Broken Animals: Media Portrayals of the Islamic State’s Child Soldiers

Background

Over the last few decades, images of a young boy carrying a weapon nearly too big for him to hold have inundated media publications.[1] Today, it is estimated that 300,000 children are involved in conflicts in at least 86 countries worldwide.[2] Though children are often forcibly recruited, some choose to join a militant group to support themselves or their families, fill a void left by closed schools, or find a sense of purpose and identity that may not be afforded in civilian life characterized by conflict and poverty.[3]

Contemporary international law views anyone under the age of 18 as a child.[4] As such, anyone under the age of 18 is not viewed as culpable for their actions and cannot be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.[5] The Paris Principles reaffirm this “Straight-18” position and define a child soldier as “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.”[6]

However, national responses to child soldiers associated with terrorist groups in particular have deviated sharply from the international position. The United States held several child soldiers suspected of supporting Al Qaeda at Guantanamo Bay in the years following 9/11. Omar Khadr, a fifteen-year old member of Al Qaeda, was held, tortured, and convicted by a military commission.[7] Tens of thousands of citizens from around the world left their home countries to join the Islamic State.[8] As IS’s territorial power began to fade, dozens of countries were reluctant to allow these men, women, and children (including children who had been born under IS rule) to return home.[9] Under similar justifications of protecting against national security threats, the governments of  Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria have detained thousands of children for alleged association with terrorist groups. Human Rights Watch has documented appalling conditions, inhumane treatment, and the use of torture to extract confessions from child detainees.[10]

This paper seeks to investigate the psychological reasons behind this difference between international norms and domestic responses regarding child soldiers who are affiliated or suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups. In order to do so, it provides a quantitative analysis of newspapers from Western, Arab, and humanitarian sources and examines how child soldiers are portrayed differently when they are associated with terrorist groups (TG) versus non-terrorist forces (NTG).

Literature Review

In comparison with their adult counterparts, portrayals of child soldiers are oversimplified and often contradictory. Mark Drumbl exemplifies this in Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy where he states, “It is easy to see the child soldier superficially as a contradiction in terms or simply as an anachronism. Neither childhood nor youth, after all, should be about war or weapons.”[11] Denov extracts three consistent portrayals of children as “dangerous and disorderly”, “hapless victims”, or “heros”.[12] The first framework portrays child soldiers as bandits or demons who are often fully aware of their actions. The second framework portrays child soldiers as the opposite: dependent, helpless, and victimized. The final “hero” framework portrays child soldiers as “brave survivors of extreme violence who have overcome great adversity and ultimately have been redeemed.”[13] Drumbl adds a fourth perspective of the child soldier as an “irreparable, damaged good,” tormented, scarred, and part of a “lost generation”.[14]

On the other hand, adult terrorists tend to be portrayed as less than human. This portrayal has manifested in actual support for specific anti-terrorist policies.[15] The dehumanization of terrorists has been observed through projected minimization of their emotions and mediation of the relationship between Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), and support for using torture in the War on Terror.[16] Politically, dehumanization of terrorists preceded decisions to expand lethal counterterrorism operations under the Bush and Obama administrations.[17]

Portrayals of both child soldiers and adult terrorists by the mainstream media directly impact public reactions and responses.[18] This paper investigates the intersection of these two groups: How child soldiers affiliated with terrorist groups are portrayed in the media. Recently, much attention has been directed to the presence of children in the ranks of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS). Although it is unknown how many children were affiliated with IS from the rise of the Caliphate in 2013 to its fall in 2019,[19] the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented at least 1,100 Syrian children under 16 who joined IS between January and August of 2015 alone.[20]

Methodology

This study aims to provide a quantitative analysis of how the media portrays child soldiers who are affiliated with terrorist groups versus those who are affiliated with non-terrorist armed forces. Due to the prominence of the Islamic State both within the Middle East and beyond, I specifically analyzed child soldiers active in Syria and Iraq, the two countries over which the territorial boundaries of IS’s caliphate waxed and waned.

Data Collection

This dataset consists of 87 articles from 11 different major news sources, published in English, Arabic, and French between 2014 and 2020. The Western sources consist of one left-leaning and one right-leaning newspaper from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Arab sources consist of three prominent Arab newspapers with varying levels of government ownership. The humanitarian sources consist of two prominent international organizations concerned with child soldiering.

Articles were chosen by searching “child soldier” and “child soldier Iraq/Syria” in each newspaper and selecting all articles published between 2014 and 2020 that discussed child soldiers in Iraq or Syria, or child soldiers more generally without any specific geographic affiliation. Although there were several articles discussing child soldiers affiliated with ISIS (47), there were relatively fewer articles discussing child soldiers associated with Syrian or Iraqi non-terrorist forces (11). Expanding the dataset to include articles which discussed child soldiers around the world more generally thus allowed me to collect a larger number of articles which illuminated the general international attitude towards child soldiers, regardless of their affiliation with terrorist or non-terrorist forces.

I identified four outliers that had very low total word counts relative to the other articles in the dataset, and thus the percentage of the article which conveyed a portrayal of child soldiers was abnormally high. These outliers were removed from the dataset by using a standard IQR outlier calculation and eliminating articles with Total Portrayal ÷ Total Word Count percentages that fell beyond 1.5 interquartile ranges (IQR) below or above the outer quartiles. The final dataset therefore includes 83 articles in total: 16 Arab articles, 47 Western articles, and 20 humanitarian articles. 11 articles discussed child soldiers affiliated with a non-terrorist armed force, 47 articles discussed child soldiers affiliated with ISIS, 7 articles specifically referred to child soldiers affiliated with both a terrorist group and a non-terrorist armed force, and 18 articles did not specify the child soldier(s)’s affiliation.

For each article, I recorded 33 different variables, outlined in Appendix A. In order to calculate how each article portrayed child soldiers, I utilized Denov and Drumbl’s four frameworks “Victim”, “Damaged”, “Hero”, and “Bandit”, as well as four additional frameworks I had identified while reading through the articles. These additional four frameworks, “Young”, “Agentic”, “Passive”, and “Non-Human” were frameworks that I found occurred consistently throughout several articles and did not conform exactly to the existing Denov and Drumbl frameworks. I assessed the prominence of each framework by reading each article and recording the number of times each framework was referenced (the criteria for referencing each framework is outlined in Appendix B).

Data Analysis & Results

In order to compare portrayals of terrorist versus non-terrorist child soldiers, I examined the average strength of each portrayal across all articles, then subset the average strength of each portrayal by TG versus NTG affiliation. The portrayal strength (PS) was calculated for each article by using the equation: PS = (# of portrayal occurrences)/(total word count). This calculation inherently produces very small values, but this does not detract from the comparable and significant differences that were found within the data. The analyses compare relative means, and statistically significant differences indicate varying portrayals. The average strength of each portrayal was then calculated by taking the mean strength for each portrayal across the desired subset of articles. Figure 1.a demonstrates the average strength of each portrayal across the entire dataset of articles, while Figure 1.b illustrates the average strength of each portrayal, subset by TG and NTG affiliations.

(Figure 1.a)                                                                

(Figure 1.b)

This figure demonstrates that on average, TG child soldiers were more strongly portrayed as Damaged and Nonhuman, at a statistically significant level. NTG child soldiers were significantly less strongly portrayed as Damaged and more strongly portrayed as Hero. The exact effects of TG or NTG affiliation on each portrayal strength are represented in Table 1 alongside respective p-values. Statistically significant coefficients are bolded.According to Figure 1.a, the strongest average child soldier portrayals across the dataset tended to be Victim (0.00782) and Passive (0.01029). Figure 1.b compares average portrayal strengths between articles discussing TG and NTG child soldiers. In order to isolate the effect of Affiliation on child soldier portrayals, I ran a multiple linear regression in R for each portrayal, controlling for other potential independent variables. In each regression, the dependent variable was the average strength of the portrayal of interest, while the independent variables included Affiliation, Age, NewsType, MedView, Lang, and ArtType (see Appendix A).

(Table 1)

NTG Affiliation TG Affiliation
Portrayal Coefficient P-Value Coefficient P-Value
Victim 1.429e-03 0.5491 -0.0050454 0.00342 **
Damaged -2.552e-03 0.0231 * 0.0027280 0.00085 ***
Hero 7.091e-04 0.0154 * -3.574e-04 0.1038
Demon -1.312e-03 0.115 0.0009430 0.1279
Young -0.0030256 0.0619 . 0.0009644 0.42713
Agentic 0.0011848 0.560 0.0015460 0.304093
Passive -3.283e-03 0.22152 -9.064e-04 0.65073
Non-Human -1.024e-03 0.09138 . 1.361e-03 0.00201 **
Significance: P ≤ 0.10 = . P ≤ 0.05 = * P ≤ 0.01 = ** P ≤ 0.01 = ***

Discussion
Implications

Though not the main focus of this study, analysis of gender representation of child soldiers confirms the predominant emphasis on the plight of male rather than female child soldiers. Across all news types and media views, child soldiers were portrayed as solely male significantly more often than as solely female. While humanitarian media tended to represent both genders more frequently, Western and Arab media with Left and Right views portrayed child soldiers as almost solely male. Assuming that the mainstream media has a larger following than humanitarian media, this implies that the unique experiences, risks, and needs of female child soldiers remain less noticed relative to those of their male counterparts.

The results of the regression analysis indicate that child soldiers affiliated with the Islamic State are portrayed as more strongly damaged and non-human than child soldiers associated with non-terrorist forces or other child soldiers more generally. The strength of both the Non-Human and Damaged portrayals emphasizes the concept that child soldiers affiliated with terrorist groups are viewed first and foremost as threats to national security.[21] This is particularly troubling when juxtaposing such portrayals by the media with national responses to child soldiers affiliated with IS as well as other terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. Media portrayals of child soldiers have previously driven international responses by using the simplified image of an innocent victim to direct attention towards ineffectual responses.[22] In this case, portraying Islamic State child soldiers as damaged and non-human may be contributing to the relative lack of enthusiasm on behalf of these children and stronger inclinations by national governments to detain, torture, reject, or imprison them.

Stronger portrayals of IS children as damaged derive largely from frequent references to “indoctrination” and “brainwashing.” Both of these concepts, unlike the more common reference to “trauma” that was seen among articles discussing non-terrorist child soldiers, imply some sense of future danger. Trauma occurs as a byproduct of witnessing or experiencing horrors, while brainwashing and indoctrination occur intentionally with a specific purpose in mind. A child who has been “traumatized” needs care and rehabilitation, while a child who has been “brainwashed” or “indoctrinated” has been programmed to carry out a particular mission.[23] In this case, a violent mission designed by a globally feared terrorist group. Such a portrayal, in addition to the relative weakness of the Victim portrayal, may detract from efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate IS child soldiers, and contribute to the perspective that they pose a threat to national security.[24]

Limitations

Because this dataset’s TG Affiliation subset only includes articles discussing child soldiers affiliated with IS, I cannot statistically conclude that such portrayals are also directed towards child soldiers of other terrorist groups and more research is required in order to do so.

Logistically, the dataset heavily represented articles about child soldiers affiliated with IS as opposed to those affiliated with non-terrorist groups (47:11). Because the regression analyses of TG child soldier portrayals compared the 47 TG articles to the rest of the dataset (40 articles in total), I am confident of the robustness of these tests. However, the regression analyses of the smaller NTG subset may be weaker. Additionally, because the collection of the data and initial evaluation of average portrayals (prior to the regression analysis) was done entirely by hand, there is room for human error in the data collection process.

Finally, it is important to note that a weakness of quantitative analysis is that it is impossible to numerically represent the entire effect of a single word or phrase on human attitudes. This data looks at the number of times particular words and phrases appear and evaluates the strength of child soldier portrayals accordingly, but how can it be definitively and objectively asserted that five mentions of “brainwashing” is stronger than four, particularly when considering different meanings of particular words across French, Arabic, and English?

Conclusion

Literature and media attention on child soldiering in the Islamic State suggests that IS child soldiers may in fact pose a greater threat to national security due to heavy indoctrination, and thus their portrayals and the potential ensuing policies are justified.[25] I strongly argue against this stance and adopt the perspective that IS child soldiers are equally deserving of human rights protections by virtue of being human. Blatant abuses such as torture are gross violations of human rights.[26] Notwithstanding, international law surrounding child soldiers may be insufficient to acknowledge the potential heightened danger of IS child soldiers to society. The extent and systematic nature of IS child soldiering, as well as the experience of growing up under the Caliphate may have potentially more adverse effects on the development and attitudes of IS youth.

However, further rejection, dehumanization, and detention, is not the solution. Such measures may continue to reinforce the Islamic State’s  violent ideology long after the IS Caliphate has fallen. Detention centers in Iraq and Syria have already proved to be breeding grounds for the spread of IS ideology and recruitment of new members.[27] The status of a child soldier as a young individual, shaped by context, should be heavily considered. Better practices which holistically evaluate the nuanced experiences of child soldiers, especially those affiliated with terrorist groups, must be further discussed and developed as an alternative to the opposite extremes to which international norms and national responses have fallen.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Melia Chittenden is a student in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Her research interests include U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East, Middle East/North African history, and international immigration.

 

 

Banner image of Warsaw’s Little Insurgent monument commemorating child soldiers takeen by Witia, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

Works Cited 

[1] See title page images (top left, bottom right); Wintour, “Syrian Child Conscription and Deaths on Rise, Says Unicef,” The Guardian; McVeigh, “Child Soldier Recruits Double in One Year in Middle East and North Africa,” The Guardian.
[2] Anaie, “Victimized Perpetrators,” 95; Drumbl Reimagining Child Soldiers, 5.
[3] Horgan et al., “From Cubs to Lions,” 650; Singer, Children At War, 122-123.
[4] “OHCHR | Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Article 1.
[5] Chaikel, “The ICC’s Child Soldier Provisions.”
[6] “Paris Principles and Paris Commitments.”
[7] Park, “Constituting Omar Khadr.”
[8] Barrett, “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees,” 10-13.
[9] Le Monde,  “Pour les services de renseignements, les enfants de djihadistes sont des bombes à retardement.”
[10] Becker, “Extreme Measures: Abuses against Children Detained as National Security Threats.”
[11] Drumbl, Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy, 1.
[12] Denov, “Child Soldiers and Iconography,” 282-284.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Drumbl, Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy, 7.
[15] Fisogni, “Terrorists.”; Piñuela Sánchez and Yela García, “Mortality Salience.”
[16] Lindén, Björklund, and Bäckström, “What Makes Authoritarian and Socially Dominant People More Positive to Using Torture?”
[17] Bachman and Holland, “Lethal sterility: innovative dehumanisation in legal justifications of Obama’s drone policy.”
[18] See Keinan, Sadeh, and Rosen, “Attitudes and Reactions to Media Coverage of Terrorist Acts,” 152, 156-157, 159; Brooten, “The ‘Pint‐Sized Terrorists’ of God’s Army;” and  Drumbl, “Child Soldiers and Clicktivism.”
[19] Hashim, “The Islamic State: From al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate”
[20] The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, “Isis Posts Pictures of Child Soldier Recruits on Social Media.”
[21] Capone, “‘Worse’ than Child Soldiers?”
[22] Brooten, “The ‘Pint‐Sized Terrorists’ of God’s Army.”; Drumbl, “Child Soldiers and Clicktivism.”
[23] See title page images (top right bottom left) from Witschge, “Cubs to Lions.” Al Jazeera; Stern and Berger, “‘Raising Tomorrow’s Mujahideen’,” The Guardian.
[24] Anaie, “Victimized Perpetrators,” 93, 103.
[25] See Horgan et al., “From Cubs to Lions;” and Keinan, Sadeh, and Rosen, “Attitudes and Reactions to Media Coverage of Terrorist Acts.”
[26] “Torture | International Justice Resource Center.”
[27] Abdul-Zahra and George, “Iraq Holding More than 19,000”; Brandon, “The Danger of Prison Radicalization in the West.”

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