Child soldiers from Daesh are returning to their home countries at alarming rates, having committed unimaginable atrocities. But how wary should we be of their return?
In 2017, a toddler no older than three years old makes his way unsteadily across an abandoned playground. What might initially look innocent turns chilling as the camera cuts to show the toddler’s destination: a slumped prisoner tied by the wrists to the playground gate.
In an almost unimaginable turn of events, the toddler raises a small handgun, aims it clumsily at the prisoner’s head, and pulls the trigger.
In a different iteration of the same story, four-year-old Isa Dare, a British child, is shown in 2016 pressing a car bomb detonator which kills four prisoners in the resulting explosion.
These are only two in a series of propaganda releases, possibly enacments, curated by the terror group ISIS (Daesh), showcasing the thousands of child soldiers they have been training to fight their holy war.
But now, these children are coming home—and we must meet them with open arms.
As Daesh loses territory, thousands of the group’s foreign fighters (i.e., people who have traveled from elsewhere to join), have been sent fleeing back to their home countries.
Among them are upwards of 4,600 children, often brought to the region by parents, who have undergone indoctrination and committed similar horrifying acts.
Nearly half of these children come from Europe, although their origins extend worldwide.
“I don’t want these people back here”
Countries facing ISIS returnees are understandably wary. There are reasonable concerns that in some cases, adults may return with malicious intent, or even on orders from ISIS itself for the purpose of attack. But while it is not uncommon for societies to have difficulty reintegrating child soldiers, it appears that Daesh propaganda has achieved its precise goal: many seem to prefer that their children did not come home at all.
“We have to consider that these children could be living time bombs,” said Hans-Georg Maasen, Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, in January.
Others still argue that entire societies should not have to suffer for the faults of irresponsible parents.
However, the biggest danger facing these children’s return lies not in the danger they may pose, but rather in our inability to reintegrate them.
“Cubs of the Caliphate”
Children play a critical, if not determinant, part in Daesh's survival strategy.
By the time they reach puberty, girls are frequently married and expected to bear children, while boys are trained for combat. But it doesn’t stop there: children have been involved in every part of the conflict, as preachers, executioners, suicide bombers, and centered in propaganda.
Unlike other child soldiers, these children are not simply cannon fodder—ISIS has been uniquely vocal, even proud, about their use.
Their justification comes from a perversion of the Islamic belief that when children reach puberty, they become religiously accountable. For Daesh, this means that these children are mature enough to serve the Caliphate just as adults do.
Since children have fewer preconceived beliefs, they are thought to be purer, better soldiers, and so must be saturated exclusively with the group’s dogma. This begins long before combat training, with education programs, bedtime stories which celebrate 'jihad', and frequent exposure to violence for desensitisation.
The emphasis on children as the future of the so-called Caliphate means that many more will have been born to foreign parents within the war zone.
In 2015, Quilliam estimated the existence of 31,000 pregnant women within the “Caliphate”, the implication being that many countries will be faced with more children returning than left in the first place.
Their weapon, our solution
The fears surrounding child returnees are not entirely unfounded. Children raised under Daesh with little or no alternative worldviews will have suffered tremendously.
Biologically, the trauma that comes from living and fighting in a war zone can actually impact brain structure, and criminology research suggests that young extremists are especially at risk of offending later on.
Yet it is for this exact reason, against all fear and apprehension, that these kids need to come home.
Daesh has placed a tremendous amount of resources into preparing the next generation of jihadis. Rather than fearing these children, it is crucial that we recognise their potential to help win the battle against extremism.
These children have unmatched knowledge of Daesh’s society that can inform counter-measures. Even more importantly, by reintegrating them, we can strip the group of the seeds they have planted for intergenerational survival.
These children are by no means lost causes. Developing brains are uniquely equipped to bounce back from trauma when the appropriate environment is created for them.
Further, they have knowledge of daily life in Daesh that is arguably unmatched and could help inform our own understanding of the group. But reintegrating these children means a reframing of how we understand them.
Child soldiers must feel valued in the communities they re-enter. The think-tank Quilliam has recommended a "strengths-based" approach which incorporates these children’s skills and talents into the community rather than treating them as dangers.
Yet as it stands, the narratives directed at these children cultivates a climate of fear around them. This will inevitably lead to their stigmatisation, rejection, and, depending on their age, perhaps even punishment upon return.
One of the most significant challenges to reintegration will be the swaying of public opinion.
Australia, one of the few countries which has been openly vocal about the return of up to 70 children, has faced severe backlash from the public. The hostility towards returning children, who one woman online called “foreign trained little f***ers” does not indicate a society willing to help heal these children.
This is a serious problem, since such hostility risks re-traumatising these children, destroying the possibility of healing and keeping them at arm’s length from their home society.
Down the road, this failure to reintegrate could very well drive them straight back into the welcoming arms of radical recruiters.
To tackle this stigma requires a rethinking of what these children are. They must not be seen as a liability, but a source of knowledge. They are not a danger, but a resource. They are not Daesh's future—they are ours.
It is society’s responsibility to make sure its children grow up healthy and prepared for a bright future. This extends to these children, who have undergone unimaginable horrors, regardless of how inconvenient it may seem.
Only once this is understood can we turn Daesh's 'greatest weapon' into our greatest strength.
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