The self-described Islamic State released a new propaganda video this week featuring two young boys indoctrinated by the extremist group, one of whom claims to be the American son of a U.S. soldier.
The footage depicts the boys playing together and praising the militant group known as ISIS. It also includes scenes where the allegedly American child appears to be reading prepared messages threatening the U.S. The age and identity of the child hasn’t been verified, but he claims in the video to be 10 years old.
Although the use of a purportedly American child is new for ISIS, the video is just the latest in the terror group’s long string of media releases that emphasize the roles of its child soldiers. ISIS has previously disseminated horrific, carefully produced videos of children appearing to commit executions, training to fight and espousing its extremist rhetoric.
ISIS has for years carried out an elaborate propaganda strategy to spread its ideology, part of which involves gaining international media attention by disseminating footage of its crimes ― including the use of child soldiers. But provocation is not the sole reason children feature heavily in the group’s propaganda output.
“The use of children in ISIS propaganda serves two purposes. On the one hand, they want to make the argument that this is a generational war, that even as they are losing ground in Syria and Iraq this fight will continue with a new generation of jihadists,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
“My conversations with ISIS supporters and fighters also points to the fact that weaponizing children is justified in the face of Western aggression. If children can be bombed and kill, they say, they should also be taught to defend themselves.”
Child soldiers are obviously not unique to ISIS, as terror organizations throughout the world have continually recruited and deployed children in conflicts. Nigeria’s Boko Haram, for instance, has recently used children as young as 7 to carry out suicide bombings. However, analysts say terror groups historically have not featured child soldiers prominently in their media or lauded them in same way ISIS has.
“Most groups didn’t brag about kids. ISIS really just flouts that norm by not only admitting it’s using kids but bragging about it, featuring them in propaganda, posting images of them to Telegram,” terrorism expert and Georgia State University professor Mia Bloom said, referring to the group’s preferred encrypted messaging platform.
“The shock value is absolutely intended, because the idea is that ISIS is able and willing to violate every norm of international law.”
Bloom also explained that ISIS puts an emphasis on indoctrinating its youth as a means of keeping the group alive as its leaders continually die.
The U.S.-led coalition has killed many of ISIS’s top figures in recent years, carrying out a campaign of targeted leadership decapitation. But ISIS is a highly bureaucratized organization and has shown an ability to adapt to losses of key members as it continues its mission. ISIS’s focus on multi-generational aspects of the group is accordingly reflective of that intention to perpetuate itself.
The video featuring the allegedly American child also highlights that amid its massive output of propaganda, ISIS is conscious of what kinds of material will garner the most attention in Western countries.
“ISIS puts out a lot of propaganda materials daily, most of which is watched closely by researchers like myself, but is not on the radar, understandably, of everyday people,” Amarasingam said.
“It doesn’t get reported on. It doesn’t get talked about. But, the moment an English speaker appears in a video, it goes mainstream.”