December 29, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Harvesting of Children

 • Through systemic indoctrination, intimidation, and extermination, violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and both Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, are targeting children with unprecedented ferocity

• Children are no longer accidental casualties in extremist conflicts but rather they are a primary target

• Extremists are trying to steal the future away from vulnerable regions by stealing the future generation through relentless messaging and violence that separates the youth from their society, government, and culture

• The damage already done by the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and violent extremist groups in in Pakistan pales in comparison to what is yet to come if even a small percentage of their focus on youth pays off.


The December 16, 2014 massacre of 132 children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan by militants from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is only the latest in an unprecedented targeting of children by violent extremist groups. From Boko Haram kidnapping school children and burning schools in northeast Nigeria to the Islamic State running ‘schools’ in Syria and Iraq, children are no longer accidental casualties in extremist conflicts; rather, they are one of the primary targets. While regional and Western governments develop programs to win hearts and minds, violent extremists are intentionally stealing them.

While methods vary among the groups, the harvesting of children primarily falls along three tracks: indoctrination, intimidation, and extermination. The extremist groups use all three as needed, with indoctrination the preferred end state often made possible by the latter two.

Indoctrination: The Islamic State’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq might be short-lived (in terms of years) but its hold on the minds of children who have spent several years under the ‘education’ of the Islamic State could last far longer. Similar-but-different indoctrination has been used by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and by Hizballah in Lebanon, but neither group is as radically anti-modern and violent as the Islamic State. If large numbers of children in Raqqa, Mosul, and elsewhere are exposed to long-term daily re-education at the hands of the Islamic State, a meaningful percentage of those children will likely become hard-wired supporters, with troubling prospects for the future when hostilities are eventually ended. For those indoctrinated into the message of violence and endless enemies, the hostilities never actually end.

There is no shortage of examples as to the long-term damage done by extremist indoctrination. Indeed, the Taliban (literally meaning ‘students’) themselves were indoctrinated in the 1980s-90s in the extremist madrassas that sprung up in the refugee camps along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. The violent chaos in both countries continues largely at the hands of those who were children in those extremist schools. Now in Syria, children in Islamic State schools are taught how to behead their enemies as “if chopping an onion.” The region is losing another generation.

Intimidation: While all the aforementioned extremist groups target children, Boko Haram prides itself on intimidating those seeking to teach children and those children seeking to learn. The large-scale kidnapping of school-aged children is aimed at terrorizing entire generations not just away from education but away from the traditional society that has, to a degree, failed to protect them and advance their cause. When the group enters a village, it kills troops and adults while carrying off as many children as feasible. The damage to communities whose children have been taken is nearly irreparable. Children who see their peers taken or killed have little to no option but to submit; the same goes for the adults unable to protect them. This is as true in Waziristan, Pakistan, as it is in northern Nigeria. Those rare children who won’t be intimidated, such as Noble-laureate Malala Yousafzai, present a tremendous challenge to extremist groups such as TTP, which explains why the group tried to kill her after failing to intimidate her.

Burning schools and attacking teachers and students has ceased to be extreme for these groups and is now standard operating procedure. Public executions of children as young as ten serves as a warning to all other children: submit or else. These messages aren’t for the virtual audience online (though they devour the images as well); these messages are neighborhood-specific and intended to terrorize and intimidate potential resistance.

Extermination: When intimidation fails, groups such as the Islamic State show no hesitation in deliberately killing children. Indeed, the group actually goes to great length to highlight its killing of children, with bodies left in public squares and street corners. The celebrated and targeted brutality against young children is now on a scale not seen in other conflicts. The TTP militants wanted to exterminate the children of the military officers against whom they were fighting, and so they attacked the school in Peshawar. The extermination wasn’t a byproduct, but the point of the attack. By the TTP’s lethal logic, even if the military was not terrorized into ceasing its operations against the group (which was unlikely to begin with), at least there would be 132 less children who would grow up in opposition to the group.

Of the countless tragedies that arise from persistent instability and conflict, the extremist harvesting of children is among the worst, as it takes away the future as well as the present in a brutal attempt to revert to the past. Governments and organizations will likely spend 2015 trying to address the immediate needs of the extremist conflicts burning across several regions. They will likely spend far longer dealing with the aftermath of the targeting of children.


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