Islamic State has been dispatching children and teenagers into battle and sending them as suicide bombers at an unprecedented rate, analysis by US researchers has found.
Examining Isis death notices of 89 children and youths on Twitter and the encrypted communications app Telegram, a study by Georgia State University found that the minors came from at least 14 nationalities, with just under two-thirds aged between 12 and 16.
According to the analysis, which ran from the start of 2015 until the end of January this year, the death rate has doubled for those aged 18 and under being used by Isis. Overall, 39% of them were used to drive cars or trucks laden with explosives at the enemy. A further 33% died as foot soldiers.
There were three times as many suicide operations involving children and youth in January 2016 as the previous January, the researchers found.
Briton Talha Asmal, 17, was among the 89 dead
Briton Talha Asmal, 17, was among the 89 dead. Photograph: Handout/PA
“The Islamic State has so heavily championed the mobilisation of children – on a scale rarely associated even with violent extremist organisations – that it suggests organisational concerns that far outweigh short-term propaganda benefits,” the report said.
The report’s co-author Charlie Winter said what surprised him was that Isis was not using children in a way that substantially differed from adult soldiers. “The way children are being used is perhaps counterintuitive in the context of child soldier precedence. They aren’t just being used to buoy the ranks of Isis nor are they being used in roles that adults can’t engage in,” he said.
“Children and youth don’t really receive any special treatment from Isis propagandists. They’re celebrated in exactly the same way adults are. And they’re celebrated alongside adults rather than being given any recognition for their age … It’s almost an incidental fact.”
Although explicit information on age from Isis sources was scant, Winter said the researchers were cautiously using child development theory guidelines to classify subjects and that all those in the sample used were believed to be 18 or under.
Examining the location of where children died against their given nationalities, Winter said many appeared to have been imported into conflict in Iraq from bordering Syria.
The list of the dead includes Talha Asmal, 17, from Dewsbury, who blew himself up in the northern Iraqi town of Baiji last year. Speaking in the weeks after his death a local imam, Qari Asim, said Isis leaders were acting “like paedophiles” by grooming young men.
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Last August, London’s Metropolitan police said more than 30 children from the UK had been made the subject of family court orders due to fears they might be radicalised. The country’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, assistant commissioner Mark Rowley, said some children were “almost babes in arms”. Their ages ranged from two to 17.
The US researchers’ list of the dead also includes a French national and the 18-year-old Australian Jake Bilardi who had planned to attack targets in Melbourne, before leaving to fight for Islamic State.
Winter said Isis had been training and indoctrinating children for years and they were now being “drip-fed into the Isis military project … [but] at an accelerating rate.”
Internal Isis documents uncovered by the Guardian show the group deliberately planned to train and arm children for combat in dedicated camps for “caliphate cubs”.
The report’s authors conclude that Isis’s use of children in war was likely to raise serious ethical quandaries for future military engagement.
“It is clear that the Islamic State leadership has a long-term vision for youth in its jihadi efforts. While today’s child militants may well be tomorrow’s adult terrorists, in all likelihood, the moral and ethical issues raised by battlefield engagement with the Islamic State’s youth are likely to be at the forefront of the discourse on the international coalition’s war against the group in years to come.”