Though Turkish officials are still investigating who is responsible for a recent suicide attack that killed 54 people at a Kurdish wedding, they initially thought the bomber was a child between the ages of 12 and 14, likely linked to Islamic State (ISIS).
Whether the claim proves true, evidence shows ISIS exploits boys and girls as bombers, combatants, and sex slaves.
ISIS reportedly keeps an army of child soldiers, indoctrinating them at ISIS-run schools and exposing them to grisly bloodshed. The group routinely releases video footage of these so-called “cubs of the caliphate” shooting and beheading victims. When these miniature militants are finished training, ISIS fighters deliver them straight to the front lines. Or, in many cases, child soldiers are strapped with explosives and sent on suicide missions.
Some children have volunteered to join Islamic extremists. “When [ISIS] came to my town, … I liked what they are wearing, they were like one herd. They had a lot of weapons. So I spoke to them, and decided to go to their training camp,” one child told Human Rights Watch, according to BBC.
But the majority of child soldiers don’t volunteer. Human rights groups say poor, marginalized, and refugee children are particularly are risk for being kidnapped by Islamic militant groups. And child soldiers are not always boys—over 3,000 ethnic minority Yazidi women and girls are enslaved by ISIS militants, according to The New York Times. ISIS fighters often buy and sell teenage girls for “as little as a pack of cigarettes,” says Zainab Bangura, who in April interviewed a number of female escapees from insurgent-held areas. Sometimes, young girls are driven into combat, but they are most often held for domestic and sexual slavery.
In central Africa, ISIS ally Boko Haram is increasingly using children as suicide bombers. According to UNICEF, one in five Boko Haram-claimed suicide attacks across Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad are carried out by children—mostly girls.
But ISIS isn’t the only terror group forcing children into the flame of combat.
Armed groups in South Sudan have enlisted at least 650 child soldiers this year alone, and approximately 16,000 since the country’s civil war began in 2013. Like many child soldiers across the globe, Sudanese children take up the deadliest battle posts.
“If you go to the front line, two things would happen: either you will kill someone or you will be killed,” a 16-year old former child soldier in South Sudan told The Associated Press. “If you are afraid, the commander will beat you.”
In the Congo, guerilla fighters view child soldiers as both a commodity and a talisman.
“There is a perception that children are purer and [as such have] magical protective powers,” Milfrid Tonheim, a researcher who interviewed hundreds of former child soldiers in East Congo, told Women in the World. “In reality these children are living shields who protect the commanders by fighting, but also often take bullets for [them].”
Worldwide, it is illegal to recruit anyone under 18 for military service, and recruitment of a child under 15 is considered a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Though the exact global tally of child soldiers is unknown, Amnesty International reports a United Nations estimate of 300,000 children actively involved in conflict in 30 countries.
— by Anna K. Poole