How Social Media Influences the Islamic State’s Use of Children and Youth

Author: Eric Seng, 2018.


“Since the first spears were hurled at opposing forces thousands of years ago and continuing today with automatic weapons and suicide bombs, children have been associated with armed groups participating in conflict and war…”

Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.


Since the first spears were hurled at opposing forces thousands of years ago and continuing today with automatic weapons and suicide bombs, children have been associated with armed groups participating in conflict and war. This association has taken many forms, ranging from non-combat roles, such as cooks and couriers, to direct combat on the frontlines. While many people, especially in the West, condemn the recruiting and subsequent employment of children in conflicts, it is important to remember that this phenomenon is not restricted to certain cultures or regions. Indeed, it is global. Armed groups, be they state militaries or non-state actors, recruit and employ children for a variety reasons. While many of these reasons have been constants throughout history, such as children and youth simply providing a labor force, could evolutions in technology bring about a paradigm shift in how children and youth are exploited by armed forces and groups?

While many armed groups employ children and youth in various roles, the explosion of social media technology and platforms within the last decade has acted as an impetus for the Islamic State (IS) (also known as ISIS or ISIL) to revolutionize the ways children and youth are employed in the group’s ongoing conflicts. While the IS employs children and youth in traditional non-combat and combat roles similar to other organizations, it also utilizes them in recruitment activities, psychological warfare, and executing attacks against Western targets. The group’s skilled use of social media platforms, such as Twitter, expands its reach on a truly global level in near-real time. By taking advantage of the interconnectedness social media networks afford their users, the IS employs children in unique roles, perhaps never before seen. However, in order to truly appreciate this, a historical context of children associated with armed groups is required.


Background of Children and Youth Associated with Armed Forces and Groups

What is a “child soldier?” The United Nations (UN) uses the term “children associated with armed forces or armed groups,” recognizing that not all children employed by armed groups or forces participate in combat operations. According to The Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups (hereafter referred to as The Paris Principles), the UN defines a child as “any person less than 18 years of age in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of a Child,” while a child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to “any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes…(and) does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken part in hostilities” (8).

By clearly defining what a child associated with an armed force or group is, an international legal framework has been put in place to protect children from being recruited into and used by armed forces and groups. This framework includes elements of international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL), and international criminal law (ICL). According to Capone, IHL obligates states to refrain from recruiting and employing children in armed conflict (165). In addition to these three fields of international law, various binding and non-binding agreements exist relating to the recruitment and employment of children by armed forces and groups. One such agreement is “UN Security Council Resolution 2178,” which, “Calls upon all Member States, in accordance with their obligations under international law, to cooperate in efforts to address the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, including by preventing the radicalization to terrorism and recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters, including children” (4).

Children below the age of 18 only make up half the demographic of concern. Youths, loosely defined as people above 18 but under 30 years of age, are also of particular interest in the study of conflict and war. Although they are not children by the UN’s definitions, youths are a vulnerable population who are often manipulated into service with armed forces or groups. Youths who have been associated with armed forces or groups since childhood are potentially more fully indoctrinated into the group’s ideology, making possible reintegration with civil society more difficult. Given their increased strength and physical size, youths present a considerable threat when employed by armed forces or groups, as will be discussed further in this paper.

Despite an international legal framework put in place to prevent the recruitment and use of children and youth in conflict and war by armed forces or groups, UN security resolutions, and documents such as the aforementioned Paris Principles and its sister document the Paris Commitments, children and youth continue to be actively brought into the service or armed forces and groups. Gates and Reich point out that many states, even those that have signed international agreements, such as the call to ban the recruitment and use of children in conflicts, continue to do so. These states, which have been blacklisted by the UN for their continued recruitment of children into their armed forces, include Burundi, Chad, Colombia, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. In addition to these states are Myanmar and the Philippines, neither of which are signatories to the Paris Commitments (3-4).

The potential issues surrounding child and youth participation in conflict and war include injury and death, as well as severe emotional trauma and drug addiction. Whether these children and youth served with state militaries or non-state actors, the end results are the same: thousands upon thousands of lives destroyed and ruined, communities torn apart, and deep wounds that many countries may never completely heal from.  The case of Boko Haram in Nigeria is an example of such devastation.  Between 2009 and 2017, it is estimated that the group was responsible for 35,000 deaths, the abduction of thousands, and millions displaced.  The thousands of children Boko Haram is estimated to have recruited fill various roles ranging from suicide bombers to sex slaves.  Those who survive and eventually exit the group often face stigma and rejection from their home communities, detainment by the government, and psychological trauma from their experiences (Matfess et al. 178-207). While the conflict involving Boko Haram is largely contained to the northeast region of Nigeria, the savvy use of social media by the IS to broadcast its exploitation of children and youth gives the group a truly global reach.


Social Media and the Islamic State

August 19th, 2014, marked a changing point in how non-state actors employ social media to advance their cause. On this particular date, the Western world was shown a video titled “A Message to America,” which showed a man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling in front of a man clad in all black, brandishing a large knife, and speaking in perfect English. The man in the orange jumpsuit was American photojournalist James Wright Foley. The man in black identified himself as a member of the IS, and after listing various grievances against the United States, such as air strikes against the IS, he beheaded Mr. Foley (Friis 725). The grisly, well-produced video was repeatedly shown on news outlets and was available on countless social media platforms. The world at-large was formally introduced to the IS, and the terror group had a captive audience.

The IS is certainly not the first terror organization to use multimedia to disseminate its message and propaganda. Indeed, al-Qaida (AQ) used videos and online publications like Inspire, produced by its Yemen-based affiliate al-Qaida, in the Arabian Peninsula for these purposes. However, for most of AQ’s existence, the technology and omnipresence of social media as it is today did not exist. As a result, the reach of their messages and propaganda was limited. Furthermore, AQ’s lack of fluent English speakers as well as the relatively poor production quality of its videos became limiting factors in expanding the group’s audience. As Friis points out, beheading videos recorded by AQ in the early days of the global war on terror were made on camcorders and distributed to traditional media outlets on videotapes (733). These recordings, while still shocking and grisly, did not achieve their desired effectiveness due in large part to the fact that the communications technology and social media had not evolved to the degree where AQ’s brand and message could literally be in the palm of anyone’s hand. Enter the IS and the age of social media.

Many people in developing countries may lack television sets, but many own smartphones.  In 2017 alone, the number of smartphone users globally was 2.32 billion people, and this number is expected to increase to nearly 3 billion by 2020 (“The Number of Smartphone Users”).  Social media is simply everywhere and accessible by over a billion people. Audiences that were once limited to unwieldly television sets suddenly experienced an exponential increase with the proliferation of mobile communications technology and the continued evolution of social media platforms.

Although social networking on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook may appear innocuous, these platforms and myriad others wield immense power in today’s society. Those who doubt this need look no further than President Trump. President Trump’s seemingly nonstop use of Twitter, unprecedented for an American president, has provoked international heads of state to the point of increasing the threat of thermonuclear war, as well as inciting various protests in the United States. The case of President Trump clearly illustrates the power and influence social media platforms can give to savvy users, such as the IS.

Unlike its predecessor AQ, the IS came into force during an age of rapid technological advances in mobile communications and the widespread proliferation of social media platforms and applications. Such developments significantly enhanced the capabilities of the IS to spread its messages and propaganda. According to the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy:

[Terror groups] exploit [the Internet] to create and disseminate propaganda, recruit new members, raise funds and other material resources, provide instructions on weapons and tactics, and plan operations. Without a communications ability, terrorist organizations cannot effectively organize operations, execute attacks, or spread their ideology (12).

Although only the Internet is mentioned, increased mobile communications and the proliferation of social media platforms are the Internet’s direct descendants and next evolutionary step in global communications.

Just as President Trump has embraced Twitter, so too has the IS. Klausen states that jihadists, such as the IS, use Twitter for recruitment and indoctrination purposes as well as building a transnational community of violent extremism (17). To date, the IS has been especially successful using Twitter for these purposes due to a large pool of IS-friendly Twitter followers. According to Berger and Morgan, there were at least 46,000 IS-affiliated Twitter accounts averaging over 133,000 total tweets per day from all users as of November 2014 (9, 28). Using sophisticated Twitterbot capabilities, skilled IS Twitter users can automatically retweet IS messages and information so that it trends across multiple social media platforms (Berger).

Another propaganda and messaging tool employed by the IS is its digital magazine Dabiq. According to Kibble, “Dabiq is a medium of propaganda, information and apologetics…[which] aims to recruit for the Islamic State and to show that it is the sole Muslim homeland” (138). The magazine, produced by the Al Hayat Media Center and released in several languages, including French, German, English, Russian, and Arabic, is a microcosm of IS’ propaganda efforts, showing images from violent videos, tweets from IS-affiliated Twitter accounts, and other media.  Furthermore, Christien states that Dabiq is, “a significant documentation of IS’ propaganda strategy…and the portrayal of youth in the magazine has significant functions in the engagement of the target audience” (2). Indeed, the IS utilizes social media platforms such as Twitter and Dabiq to employ children and youth in horrifying and unprecedented ways.


The Islamic State’s Use of Children and Youth

The ability to potentially reach over one billion people via social media is one that the IS fully embraces. Their dissemination of propaganda, whether it’s through videos that are tweeted and then retweeted or through Dabiq, is a key component of the group’s strategic operations. Children and youth comprise a significant component of the group’s global campaign. Since June 2014, the IS has circulated various forms of propaganda via social media using children and youth in its communication strategy. While the use of children and youth in propaganda campaigns is not unique to the IS, what sets the IS apart from other terror groups is the group’s political agenda, namely the goal of building a state (Christien 1-2). This communication strategy demonstrates that in addition to the use of children and youth in traditional roles as seen with other armed forces or groups, both non-combat and combat, the IS also employs them in unconventional methods. These include recruitment, a “shock and awe” campaign, and conducting lone wolf attacks against the “far enemy” in the West.

As with any armed force or group, be it state or non-state, recruitment is a critical function. Without new personnel to augment or replace those lost to battle injuries, death, or other types of attrition, a fighting force will lose its lethality and will eventually wither away. While research has shown that most children end up in the service of armed forces or groups through abduction or forced conscription, threats made against themselves or their families, voluntarily enlistment, or they are born into the groups, the case of the IS differs. Children and youth serving under the banner of the IS come to join the group as either the children of foreigners who traveled to join the IS, the children of local supporters who press them into service, children coercively taken from their parents, or runaway youth from either the local area or international destinations who volunteer. Unlike children and youth living in IS localities, foreigners need to be inspired and motivated to make a potentially perilous journey to join the IS. The use of children and youth in IS propaganda provides this inspiration for the world’s disillusioned and isolated youth longing for acceptance and belonging (Capone 176). For those looking for belonging and adventure, the IS provides both. According to Bloom et al.:

[T]he Islamic State’s children and youth operate in many ways similar to the adults. Children are fighting alongside, rather than in lieu of, adult males and their respective patterns of involvement closely reflect one another. In other conflicts, the use of child soldiers may represent a strategy of last resort, as a way to ‘rapidly replace battlefield losses’, or in specialized operations for which adult males may be less effective. However, in the context of the Islamic State, children are used in much the same ways as their elders (31).

Again, with the widespread proliferation of mobile communication devices and social media, videos of IS youth and children fighting under the group’s black banner, projecting a sense of purpose and belonging, is able to reach this global audience.

This recruitment strategy using children and youth in propaganda materials has been remarkably effective. Between 2014 and 2016, the IS recruited and trained an estimated 2,000 boys between the ages of nine and 15 (Sommerville and Dalati).  Additionally, the IS recruited over 1,000 children in Iraq for military training, including as suicide bombers (“Children Exploited by All”).  While children and youth are often driven to join other armed forces or groups due to desperation or fear, these motivations generally do not apply to those who join the IS, as evidenced by those willingly recruited from middle class families in safe and stable countries (Capone 177). The political and social climates in Western Europe and North America make children and youth in those locations especially receptive to IS propaganda. Bizina and Gray point out that, “Socially isolated, disenchanted young men turn to extremism in their search for identity, acceptance, and purpose which they are unable to find in the community more often concerned with wealth accumulation rather than healthy relationship-building” (72). Additionally, second generation Muslims in Western Europe, not having been fully integrated into those societies and still considered immigrants, have also been very amenable to the IS’ propaganda strategy showcasing children and youth, many of whom shared their feelings of isolation in the West, proudly serving under the black flag of the IS (Bizina and Gray 73). What many of these children and youth were doing in these propaganda pieces leads to a discussion of another unconventional use of children and youth by the IS.

During the opening salvos of the Iraq War, then-U.S. President Bush coined the term “shock and awe” to describe the operations meant to instill an overwhelming fear in the enemy, so as compel them to lay down the arms. The IS also runs a shock and awe campaign through its use of children and youth. Consider the previously mentioned execution of James Foley, only instead of a grown man beheading him, it is a child. Indeed, such occurrences have taken place. According to Horgan et al., “Children now routinely feature in ISIS propaganda, including…widely circulated videos of young boys executing (via shootings or beheadings) prisoners accused of being spies or captured Syrian regime troops” (646). These videos are posted on YouTube and Facebook and tweeted and retweeted on the tens of thousands of IS-affiliated Twitter accounts for the world to see. The IS intentionally uses children and youth to conduct these appalling acts to play on the notion of the innocence of children held by the West. Rather than being viewed as victims, as is the case with children and youth in the service of most armed forces and groups, the children and youth of the IS, often known as jihadist cubs, are in fact deliberately shown to be perpetrators of violence and threats to national and international security (Capone 161). Additionally, “Propaganda videos starring children who commit horrifying acts of violence have been released by ISIL to show the world how minors are indoctrinated and used by the group” (Capone 178). In short, the IS uses children and youth for shock and awe.

Another method employed by the IS uses children and youth to conduct lone wolf attacks in the West. This is a fairly new phenomenon and, unlike the jihadist cubs in IS-controlled territory, these children and youth are not under the direct control of the IS. Rather, they are residing in Western countries, often feeling the aforementioned emotions of isolation and lack of connection to the society around them. Consider a Muslim youth who was either born and raised in a Western country or immigrated to one but does not feel accepted by his or her community. This feeling is only amplified when a presidential candidate suggests putting Muslim Americans on a registry. This individual, looking for a sense of purpose and acceptance, begins following the IS on social media. After watching countless propaganda videos, many of which starred children and youth committing acts of violence, this individual is now ready to act on behalf of the IS. This scenario has occurred repeatedly in recent years, as evidenced by the Paris attacks of 2015, which resulted in over 130 deaths and the 2017 Halloween attack in New York City which killed eight. Whether it be a knife attack at a crowded subway platform, intentionally running people over with a vehicle, or setting off a homemade bomb at a crowded public event like a marathon or concert, this individual or group of individuals just committed an act in service to the IS. This demonstrates in graphic detail the truly global reach the IS enjoys via social media and the unique ways the group employs children and youth.


Summary and Conclusion

This paper aimed to demonstrate how the IS has altered the paradigm of the use of children and youth by an armed force or group largely as a result of the wide proliferation of social media. The inability to determine if the IS would have used children and youth in the same manners without the existence or availability of social media as it currently exists is a limitation of this study. However, judging by the actions of its predecessor AQ, one can argue that it would not, at least not to the degree that they are used today. Although this paper did not differentiate between the roles male and female children and youth play in the IS, a more comprehensive future study of those roles would provide a more complete understanding of youths’ roles in IS. The omnipresence of social media in today’s world provides the group with nearly unlimited capabilities to reach a truly global audience in near-real time. Taking advantage of this, the IS uses children and youth not only to fight in its military battles, but also to recruit new members from afar to join the cause, to shock and awe its enemies, and to conduct attacks in the West.



Works Cited

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Kibble, David G. “Dabiq, the Islamic State’s Magazine: A Critical Analysis.” Middle East Policy, vol. 23, no. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 133-143.

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Sommerville, Quentin and Riam Dalati. “An Education in Terror.” BBC, 17 August 2017. Accessed 18 Feb 2018.

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“The Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups.” United Nations, February 2007, pp. 1-48.

United Nations. Security Council Resolution 2178. September 2104, pp. 1-8.

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