SEATTLE — The prevalence of ISIS indoctrination suggests that the caliphate is invested in the next generation of terrorists and suicide bombers. This war against extremism is not fought by guns and knives; its battlefronts are the environments that breed vulnerability in children.
In the Psychological Impact of Child Soldiering, psychology researchers Elisabeth Schauer and Thomas Elbert explain that children are easier to indoctrinate than others. Children’s systems of morality are not fully developed and most look to adults as authoritative figures. The study’s discovery — that the commander can, over time, replace the parent and serve as an adult role model — is not surprising, and suggests the need for new methods in the battle against terrorism.
A University of Rochester study concluded that the human brain is not fully developed until around age 25. Scientists studying brain plasticity, the changes that occur in the brain as a result of experience, found that environmental manipulation affects the neural circuitry of children and adults differently. Malcolm Gladwell’s Power of Context theory suggests that a person’s environment influences his/her actions. In this way, a violent environment can create long-term consequences at younger ages when children’s core beliefs are undergoing development.
The BBC found that the brain structures of traumatized soldiers and children change in similar ways. A survey by the Guardian found that 70 percent of children interviewed experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. If child soldiers are rescued but fail to reintegrate into their communities, the risks of re-recruitment are high.
ISIS indoctrination begins as early as possible, sometimes with children as young as eight. This training consists of desensitization to extreme carnage, weapons training and an introduction to violence. PBS reported that children chopped the heads off dolls as practice. Children were lured with cash, gifts, intimidation and were sometimes lured away under the guise of humanitarian work.
Some of the most marginalized children — orphans — are even more vulnerable to ISIS indoctrination. Orphans do not have reliable social safety networks and may already live with the extreme trauma of having seen their parents die. The loss of adult guidance and protection is amplified by the possible losses of social grants, education and healthcare. They are more likely to be abused and exploited as well.
Business Insider discovered that ISIS has groomed child soldiers in a Mosul orphanage. Discovered textbooks contained military vocabulary alongside ordinary words; for example, “S is for a sniper.”
One cause of the increase in child soldiers is poverty. Supporting an increase in the International Affairs Budget or supporting the Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development (READ) Act could help decrease poverty around the world. The decrease in poverty would then decrease the need for children to become soldiers.
Some individuals tirelessly work to support these children. Most recently, the Hollywood Reporter discovered that Prince had quietly funneled thousands of dollars to steer Afghan children away from extremist groups like ISIS. U.S. soldiers in an Attack Company battalion hired two students to work on their Afghan outpost, performing nominal tasks and attending school every day to earn their full laborer’s salary. Mary’s Meals feeds Syrian refugee children and students. The Aschiana Foundation was established to support Aschiana, an organization in Afghanistan that has trained, nourished and mentored more than 80,000 children and young adults over the past 20 years. It strives to continue its efforts today.
When NBC Nightly News returned to an orphanage in Afghanistan in 2009, it found that the orphans were supported and cared for. A few days after the segment aired, viewers had donated more than $50,000. PBS discovered that one imam and his staff were collaborating to reintegrate children back into the community. They work to show love and acceptance to many of these broken children and teach them true Islam, which differs dramatically from ISIS indoctrination.
In combination with international assistance, these small, individual actions can create extraordinary positive change for these children.
– Andy Jung