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ISIS is recruiting more children to carry out massacres

March 3, 2016 at 8:03 PM EDT
A new report found there were three times as many suicide attacks in the Middle East committed by children this year compared to last. Experts blame Islamic State propaganda that glorifies martyrdom for indoctrinating orphaned and disaffected children to extremist views. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Mia Bloom of Georgia State University for more on the changing face of Islamic terrorism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: A new study provides a disturbing look into the ways ISIS uses children to fight its battles.

Hari Sreenivasan has our conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A new report published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point chronicles the increasing use of children as fighters for the so-called Islamic State.

The report’s authors, based at Georgia State University in Atlanta, documented the Islamic State’s own propaganda, which praises deceased young fighters as martyrs. It shows how the group uses children and youth in suicide operations. They found three times as many suicide attacks involving young people in January of this year than last year.

For more on the study’s findings and what they mean, we’re joined by one of the report’s authors, professor Mia Bloom.

Problem Bloom, unfortunately, child soldiers aren’t anything new. So, how is ISIS using them differently?

MIA BLOOM, Georgia State University: So, we started our study with a baseline looking at the literature on child soldiers, looking at biographies and autobiographies of people who had been child soldiers, in order to get a sense of what we thought we might expect.

And so we expected that children would be used when they ran out of adults or when they couldn’t find adults, or that children would be used against civilian targets. And we didn’t find either of those. Instead, what we found was that children in ISIS are used alongside the adults, not instead, and, in fact, only 3 percent of the time were children used against civilian targets; 61 percent of the time, they were going after what we would call hard targets, military, police, militias and the army.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So they’re doing just what the grownups do.

MIA BLOOM: They’re doing exactly what the grownups do, and, in fact, we found considerably more suicide bombers than anyone expected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you said — you actually break it down; 39 percent are driving basically car bombs?

MIA BLOOM: Thirty-nine percent were car bombs. These were vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, so it’s a VBIED.

But many of the children were also wearing what we would call a suicide belt, which is an individual IED that is attached to them, so they were part of these marauding raids, these inghimasi, so they would go into the target, shoot and then blow up the IED or the suicide belt at the end of the operation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, it used to be that groups would recruit in secret, that they knew that there was going to be societal backlash. This is the opposite.

You’re saying in your report that ISIS brags about the fact that they’re recruiting young kids.

MIA BLOOM: Not only is ISIS boasting that they’re using these children, but they’re using the children also in a way to humiliate the men.

What we didn’t put into report, but will be exploring further, is that ISIS is using the children, for example, in the prison to determines who lives and dies. They’re also using the children to actually carry out the execution, and so they’re empowering the children, and by doing so, disempowering the men.

And this is a way in which they are recruiting the children to basically feel like you will be more than what you are. You won’t be a child in a society where you’re lesser than, but you will be powerful, you will be a cub and then eventually a lion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As you watched through all of these images and videos, you actually point out that almost half these children have smiles on their faces, at least in the propaganda that comes out after. Explain that.

MIA BLOOM: Well, one of the things that we tried to do is, we’re trying to get a sense of, is there any coercion? Are the children there voluntarily?

So, for example, again, using the baseline of child soldiers, the stereotypical story that we know from Liberia or Uganda is that these children are coerced and they’re drugged, and so they’re made to perpetrate an act of horrific violence against members of their own family, so that they can never go back to their village.

We didn’t find that with ISIS. We found parents who willingly gave the terrorists access to their children. They encouraged the children. One of the images, for example, we even see the father saying goodbye to his son.

But we also saw a lot of images where the kids are smiling and they look like they are very excited about this future. They even put them in a setting that looks like the Garden of Eden, in order to convey that that’s where they’re headed; they’re going to paradise.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what kind of age range are we talking about? Obviously, under 18 qualifies as a child, but how young were some of these kids?

MIA BLOOM: So, we used age categories based on developmental psychology.

Some of the kids were as young as 8. So, we had again — an age range of 8-12, 13-15, 16-18, and we didn’t go above 18. And anyone we knew that might be over 18, we didn’t include in the study.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so we have this information. How should this inform our policy-making or our strategy to combat this?

MIA BLOOM: I mean, part of it is that we have seen in other instances terrorist groups using very young children. So, although they didn’t brag about it, we did some field research in Pakistan, where the Pakistani Taliban has forcibly recruited very young kids to be suicide bombers.

We know that there are ways of de-radicalizing and deprogramming these children, but it’s very involved, it’s very expensive. It requires a multipronged approach. So part of it is, what do we do when soldiers are facing children?

We know that there are increased levels of PTSD. But we also have to figure out ways not just of preventing the children from entering in the first place, but what do we do with them once we find them?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, while several of these children were from Iraq and Syria, you point out that some of these children came from other countries far overseas as well. So, how did they get there? We can understand that a 22-year-old figures out a way to get on a bus, on a plane. How did these small kids from, say, Europe, get in?

MIA BLOOM: Well, what’s the really horrific part of the study is we discovered how many parents are bringing their children with them.

So, among the foreign fighters that are coming from the United Kingdom and France, Belgium, Tunisia, Egypt, they’re bringing their entire families with them when they go. And they’re basically giving the terrorists access to these children when they get there.

So, we are seeing parents who are basically colluding with the terrorists and allowing their children to die at a very early age.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mia Bloom, thanks so much.

MIA BLOOM: Thank you so much for having me.