Imagine the horror of seeing a child in a video executing an individual. Islamic State (IS) raised the brutality of their violence by showcasing children as executioners in their propaganda videos. The first IS child propaganda video was released on 13 January 2015. Entitled, Uncovering an Enemy Within, the video featured a young Kazakh boy, Abdullah, executing two men by shooting them in the back of their heads. The men were purportedly Russian spies.
The youngest European child to be showcased in an IS propaganda video was a four-year-old British child called Isa Dare. He is the son of Grace “Khadija” Dare who married a Swedish IS fighter called Abu Bakr. In December 2014, Bakr died in the global coalition air raid against IS. Nicknamed Junior Jihadi, the four-year old was given a central role in the video. He used a remote control and blew up a car with four alleged spies. Towards the end of the video, a British teenager warned Prime Minister David Cameron to get the British army ready to fight IS child soldiers, pointing to Junior Jihadi.
Such propaganda videos promoting extreme violence are a major catalysing force in radicalising and recruiting children to join the terror group. Bloom notes that the terror group weaponised children, pointing to the intentional and heightened use of children by IS in its propaganda videos. These videos are a visual depiction of how a child becomes a member of IS. Children are not born as terrorists; they are socialised into becoming one. Once a child joins the inner core of IS, he could be assigned one of the five roles: executioner, soldier, spy, preacher or martyr (or suicide bomber).
The use of children in propaganda videos is a deliberate, calculated decision made to illustrate two master narratives by IS: (1) Children used to communicate ‘Bring the Families’ narrative (2013-2015), and (2) Children used as executioners to convey ‘Intimidate the Enemies’ narrative (2015-2017).
During the period 2013 to 2015, IS messaging centred on the portrayal of happy families living in the so-called Caliphate. This approach was used to persuade more families to join its terror organisation. However, the later stage from 2015-2017, IS concentrated on the violent nature of its brutality by focusing on children as executioners. Winter asserts that this narrative of brutality was used together with the victimhood narrative, to justify the extreme violent nature of its beheadings and executions.
Why Children Join IS
It is difficult to understand why an innocent child would want to join a counterculture group such as IS and would even go to the extent of becoming a suicide bomber. Gabriel sheds some light to this phenomenon. He explains that the organisations’s justification is based on the Islamic teaching on paradise, which is found in Surah 61: 10-13. In this passage, Allah offers the forgiveness of sin and the opportunity to enter heaven on the condition that the Muslim fights jihad. Hence, the radicalised child who wants to show that he is a good Muslim, willingly joins the military jihad and blows himself up as a martyr. This is to secure the personal assurance that he will go to heaven.
The ubiquitous nature of mobile phones and virality of social media provides IS the opportunity to widely disseminate violent images of child executioners and suicide bombers. Its purpose is to threaten and terrorise their enemies such as Western leaders who are faced with the difficult decision of killing children that have been trained as IS fighters.
IS child propaganda videos are used as a catalyst at various stages of a child’s socialisation into the Islamic terror group. The child could be exposed to propaganda videos at public places such as the mosque. He could be compelled to watch propaganda videos as part of his military training, which in turn, functions as a deliberate effort to desensitise him to violence. The child may be selected to play a role in propaganda videos in order to recruit more children into its fold. These propaganda videos facilitate and catalyses the indoctrination and desensitisation of a child, who consumes the visual propaganda both knowingly or unknowingly, according to Winter.
How Effective are IS Child Propaganda Videos?
Syrian parents communicated it was effective in brainwashing children especially when used as a mass propaganda tool at public places such the mosque. IS screened propaganda videos at the mosque due to the venue’s deep association with spiritual teaching and authority. The Syrian boy may be drawn to the macho image of IS child soldiers carrying guns after watching it multiple times on screen. The brainwashed child comes back and tells his parents that he wants to fight for God.
It’s All About Survival
One of the most common reasons why a Syrian child joins the terror group is for survival and having food to eat. The Syrian economy had collapsed, and unemployment was rampant. IS propaganda videos show the abundance of food when a child joins the organisation. Out of desperation, families would encourage their children to join IS. Fathers take the first step, followed by their sons. IS pays each child soldier about USD$200 per month.
My Father’s Story
The influence of the father is key for a child to join IS. Several videos depict the sons of IS fighters telling stories about their fathers who died fighting the apostates. This narrative of ‘My Father’s Story’ is essential in showing that the jihad is a family affair.
Romantic and Glorified Heaven
IS tried to recruit Syrian boys by conveying the romantic and glorified heaven narrative in its propaganda videos. At mandated religious events at the mosque, Syrian boys would hear stories about meeting beautiful women in heaven when they participate in the jihad and die for God. The martyrdom narrative highlighted in videos such as One of the Two Goods, shows a smiling teen suicide bomber on his way to his final mission. Such narratives encourage Syrian boys to become suicide bombers.
Other propaganda videos show how Syrian boys learn IS values. He is made to model after the IS adult fighter by wearing a uniform and receiving military training such as unarmed combat and the use of weapons. Islamic State’s training technique places a weapon in the hands of the boys, but they do not understand what killing really means.
The Syrian boys I spoke with, told me of their horrifying experience of seeing real life executions. The youngest was just 7 years old when he first saw IS beheading a person. Fortunately, none of these boys joined the terror group as their personal experience of seeing real executions invalidated the narratives in the videos. The parent’s role was also key in preventing them from joining IS.
Given the disturbing and horrific nature of its content, IS child propaganda video isn’t any child’s play.