Islamic State militants released photographs yesterday of a boy, thought to be no more than 12 years old, blowing himself up in a suicide attack in Iraq.
Photographs circulated on social media show a chubby-cheeked boy, identified as Abu al-Hassan al-Shami, behind the wheel of a pick-up truck, wearing a vest packed with explosives and clutching a grenade.
Isis supporters made remarks on Twitter praising the boy’s sacrifice. One wrote: “His youth didn’t prevent him from supporting his religion.”
It is part of a surge in propaganda showing young children being recruited, trained and deployed in battle across Isis-controlled northern Iraq and Syria.
Separately, a video was broadcast online showing a training centre for child soldiers in Tal Afar, about 220 miles (350km) north of Samarra, where the boy blew himself up. Dozens of trainee fighters, some as young as six, were shown doing fitness drills, tumbling across mats with guns in hand, and grappling in hand-to-hand combat.
In a classroom scene, boys in identical black headbands fidgeted in their chairs as an off-screen tutor led a lesson on the Koran. As the camera panned across the room the boys grinned and raised the index-finger Isis salute, which means “One god: Allah”.
“Isis does seem to be making their child soldier training a bit more prominent. They are holding children’s training camps and running indoctrination centres, and they’re publicising it because they know it shocks the world,” Charlie Winter, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation think-tank, said.
Mr Winter said the child in the suicide attack video was among the youngest he had seen, and would probably have been chosen for horror value. “This is part of the group’s very calculated media strategy, which is to massively exaggerate their menace to the western world and to flood the internet with horrifying photos and videos like this, which keep people talking.”
Analysts say children are featuring increasingly in military operations across Iraq and Syria by Isis, but also by more moderate opposition groups and even governments. “We’re seeing younger and younger children being used in this conflict as combatants, but also as spies, as porters to carry food and ammunition, and as guards manning checkpoints,” Laurent Chapuis, Unicef’s child protection adviser in the Middle East, said.
“We’ve documented many parties in this conflict using child soldiers, but what differs with Isis is how public they are about their approach to child recruitment. They advertise it, probably attracting more children by showing these young boys other boys they can relate to,” he said.
The recruitment process appears to be moving most quickly in Raqqa, Isis’s de-facto capital. Last week a flyer encouraged parents to enrol their sons in something called the Central Institute of Caliphate Cubs. The programme, run by Isis’s department of education, is described as imparting a mix of fighting skills and religious and physical education.
This week marks one year since Isis assumed control in Raqqa. It has set up its own government institutions and implemented strict Islamic law, staging public beatings and executions.