The perverse act of recruiting kids for war

Kids will be kids. Play, josh, run, swim, maybe a bit of mischief. We marvel at their innocence and sense of freedom; we delight in their unbridled joy. Their smiles and laughter rejuvenate us. Our society recognizes the need to give children the personal support and security they need to grow into happy and healthy young adults who will eventually be productive and participatory members of society. 

Which is why it is so difficult to comprehend how any community or its leaders could systematically exploit children, whether via sexual predation, labor exploitation or neglect. Most disturbing of all is the current practice of turning boys and girls into front-line fighters and suicide bombers by the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and many other violent extremists. 

While American kids pack their bags to get ready to hike and fish at woodsy sleep-away camps, a whole passel of tykes in troubled parts of the world are being whisked away for summer terrorist training camps. Civilized society bristles at the exploitation of the innocent and defenseless. And we act. We feel outrage when animals are portrayed being hurt in movies, so they are protected. 

We set up school drug-free zones, entertainment age limits and ratings, v-chips against violence, car seats, bike helmets, pool fences. It is in the nature of our protective – perhaps overprotective – society to guard against dangers to children. In general, we work hard to pass along security structures and survival lessons to our progeny, even if we sometimes fail at gun safety, explicit sexual exposure or educational opportunity. 

Regardless of our many failings, nothing in our societies is set up to actively enable the physical perversion and psychological exploitation of children seen in the raw acts perpetrated by the cretins of the so-called Islamic State caliphate and its precursors, adherents, copycats and offshoots. Their self-belief is that their violent acts will be rewarded in a set-aside paradise; for the rest of us, their only fitting reward would be a special place in hell. 

Disrespect for global religious and cultural diversity, a disregard for human decency and infatuation with a cult of death are the real drivers in the depraved behavior that forces boys and girls into summer camps for suicide bombers. Reports last week claimed that the Islamic State had kidnapped 500 Iraqi children to train as black-flag-bearing, rifle-toting “Cubs of the Caliphate.” 

Unfortunately, we are all a browser click away from images of kids capping a couple of Russian captives; an Australian-Islamic State adolescent holding up a severed Syrian soldier’s head; or a fresh-faced, explosive vest-wearing Anbar pre-teen heading off to blow up packed places. 

One justification was articulated last summer in Mosul: “Our children don’t waste time on electronic games or on watching cartoons,” said one adult standing next to an armed youth. “They have a dream, and their dream is to establish an Islamic state.” A horrifying report last year by the United Nations Human Rights Council details that the Islamic State “established training camps to recruit children into armed roles under the guise of education.” 

But that group is not the only culprit at training and exploiting child soldiers. In Asia, Africa and the Middle East – in nearly every corner of the world, kids are regularly co-opted into roles and corralled into violent acts that the International Rescue Committee and others are working to stop. In 2012, there was renewed focus on child soldiers with the Internet video phenomenon “Kony 2012” by the California-based Invisible Children. 

The documentary went viral – 100 million immediate views – and started an international campaign to reverse the plight of the 30,000 child soldiers and sex slaves kidnapped in Africa by warlord Joseph Kony. Despite the attention, Kony remains at large. There is no quick fix to stop the perverse act of stealing childhood from innocents. 

There is only solace in the belief that those who sacrifice their youth for their own vanities sow the seeds of self-destruction. 

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.


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