Small Wars Journal

Fourth Generation Warfare: An Analysis of Child Recruitment and use as a Salafi-Jihadi Doctrine of War

Fri, 04/29/2022 - 1:40pm


Fourth Generation Warfare: An Analysis of Child Recruitment and use as a Salafi-Jihadi Doctrine of War

By Cecilia Polizzi




In the course of the 20th and 21st century the nature of war has undergone a profound transformation. Fourth Generation Warfare (4th Generation Warfare; 4GW), notwithstanding is nature as either most parsimonious or elegant term, gained unprecedented prominence because of its capacity to convey the evolving nature of global armed conflict. As Freedman puts it “It is hard to think of any recent conflict, including those involving clashes of regular forces, which did not involve the use of social, economic and political instruments in conjunction with the military.”

The postulants of 4th Generation Warfare portrays it as an example of modern warfare which has receded from previous generations´ exclusivism to military means in the conduct of warfare to involve all dimensions – political, economic, social and military – of human activity. In the ongoing ´revolutionary changes´ in the nature of warfare the recruitment and use of children by Salafi-Jihadist actors emerged as a critical, obliquitous trend.

This article emphasizes not the radical disjuncture of child participation in armed conflict and terrorism from previous generations warfare but its evolution and gargantuan acceleration in the 4th Generation Warfare. In its contemporary dimension, the involvement of children in terrorism has become a matter of public interest and a source of international outrage following its public display in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) propaganda. However, this phenomenon is by no means unique to Syria and Iraq but a terrorism trend extending to all Salafi-Jihadist franchises in the Middle East, Horn of Africa and the Sahel and a core, overarching pattern in the rise of extremism globally. At the time of writing, and without referencing to all active Salafi-Jihadist groups and factions, at least 10,000 children were verified victims of abduction by Boko Haram in West Africa, 5,700 children exploited by ISIL in Syria and Iraq and 12,056 recruited into the ranks of former Al-Qaeda affiliated in East Africa, Al-Shabaab. The systematicity and escalating nature of child exploitation in terrorism brings about questions regarding its raison d'être.

Rather than contributing to the intellectual and scholarly debate regarding the ´strategic conceptualization´ of 4th Generation Warfare or expounding the humanitarian implications of child abuse in terrorism, this article assumes the challenge of analyzing this phenomenon as a part of an evolutionary pattern of Salafi-Jihadist doctrine of war and to illustrate the unprecedented ways in which it contributes to the conduct of warfare through both, military and non-military means.

It is recognized that no singular form of 4th Generation Warfare exists. This is in part due to regional variations in history, politics, culture and society resulting in different conditions and in part because of an almost Darwinian process of adaptation and change. Practitioners of 4th Generation Warfare, including terrorist groups, exploit existing conditions, frailties and vacuums to operate and advance their agenda. As a result, while it may appear reasonable that there is heterogeneity in the temperaments and behaviors of terrorist groups punctuating the recruitment and use of children, no standard operating procedure or overarching modality is found.

By adopting a multi-layered, interdisciplinary approach and relying on a set of different methods, both quantitative and qualitative for the collection and analysis of data, this article traces the adherences of the modalities of child exploitation in terrorism with the tenets of 4th Generation Warfare by Salafi-jihadists movements. It suggests that the use of children in terrorism extends beyond the rationale driving the recruitment and use of children by other organized armed groups (OAGs) or militias, non-designated as terrorists, to assume a diverse, more prominent character and dimension responding to the demands of 4th Generation Warfare and objectives of Salafi-jihadism in the short and long-term.


´Al-Qaeda is a Mosquito´: Salafi-Jihadi Movements, Asymmetric Warfare and Children

The concept of 4th Generation Warfare was developed by William S. Lind and others in a 1989 article in the Marine Corps Gazette. Lind categorically states that ´Fourth Generation War is the greatest change since the Peace of Westphalia, because it marks the end of state´s monopoly over war´. A basic tenet of 4th Generation Warfare theory, this argument would have been deemed as an anathema in previous years. However, the gradual evolution of armed conflict, while adhering to ancient patterns, emphasized a shift in the predominant forms of warfare and brought about dramatic changes in the very notion of asymmetric warfare and the demands of those who face it.


Undeniably, states have become increasingly involved in violent conflicts with non-state actors operating both nationally and transnationally. Without proceeding to insert this discourse within the semantics concerning the classification of the variety of actors waging irregular warfare, it may be affirmed that a conflation between the rise of Salafi-Jihadist movements and 4GW has taken place. The announcement of the 4GW model – as to indicate the evolving nature of armed conflict – occurred in parallel with the global ascendance of Salafi-Jihadist movements. This conflation led terrorism to be considered not only as an element of 4GW but also as existing within the parameters of its proposed framework.


Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, antagonists of ´proper wars´ evolved faster due to the recognition and consequent exploitation of opportunities afforded by social, political, cultural changes and challenged conventional armies of nation-states adopting a combination of lethal and non-lethal tactics. Salafi-Jihadist movements demonstrated flexibility and adaptation emphasizing no particular technology but exploiting advantages available to irregular fighters and preying on the weaknesses of contemporary society. It is therefore unsurprising that the recruitment and use of children progressively emerged as a systemic pattern in Salafi-jihadism.


Conventional war responses to 9/11 highlighted a disparity of means and an asymmetry in military power which obliged Salafi-Jihadist groups, or the ´weaker´ parties, following a 4GW lexicon, to adopt a set of tactics to counterbalance the overwhelming superiority of the other. In this respect, the exploitation of children in conflict and near-conflict zones has been increasingly regarded as instrumental. While Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have been defined by some as a ´mosquito´ compared to conventional armies, the exponential demographic growth in developing countries, left child categories to constitute an enormous pool for exploitation into terrorist ranks, providing opportunities to strengthen military and operational capacity and establish an otherwise absent ground presence.


The correlation between the dynamics of armed conflict and an increasingly aggressive child recruitment rate is evident and emerges as common denominator in terrorist groups´ conduct.  This is epitomized by the abduction and deployment of 2,000 children by former Al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa - Al-Shabaab - in response to the intensifying military offensive by AMISOM and TFG forces which culminated with the loss of territorial control of Mogadishu. In a similar fashion, in the 2014-2016 period, in a revamped strategy to replenish its ranks facing escalating counterinsurgency operations, Boko Haram abducted 10,000 boys for deployment in military operations. In this respect, the recruitment and use of children in Salafi-Jihadist ranks can be defined as dynamic because rather than as a constant it manifests as either a progression or regression on the basis of shifting conditions in the battlefield and military necessity.


In addition to discrepancies in military capacities, 4GW emphasizes disparities in economic power and forces terrorist groups to master maneuver in order to maintain effectiveness. By recruiting children, Salafi-jihadist groups are able to level such deficiencies not only because children are inexpensive compared to adult fighters but also because their captivity offers chances to sustain insurgency through ransom or to force negotiation with State authorities. Since 2014, child mass abduction more than doubled in West Africa and reportedly, a cumulative amount of $18.34 million was paid by relatives and national authorities in exchange for their release


The involvement of children in terrorism emerged also as a strategic change of tactics. As oppressive counter-terrorism measures lowered the probability of terrorist acts operational success, secrecy and undetectability assumed a critical dimension. Equally to women, children are commonly associated with innocence and presumed to be inherently non-violent. These assumptions, while highlighting salient imbalances in socio-political structures, marked a paradigm shift in the modus operandi of Salafi-Jihadist groups and led to a dramatic increase in the use children in terrorist activities, including suicide bombing operations. Prior to the 21st century, child categories were outright excluded from suicide bombers demographics, characterized as cohorts of “uneducated, unemployed, socially isolated single men in their (…) early 20s.“ In the last three decades, however, the use of children in this type of operation emerged as one of the most prominent aspects of modern conflict suggesting both, that suicide bombers do not fit a uniform or monolithic profile and that a most profound synthesis between children´s physical and cognitive attributes, presumed innocence and non-threatening status and the requirements and conduct of warfare has taken place.

As terrorism challenges conventional-war values and aims at striking against civilian targets instead of the enemy´s military, through the employment of children, Salafi-Jihadist groups confound security operatives, infiltrate secure areas, undermine risk mitigation efforts and overall improve tactical effectiveness and chances of success. As Bloom established, “the use of the least likely suspect [children] is most likely a tactic of a terrorist group under scrutiny.”


The Importance of Children in Psychological Operations, Propaganda and Messages

The practitioners of 4GW do not endeavor to achieve superiority in the battlefield by building warfighting infrastructure essential to other generations of warfare. The original 4GW theory posited in fact that 4GW may have a “non-national or a transnational base, such as an ideology or religion” which relieves its actors of the strategic necessity of defending core production assets and logistic burdens. 4GW is a war of ideas and as a consequence, the importance of communication and information dissemination is vital. This concept is reiterated by Priyedarshi who argues that ´4GW survives on propaganda´.

Rapid advancements in technological capabilities, innovations in computing and telecommunications – such as widespread internet access,end-to-end encryption, and virtual private network (VPN) usage – while acting as catalysts for change in the nature and character of warfare, provided opportunities to Salafi-Jihadist groups to ´operate in a truly transnational way´ inciting or remotely directing attacks, sharing information, disseminating propaganda, as well as financing, recruiting and training. Designated terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL, demonstrate a heavy reliance on the Internet, social media platforms, games and magazines as propagandistic tools as well as adroitness in manipulating the media to alter domestic and international opinion in the form of psychological operations.

Fundamental social constructions regarding children relate to attributes of innocence, vulnerability, apprenticeship or socialization. It derives not only the significance of the child within society but also the high-symbolic value of child´s imagery as an element of psychological operations in the form of media intervention. The symbolic value of targets is what differentiates terrorism from other forms of extreme violence and it influences terrorists´ decision-making processes. In this respect, Gus Martin, argues that "terrorists select their targets because of their symbolic and propaganda value. High-profile, sentimental, or otherwise significant targets are chosen with the expectation that the terrorists´ constituency will be moved and that the victims' audience will in some way suffer.” The most relevant targets are those referring to the normative structures and relationships constituting the supporting framework of society. Faulkner affirms that there are few issues that provoke outrage in the same manner as that of the threat to childhood innocence, including but not limited to: abuse, neglect and violence. Following these considerations, it is therefore not coincidental that all Salafi-Jihadist movements would expose children and the mobilization of children in their propaganda campaigns.

Thomas X. Hammes affirms that 4GW targets specific messages to existing supporters or potential sympathizers, to those who can leverage policy-making and to policy-makers. Analyses of child imagery in terrorist propaganda reflect and corroborate this assertion. The theme of childhood innocence – most particularly depictions of children as victims of Western-aided violence – was found the most prominent representation in ISIL´s magazine Dabiq.  With this type of communication, ISIL endeavors to appeal to religious identity and seeks the allegiance of Muslim communities in the West as a target group – albeit nonexclusive – by eliciting ´anger and frustration´ in the hope of shifting towards an increase of both passive and active supporters. Analogously, Al-Qaeda propaganda, while narrower in purpose compared to ISIL, is also directed towards the English-speaking Muslim community (ummah) in the West (dar al-harb or dar al-kufr) the 85% of which in the United States. A descriptive and qualitative content analysis of Al-Qaeda videos between 2001 and 2010, reveal approximately fifteen different references to child victimization.

Following Davis A. Scott, another use of propaganda in psychological operations is to degrade the enemy´s population support for its own government causing that government to implode. In this regard, the display of children in Salafi-Jihadist propaganda may effect an impact beyond the intended target group(s) to include society and governments as a whole. Hereof, the importance of media in shaping policy is highlighted. Since the media are the ´major primary sources of national political information´ and presented issues, events and topics shown in the media are deemed vital to society and public interest, the portrayal of child victimization may lead to criticism for policies or warfare conduct, whereas actual or perceived, create social fragmentation and undermine social or political consensus. Lind provides further information on terrorism and its effects on society and government by affirming that “(…) If we treat them within our laws, they gain many protections; if we simply shoot them down, television news can make them appear to be victims (…)“.

Conversely, highly publicized acts of violence against children at the hand of terrorist actors, such as the mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls from a public secondary school in the small town of Chibok, Borno State (2014), may erode the population’s faith in the state. Since governments are representatives of the will of citizens and repositories of their security and rights, any attack against the population, most particularly children as vulnerable categories within society, may hinder state´s legitimacy and strengthen terrorists´ narratives that regard governments as inadequate, untrustworthy or faulty.

Dissimilarly from Al-Qaeda, ISIL and ISIL-affiliated groups, shifted in recent years from representations of the child as victim to the one of child soldier. The majority of ISIL media broadcasts feature the participation of children being normalized to violence, witnessing violence, training for violence and perpetrating violence with the next most prominent theme being state-building. Alex Schmid asserts that the first objective of terrorism – on which everything depends – is the production of terror, defined by psychiatrist Frank Ochberg as an “extreme form of anxiety followed by frightening imagery and intrusive repetitive recollection”. Causing and spreading terror is therefore at the forefront of any terrorist act and depictions of children, especially when contrasting common perceptions regarding children as inherently non-violent or innocent, trigger a deep psychological response on audiences, destroy and create symbols.

In an attempt to exert influence on policymakers or targets of demand, and weaken their resolve to fight, portrayals of the so-called cubs of the caliphate, while legitimizing and officializing ISIL state-building ambitions, outline that warfare has permeated every sector of society and is set to perdure across generations.


Child Indoctrination, Protracted Conflict and Exhaustion of Powerful Adversaries

As the war against international terrorism has also been defined as the “clash of civilizations” or otherwise between the Islamic and Western world, ideology acquires a higher degree of preponderance as an element of warfare. It is in fact not only a justification for undertaking violent action and attain legitimacy for terrorist violence but also offers chances to achieve political success in the long term. The ambition to create and impose new socio-political orders depends on the concretization of any terrorist group perspective of longevity. 4GW is a war of ideas and survival, or otherwise the minimum goal of any terrorist organization, is also ideological survival.

Salafi-jihadist groups understand children as a vehicle to propagate dogma through future generations. Processes of child indoctrination may be defined as hybrid systems consisting of ideological components, military training and desensitization to violence and have both tactical and strategic value. Indoctrination to an uncompromising adherence to Salafi-jihadism, founded on the premise that unbelievers should be persecuted, is integrated with a prolonged exposure and also partaking of children in violent acts. As a result, children not only regard violence as normal but also as something desirable, if considering the promise of achievement of status enacted by terrorist groups for the perpetration of such acts. In conjunction with primary and secondary socialization mechanisms within the entire sphere of terrorist groups´ modus vivendi and modus operandi, children develop a deep ideological attachment to the creed of Salafi-jihadism, hence ensuring the propagation of a utopian image of a sectarian Islam and its long-term survival. By radicalizing children, Salafi-Jihadist groups ensure longevity, disrupt social fabrics and alter social outcomes.

In addition, practitioners of 4GW aim at weakening the enemy´s will to fight rather than his means. Salafi-Jihadist groups must plan for long wars since they hold fewer capabilities to achieve the desired outcomes within specific timeframes. Child radicalization is also a strategy to lead wars of exhaustion and attrition. Children materially symbolize the lack of a clear end state to conflict and their involvement with Salafi-jihadist groups raises questions as to whether the enemy state is willing and/or capable to accommodate long-term insurgency, counter and absorb the costs.


Child recruitment and use within the context of extremist threats has grown to the point of amounting to a custom. The announcement of the 4th Generation Warfare model signaled not only an acceleration in the exploitation of children in terrorism but also outlined changes in the modalities and very significance of child participation in the conduct of warfare.


Equally to other generations warfare, 4GW requires adaptation and flexibility. It forces its practitioners to develop tactics and strategies which move away from conventional war to include secrecy, psychological and attrition warfare. Since terrorism evolves with consideration of the counter measures applied against it and it is a reaction to external stimuli, child exploitation in this context emerges as a tactical and strategic response. The demands of 4th Generation Warfare, justify the logic of child exploitation and may be ascribed as among its principal drivers.  


This article, without purporting to be exhaustive, highlighted a series of synergies between the premises of 4th Generation Warfare and child recruitment and illustrated the ways in which it contributes, through military and non-military means, to its exercise.  Children represent an asset to irregular warfare actors because they are unobtrusive, inexpensive and versatile fighters apt for deployment in a multitude of both combat and non-combat roles. Consequently, children are actively used in military operations as front-line soldiers, messengers, spies, human shields, executioners, suicide bombers or detonating vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices or for the purposes of forced impregnation, sexual trafficking sexual slavery and other grave forms of sexual and gender-based violence. However, in 4th Generation Warfare, Salafi-jihadist actors came to recognize a value in children that extends beyond purposes of territorial expansionism and military gains and exploit it in unprecedented ways. In the terrorist mind, a child is not simply as an expendable tool of war but a critical asset exerting an impact on the entire spectrum of 4GW networks, whether political, economic, social, or military.


While adhering to ancient patterns, the normalization of children in unconventional warfare effectively challenges opportunities to prevent and counter terrorist threats and signals that it cannot be overcome through age-old techniques. It requires a growing awareness of the complexities, means and ends utilized by Salafi-jihadist groups and it is hoped that experiences in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria – and others – may serve a driver to move towards developing a more comprehensive approach to thinking about ends, means and war.


Thomas X. Hammes, asks what power is and what it will be. Implicitly, his case rests on ´ages´ and ´generations´ which he treats not as means of categorization but as tools to identify the essential characteristics of a time from which one must predict what happens and what not. It is difficult to point to a time whether the recruitment and use of children will be recognized as a tactical and strategic element of generations of warfare. Whether an analysis of this issue serves as a steppingstone or becomes a strategic premise in its own right, however, its implications are visible and its targets – in certain instances more than others – permanently affected.



About the Author(s)

Cecilia Polizzi is President & Founding Executive Director of CRTG Working Group, the premier I/NGO in the world dedicated to protecting children from terrorist abuse and exploitation. Polizzi is a human rights lawyer, lecturer and scholar with more than a decade of experience in human rights, criminal and juvenile justice and other spheres of law, including specific issues connected to international security and counterterrorism. Through her scholarship, Polizzi dedicates continuous effort in supporting the application of the rule of law in counter-terrorism policy and regulation, and particularly to the affordability of human rights and juvenile justice to children in this context. She firstly exposed the exploitation of children in terrorism as a major pillar of terrorist groups´ strategy to self-perpetuation and tactic of war and established that indoctrination serves to ensure the propagation and long-term survival of extremist ideology, inter-generationally. A globally recognized expert, her work was published in several academic journals and outlets. It was featured on one of the foremost Italian political newsweeklies “L ́ Espresso”, GEDI Gruppo Editoriale and supported the drafting of the 2020 Annual Report on Terrorism and Human Rights of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/45/27).