counseling regarding trauma was utilized and effective for former child soldiers in Uganda, in both case studies, long-term solutions were either unavailable or not yet provided. To break the cycles of poverty or to prevent these children from joining other violent non-state groups out of a lack of opportunity, NGOs will need to establish educational resources, counseling, and social work over extensive periods of time. The outcomes of these programs should be judged based off of collected metrics on the progress of children on reintegration, which will allow programs to better assess and meet the needs of this vulnerable population.
While these programs will be resource intensive, the financial burden of supporting these long-term care programs may be lesser than that of national security measures that would later need to be taken against terrorist threats. By failing to rehabilitate the children of ISIS, the international community is allowing radicalized individuals to either become further radicalized in prison if they are detained by a state, or to exist freely among worldwide communities. Every effort must be made to apply comprehensive, proven rehabilitation strategies to the children of ISIS, in order to combat the extremist threat that they still actively pose. By treating them as victims of their circumstances and applying best practices of rehabilitation strategies of other groups, these children can begin to be freed from the horrors of ISIS.
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 Aaron Zelin, ed., "Cubs of the Caliphate," Jihadology, last modified 2016, accessed December 15, 2018,
 Mia Bloom, John Horgan, and Charlie Winter, "Depictions of Children and Youth in the Islamic State's Martyrdom Propaganda, 2015-2016," CTC Sentinel 9, no. 2 (February 2016): 29, accessed December 17, 2018,
 Ibid, 31.
 Aymenn Al-Tamimi, "The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Training Camp Contract," Jihadology, last modified February 4, 2017, accessed December 15, 2018,
 James Morris and Tristan Dunning, "Rearing Cubs of the Caliphate: An Examination of Child Soldier Recruitment by Da'esh," Terrorism and Political Violence, 2018, 14, https://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2018.1495628.
 Ibid, 14.
 Ibid, 12.
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 Ibid, 57.
 Verena Ertl, Anett Pfieffer, and Elisabeth Schauer, "Community-Implemented Trauma Therapy for Former Child Soldiers in Northern Uganda: A Randomized Controlled Trial," JAMA, August 3, 2011, 504, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2011.1060.
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 Ertl, Pfieffer, and Schauer, "Community-Implemented Trauma," 504.