The Global Epidemic of Child Warriors

The Global Epidemic of Child Warriors

From the Taliban to suicide bombers in the Middle East and Africa, young people are enacting the savageries of their elders.


In 1954, a single book destroyed the popular notion that children are innocent souls. In that book, a plane of such innocent souls crashes on a deserted island. There, in a paradise of coral and coconuts and wild pigs, the survivors soon revert to a state of nature. But such a state, author William Golding warned us, is not an idyll of flower sniffing and poetry writing. In The Lord of the Flies, the children turn savage, inspired not by beauty or the common good but, rather, the will to power.

The Lord of the Flies takes place during a time of war. On a tropical island far from civilization, Ralph and Piggy and Jack reproduce the dynamics of the heartless society from which they’d been torn. The children become savages because savagery is an integral part of the modern world, with its trench warfare, nuclear weapons, and periodic genocides. The island to which devilish Jack sets fire during the final hunt for Ralph mirrors the world of their parents: a world in flames.

It’s no longer a shock to learn of what the very young are capable. In Britain in 1993, two 10-year-olds abducted, tortured, and killed a 2-year-old boy, James Bulger. In Norway in 1994, two 6-year-olds beat their 5-year-old playmate with stones and left her in the snow to die. In America, which seems to be suffering an epidemic of children killing children, an 11-year-old last year shot dead his 8-year-old neighbor because she wouldn’t let him see her puppy.

By the time they become adolescents, young people become even more prone to impulsive, often violent behavior. They also reveal a greater susceptibility to peer pressure that can translate into gang membership or an obsession with cults. Our school shooters are usually teenagers. Our suicide bombers also tend to be quite young–the average age of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, was 24 and of suicide bombers in Israel only 21. Of course, that’s also the age when young people acquire the legal right to kill when they enlist in armies.

What’s most unsettling is the sheer unpredictability of youth-on-youth violence. Consider the recent Washington Post story about a soccer game last month in an Iraqi village 40 miles south of Baghdad.

Dozens of kids had gathered to play a tournament final and cheer on their friends. One of the boys standing on the sidelines was wearing a thick jacket on an otherwise warm day. He couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old.

When the match ended, the boy in the jacket joined the scramble of boys converging at the podium to watch the awarding of the trophy and the medals, said Anmar, who attended the match with his 13-year-old brother, Bilal, and a group of friends.

“Then he blew himself up, and I felt a fire hit my face,” Anmar said. “And then I ran away.”

The teenage suicide bomber had killed nearly 50 people, the majority of them younger than 17.

The soccer game violence was the latest atrocity committed by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) against Shi’ites in Iraq. IS claimed in its post-tragedy statement that it was targeting members of a Shi’ite militia, and two members of the militia attending the soccer game were indeed among the victims. Like all of the paramilitaries deploying child soldiers around the world, IS has no compunction about putting weapons into the hands of combatants of all ages–and sheds no tears over the young victims of its acts.

The imperative to send the very young into battle is nothing new. During a horrific, decade-long conflict in the 1980s, Iran sent waves of young martyrs into battle against Iraq. During the US Civil War, young Johnny Clem, 10 years old, put down his drum at the battle of Shiloh, picked up a rifle, and shot dead a Confederate officer–a story endlessly repeated by the Union PR team. Also during the Civil War, Willie Johnson received one of the first Congressional Medals of Honor–at the age of only 13. Going back much further, Joan of Arc was a young woman of 17 when she led her forces into battle, and David was a young teenager when he went up against Goliath–both foundational stories in the Western tradition.

When states have tried to keep the very young away from the battlefield, they have naturally focused their efforts on other states. The ban on child soldiers has been a long time in the making. Although the Geneva Conventions barred signatories from enlisting children, only a 1977 protocol banned governments from recruiting those younger than 15. Later, in 2002, an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child raised that age to 18. The United States, which has signed but not ratified the convention, continues to militarize teenagers through its JROTC program.

But much of the violence perpetrated by youth comes from non-state actors not from government militias. Like nuclear weapons, the use of child soldiers can provide what seems to be an asymmetrical advantage. If some of these non-state actors removed children from their ranks, their militias would practically disappear.

Kids These Days

The al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia known as al-Shabaab–or the Youth–started out as a group of young people affiliated with the Islamic Courts Union. Their ranks are now fed by younger herders radicalized by fundamentalist preachers and by young Somalis in the diaspora who return home to fight. Al-Shabaab also forcibly incorporates young people into its ranks to fight, carry supplies, and prepare food.

“I had come prepared for anti-Western hostility from a gang of hardened jihadist militants,” journalist James Fergusson writes in his book, The World’s Most Dangerous Place, about his visit to a camp of al-Shabaab deserters. “Instead I found a crowd of school age teenagers, spirited, unruly, and for the most part instantly likeable. Their average age was fifteen.”

Young people also formed the core of the Taliban, which coalesced in the early 1990s. “Taliban” means “students,” and many of the fighters were originally Afghan students in Pakistani madrasahs. The civil war in Afghanistan had left many orphans in the Pashtun community who ended up over the border in these schools of religious instruction. In 1996, assisted by the Pakistani government, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. Simple math would suggest that the Taliban, particularly its military leadership, would be quite seasoned at this point after two decades of battle and five years of controlling the country. But thanks to a decapitation strategy delivered largely by drone, the United States and its allies have managed to reduce the age of the military command.

“When we got there, it was estimated the average regimental or battalion commander—whatever you want to call him—in the insurgency was about 35 years old,” Marine Major Gen. Richard Mills said back in 2011 after serving a year in Helmand province. “When we left, he was 23. Why? Because the rest of them are dead. What does that mean? It means they’re promoting younger and younger men—less-experienced men—into greater responsibility, and that’s a weakness.”

The leadership of Boko Haram in central Africa is also getting younger. James Schneider writes in New African magazine about how Cameroon’s Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) has followed a similar decapitation strategy:

The average age of Boko Haram’s fighting force keeps dropping. Now, the majority of fighters are teenagers. In battle, Boko Haram tends to have only a small number of older fighters coordinating the militants. They are identifiable by their walkie-talkies or satellite phones. So, BIR developed an 8-week sniper course. Now, BIR aims to pick off the older leaders at the start of any engagement. This strategy has exposed Boko Haram’s battlefield reliance on young, often poorly trained teenage fighters.

Boko Haram has also increasingly been relying on children for their suicide bombings. “The number of children involved in such blasts grew more than tenfold, from four in 2014 to 44 in 2015, according to a report released by the U.N. children’s agency on Tuesday,” writes The Washington Post. “And more than three-quarters of the children are girls—some as young as 8 years old.”

And now we have the Islamic State, which has elevated the use of children to the level of demonic performance art. The youngest recruits, the “cubs of the caliphate,” have been taking center stage more and more in recent months, as detailed by Charlie Winter in The Guardian:

In January, a young Kazakh boy was filmed as he shot a man in the back of the head; in March, Isis propagandists released a video in which a French child aged no more than 11 executed a Palestinian accused of spying for the Israeli government; in May, a young Russian was shown doing the same to an alleged member of the Federal Security Service; in June, 25 teens were filmed as they each shot a pro-Assad regime soldier in Palmyra’s Roman Theatre; and, less than a month later in July, Isis supporters circulated footage of a young Syrian boy beheading an officer, also in Palmyra.

This downward spiral of depravity arguably reached its nadir in December, when six small boys were shown playing Isis “hide-and-seek,” running through the ruins of a castle in eastern Syria, racing each other to kill one of the handful of captives who were tied up and defenceless inside.

The Islamic State knows what it’s doing. It uses children to sell its “product” knowing full well that the videos will garner outrage far and wide. The videos also demonstrate that IS will do whatever it takes to win.

The Failure of the Modern

And yet, the Islamic State is failing to appeal to its core demographic. A year ago, according to a 16-country survey of young people in the Arab world, 60 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 rejected IS. This year, that number rose to 80 percent. And the respondents wouldn’t change their mind even if IS were to abandon its brutal tactics.

To sustain its current operations, IS only needs to attract a tiny percentage of youth in its general vicinity. But as with Donald Trump, a high disapproval rate suggests a tenuous future.

When asked why IS continues to attract support, respondents in the poll pointed not to religious reasons but overwhelmingly to economic conditions. During the Arab Spring, young people who couldn’t get jobs went into the streets to protest. Those options have now narrowed. And the states of the Arab world are still not providing jobs to the young. The youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa are the highest in the world (28 and 30 percent respectively), and they’re only getting worse. Modernity has failed the young people of the Middle East. No surprise, then, that they are casting around for anti-modern alternatives.

There was a chance, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, for the West to invest heavily in the new and fragile democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, and eventually Libya. Such resources could have solidified the post-authoritarian political gains. But resources on the order of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East were not forthcoming. The United States and Europe were suspicious of the Islamist forces that came to the fore in those countries. Only Tunisia has succeeded in avoiding chaos and autocracy–thanks largely to their own efforts not the beneficence of outsiders.

But now Senator (and former presidential hopeful) Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is calling for… a Marshall Plan for the Middle East!

Graham wants to flood Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel with huge sums of money–“access to lower-interest loans, preferential trade agreements, and bolstering their civil society”–in order to fight the Islamic State. Talk about waiting until the horse is out of the barn. Egypt is back under military rule. The Arab Spring didn’t really touch Lebanon and Jordan. And Israel certainly doesn’t need any more American largesse. Marshall Plans, however, need enemies, and the Islamic State quite literally fits the bill.

Even if Congress does untie its purse strings, which is doubtful, it’s not going to stop young people from signing up to kill young people. Any US money flowing into the region will serve to prop up unjust and often unpopular governments. It won’t go the source of the discontent. In previous eras, the left offered young people a way to channel their desires for economic and social justice. But the left is moribund in the Middle East. To a certain extent, political Islam speaks to a thirst for justice. As I wrote in Crusade 2.0, “Islamists decry the corruption, lawlessness, and economic inequalities that they see in their own societies. They have also protested against Western policies—promoted by governments or international institutions—that have perpetuated these injustices.” The Islamic State, in its perverse way, takes advantage of that desire for justice.

The generational despair is not limited to the Middle East. You can find it throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even here in the United States, young people are fed up with the status quo. Listen to pollster Ben Tulchin on why millennials support Bernie: “because their generation is so fucked, for lack of a better word, unless they see dramatic change. What’s their experience been with capitalism? They have had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health-care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So, that’s capitalism for you.” And that’s in one of the richest countries in the world.

If the Middle East doesn’t produce its own versions of Bernie Sanders—and ones that can win and hold on to office–then the terrible children’s crusade will continue. Enough young people will be attracted to the Islamic State’s message of thoroughgoing transformation to keep the would-be caliphate going in some form. Enough young people will sustain operations like al-Shabaab and Boko Haram as they abduct little children and turn them into killing machines. And enough young people will be attracted to the job of piloting the drones that are killing other young people throughout the Muslim world to keep the war on terrorism going in its latest incarnation.

We adults can bewail the use of child soldiers by all those thuggish brigades around the world. But, as in The Lord of the Flies, those young people are just enacting the savageries of their elders. They are both victims and perpetrators. If we don’t fundamentally care about the livelihood of the next generation, it’s no surprise that some members of the next generation don’t care about their own lives or the lives of others.

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