ISIS adds lure of children to regional propaganda campaign

The inclusion of children in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's media outreach marks a troubling shift in its propaganda strategy

Iraqis inspect the damage at the site of a suicide car bombing claimed by the Islamic State group on July 3, 2016 in Baghdad's central Karrada district. PHOTO: AFP

Since the start of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) aggressive online campaign in justifying its own brand of caliphate, children have been targeted as a subject of propaganda and featured alongside adult fighters in visual reports as well as videos.

The imagery of children in ISIS media outreach for the Nusantara region, which encompasses Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, is more than just a marketing gimmick.

The way these children are being portrayed as ideologues at a tender age reflects a deeper agenda to immunise the idea of indiscriminate killing, making it outwardly permissible for even children to use violence to realise the so-called caliphate dream.

In a recent video, entitled Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus (The Impenetrable Edifice), released on June 22 by a newly established ISIS Philippines media wing, Abu 'Aun Al-Malizi, a Malaysian fighter, even called for the mobilisation of children from the Nusantara region to join the caliphate in the Philippines under the leadership of Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, also known as Isnilon Totoni Hapilon.

The Nusantara has been glimmering under ISIS propaganda radar since the start of its media campaign. Dabiq magazine, ISIS' key propaganda publication, has been made available in full Bahasa translation since the release of its first issue. There are countless other periodicals from multiple media outlets, such as An-Naba' weekly newsletters by Amaq news agency, audio news bulletins broadcast over the Al-Bayan radio network and spiritual anecdotes released by Maktabat al-Himmah, all of which have their own respective Bahasa variations.

On June 20, Al Fatihin - Surat Kabar Bagi Muhajirin Berbahasa Melayu di Daulah Islamiyyah debuted as the first Malay-language newspaper bringing updates from Syria and Iraq published by Furat Media.

Adapted from ISIS' An-Naba' weekly newsletter in Arabic, the Bahasa version was strategically released in the fasting month of Ramadan, which has been equated as the month of conquest and jihad.

Within a span of just one year, the amount of multimedia releases targeting the Nusantara has increased significantly, reflecting an aggressive all-out media campaign. The exploitation of South-east Asian children in ISIS-related videos was earlier noted, on March 17 last year, in a video entitled Cahaya Tarbiyah Di Bumi Khilafah (The Light Of Education In The Caliphate).

The video released by Al-Azzam Media, which claimed to be ISIS' Malay-language media division, showed children training with AK-47 assault rifles. The children were also well versed in their own preaching of the faith, having the ability to quote eloquently from the holy Quran and Prophetic traditions.

On April 2, Furat Media released a music video entitled Khilfah Telah Kembali (The Caliphate Has Returned) in Bahasa. Again, images of children of the Nusantara were poignantly used in the video montage, matching the lyrics of the song, "Where have the men gone? Those who will fulfil the call of God? Where are the souls of the brave youths? Committed themselves for an eternal paradise." The song, which is already a form of a recruitment apparatus, has been reinforced by the visualisation of children impersonating real men preparing themselves for a battle.

A music video for a nasheed or religious hymn, entitled Sang Pour Sang (Blood For Blood), was distributed by Al-Hayat Media on April 29. The hymn, which was sung in an adolescent's voice in the French language, interestingly came with Bahasa subtitles.

The visual shows a child wandering alone in what looked like a battle-damaged district in Syria, intermixed with footage of children's sufferings and images of world leaders such as Mr Barack Obama, Mr Vladimir Putin and Mr Bashar al-Assad, who are being perceived as those responsible for the affliction. The video startlingly culminated with the formation of an all-children militia equipped with weapons sending a chilling warning of vengeance to these leaders, "Beware, we have what we need to defend ourselves; Well-armed soldiers are ready to kill you."

On May 16, Wilayat al-Barakah, ISIS' official media wing in Syria's Hasaka province, released a 16-minute video, Generasi Petempur (The Generation Of Epic Fighters), featuring South-east Asian children aged between eight and 12 who have already migrated to the land of the caliphate.

The children, described as "Putera Khilafa" (Princes of the Caliphate) representing Bangsa Nusantara (Nusantara people), were shown engaging in target practice, proclaiming their bai'ah (oath of allegiance) and burning their passports as a sign of resoluteness.

To cater for a technology-savvy generation, Maktabat Al-Himmah released age-appropriate Android mobile applications for kids. Huroof, which has a colourful child-friendly interface, teaches the Arabic alphabet and vocabulary using content related to the military and jihadist ideology. Words such as "tank", "gun" and "rocket" are surprisingly included in the teaching content.

Another application, Du'a Al-Yaum wal Layl, described as "a new interactive app for Cubs", teaches over 40 prayer recitations to be read by children. The prayers include supplications asking for protection from ISIS' enemies which have been referenced to the United States, United Kingdom, Russia and Israel in the app graphics.

There is a psychological impetus to why children have been targeted in ISIS Nusantara propaganda. For ISIS, children represent the future as much as the caliphate. To prepare these children to become the next generation of fighters or stakeholders of the caliphate, ISIS sees the need for an indoctrination programme to be effected at an early stage of child development.

For children, it is crucial for them to distinguish their heroes from their enemies, just like the good from the bad. Unfortunately, the relative powerlessness of children works to the advantage of ISIS in its propaganda mechanism.

The inclusion of children in ISIS Nusantara propaganda outreach is indeed worrying as it marks a progressive milestone for ISIS' ultimate realisation of a relentless and unforgiving world that would rob the children of their own innocence.

  • The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentaries.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline ISIS adds lure of children to regional propaganda campaign. Subscribe