Is the world ready to deal with a generation of ISIS child soldiers?

Children pose with guns in front of ISIS flags at a purported training camp near Damascus, Syria. The image comes from a propaganda video released by ISIS. Al-Baqiya Media Foundation via Storyful/Screen grab

If there’s a war crime to be committed, it appears ISIS is more than willing to carry it out. And, that includes indoctrinating young children and making them witnesses and accomplices to some of the militant group’s most gruesome acts.

The United Nations and human rights groups have been warning for months ISIS is using child soldiers in its battle to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But, the number of young recruits — lured or taken from already vulnerable situations, manipulated and forced into conflict — could be an even greater cause for international concern in years to come.

“They’ve deliberately been talking about a generational war and preparing the next generation,” Dr. Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative based at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, told Global News.

“I haven’t seen that come out so strongly in any other previous use of children as I’ve seen in this instance.”

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She said sources she’s spoken with suggest the number of child soldiers in ISIS-controlled areas could be in the “couple hundreds of thousands.”

To clarify, that doesn’t mean a fleet of hundreds of thousands of children on the front lines in the Islamic State — how ISIS refers to itself and its self-proclaimed caliphate — rather all of the children being used to further the militant groups advances.

“With the children, they could be undertaking multiple roles,” she said.

READ MORE: Social media used to prey on US teens to join Islamic State: Official

According to various reports, including from the United Nations, children have been forced to do everything from carting weaponry to acting as human shields, and in some cases carrying out suicide bombings.

There are accounts of children being made to witness beheadings as a part of their training to become jihadis.

Some children are said to be used as human blood banks — a source for transfusions to treat wounded adult fighters.

“They might not be accounted by others, who look at them as official fighters, but according to the definition of child soldiers, that makes them a child soldier,” Whitman explained.

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READ MORE: Women on front lines of battle against Islamic State militants in Syria, Iraq

The situation in ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria is far too dangerous for many international aid agencies and non-government organizations to get access to children and intervene in recruitment.

Preventing children from being recruited or forcibly indoctrinated is one thing, but having a plan to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society is crucial, say experts.

“When the war stops, it doesn’t go straight from war to jolly old peace. It’s an incredibly fragile situation,” said James Topham, director of communications for War Child.

In a situation like this, the “sheer number” of children affected and the lack of any support or infrastructure can leave child soldiers, especially those who have been exposed to such horrific violence, with little chance of going back to the lives they once had.

“Sometimes the best option is to go back into an armed group,” Topham said.

READ MORE: Why you should be concerned about ISIS recruiting children (June 25)

“It is possible to work with young people [who] have been through this kind of indoctrination and it is possible to be able to see change. But, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Whitman said. “[But] if you wait to deal with these problems… you’re always going to be dealing with the long-term, cyclical impacts.”
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The international community needs to come up with a plan to address this situation, Whitman warned.

Whitman briefed officials at NATO last month on the use children in warfare.

“They admit they’re not well prepared or trained [to deal with] it,” she said.

“I’m very worried that the level of effort we’ve put into addressing this is not one where we’ve put children at the top of the agenda.”

Global News reached out to NATO’s press office for comment, but a spokesperson said a response would not be possible in time for publication.

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