The international community must address the challenge of rehabilitating children indoctrinated by so-called Islamic State (IS), a new report says.
The Quilliam Foundation and the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative say children are taught extreme values and desensitised to violence from birth.
They believe the current rehabilitation strategy will be inadequate for them.
Instead, they propose a new process to assess the level of radicalisation and a network to monitor reintegration.
A US-led multinational coalition is seeking to drive IS out of the large parts of Syria and Iraq it controls, where an estimated eight million people live.
Researchers found that IS saw children as critical not only to meeting the present needs of the group, but also securing its long-term survival.
The current generation of IS fighters see children as better and more lethal fighters than themselves because they have not been corrupted by exposure to other values or ideologies.
“Schools and the education system are central to shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation,” the report says.
“The indoctrination that begins in schools intensifies in training camps, where children between the ages of 10 and 15 are instructed in Sharia [Islamic law], desensitised to violence, and are taught specific skills to best serve the state and take up the banner of jihad.”
Boys adhere to a rigid curriculum, where drawing, history, philosophy and social studies – considered by IS to be “the methodology of atheism” – have been removed. They must instead memorise verses of the Koran and attend “jihadist training”, which includes shooting weaponry, and martial arts.
Girls are veiled and taught how to cook, clean and support their future husbands.
Having attended IS schools and training camps, boys are allocated roles, including those of spies, preachers, frontline soldiers, executioners and suicide bombers.
The report says new approaches will be required to help children who return or escape from IS recover from the severe physical and mental trauma they will have suffered, as well as systematic extremist indoctrination.
It warns that the traditional model of child soldiers that child protection agencies work with does not adequately address the significant religious or political indoctrination employed by IS.
Their programmes tend to focus on immediate physical health needs and on average last less than three months, which the report says is too short to genuinely address psychosocial needs, or fully address deradicalisation.
The report says that an assessment of each child’s unique situation and needs is a crucial first component to successful and safe reintegration.
The “construction of re-education procedures that focus on debunking the credibility of Islamic State ideology, and replacing these narratives with positive alternatives” will also be required.
The report also warns that one of the main obstacles to the successful reintegration for IS child soldiers will be stigmatisation, as many will be perceived as “willing participants” despite having been abducted or pressured to join out of fear.
Countering this, it says, will require programmes that provide support to the children long after the initial demobilisation.