Though it has been defeated in Iraq and stamped out in much of Syria, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) continues to pose a present and future threat due to its pattern of recruiting children, experts tell Diyaruna.
Since the group's inception, it has recruited children and teenagers by force and by coercion, indoctrinating them with its deviant ideology and using them to carry out its attacks.
"The [Middle] Euphrates River Valley is now the last haven for ISIS elements," Deir Ezzor media activist Jameel al-Abed told Diyaruna.
Children and youth residing in displacement camps in this area are particularly vulnerable to recruitment, he said, as ISIS remnants seek to regain some influence and are exploiting the financial needs of these families.
ISIS faces a shortfall in rank-and-file fighters and has begun recruiting children in displacement camps in the Badiya (desert) region and in Deir Ezzor, he said.
"Recruiters take advantage of the children’s need for food, clothing and other things that are not available in the camps," he said, noting that the majority of camp residents live in abject poverty.
As part of their efforts to expel ISIS remnants from the region, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and international coalition have compiled a database of known ISIS elements, he said.
"Any attempt by these elements to escape or move to another country or even another region in Syria will be very difficult," he said, which is why ISIS has focused its recruitment efforts on children.
These children are groomed "to carry out suicide attacks inside and outside Syria", he said, or are sent on reconnaissance missions to gather information.
Indoctrination by stealth
While ISIS actively recruited children and teenagers at the height of its powers, indoctrinating them and providing them with combat instruction at specially designated camps, reports indicate these activities have largely ceased.
"After the operation to eradicate ISIS in Syria and Iraq began, the group stopped training child recruits in special camps," said SDF officer Farhad Khoja.
The recruitment and training of children is now carried out stealthily in scattered small camps, out of fear of airstrikes, he told Diyaruna.
In addition to the ideological indoctrination used to groom children and encourage their parents to relinquish them, "money and food are the preferred means of recruiting children in the camps and children of poor families", he said.
Eradicating the concept and recruitment of "ISIS cubs" may be a more serious and important endeavor than eradicating the group itself, said military analyst Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Ahmed, who is retired from the Egyptian security forces.
This is because children and young teenagers are especially vulnerable to brainwashing attempts, he told Diyaruna, noting that the threat they pose to society is "very serious", both in Syria and abroad.
If these children are not identified and do not receive the appropriate treatment, he warned, Syria could face another wave of extremism as they come of age.
"These children will grow up with their heads filled with extremist ideas, and are virtual sleeper cells that could become active at any time," he said.
Detaining them is not enough to eliminate the danger they pose, he added, as they also must "undergo rigorous and serious psychological treatment" in order to redress their situation.
Some might require long periods of treatment to rid them of the residue of the terrorist ideology on which they were reared, he added.