Boys as young as 13 are being trained in cubs-style jihadist camps, with Islamic State (Isis) using the threat of starvation to persuade their parents to hand them over.
With food and fuel scarce and expensive in towns and cities cut off in the self- declared state, the group is recruiting teenagers by offering food and clothing and sending payments to their families.
In the Syrian city of Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital, activists described the militarisation of children as widespread. Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, a founder of the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said that at least three centres were immersing children in Isis ideology and training them in weapons and fighting techniques.
The al-Khalifa Cubs Institute and the al-Farouk Cubs Institute in Raqqa, and the Sharia Camp for Cubs in the nearby city of al-Tabqa, take boys for 40 days and indoctrinate them to become jihadists.
“People are forced to submit their children to these camps where they are paid money in exchange for their children’s attendance,” he said. Parents are paid up to $200 for each child that participates. The camps teach children martial arts, the Koran, weapons training and ideology.
Parents who keep their sons from joining the camps must still allow them to study the Koran at mosques, where it is thought that sheikhs indoctrinate them to join the camps.
The camps are not confined to Syria. Abu Waleed, a teacher from Hawija, Iraq, said he knew of two training camps and that each was full, with between 250 and 350 children in each. Those aged under 13, who are not allowed to attend the camps, were still being put to work as spies, being paid about $100 per month to inform on family, friends and neighbours, he said.
Michael Stephens, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said that he had heard witness accounts of families being compensated to send boys to camps in Raqqa, Mosul and Kobani, which has since been recaptured by the Kurdish peshmerga.
“A lot of the social development policy of Isis is based on targeting families from low incomes ... and low levels of education,” he said.
Families were also paid for enlisting children as suicide bombers, he said.