His face was smooth, the signs of imminent manhood yet to appear on his unblemished features, just like any other boy of his age. Even his eyes, which he had tried to empty of any sign of feeling, betrayed a childlike innocence, one squarely at odds with the barbaric act he was about to commit. Then he raised his hands—hands smaller than the gun he was holding—pointed them at the head of the victim—19-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Musallam, bound and on his knees—and pulled the trigger.
Yes, it was an execution of a teenager—carried out by a boy.
Truly horrific scenes. They were of course broadcast by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which recruited the boy and ordered him to execute the young Palestinian teenager accused by the group of spying for Israel. But the truth is that throughout the footage of the execution the boy’s face does not change, it doesn’t suddenly take on any features you would associate with a cold-blooded killer. At the end of the execution, he still looks exactly like what he is: a little boy, not a monster.
We still do not know the nationality of the boy whom ISIS presented to us as one of its “cubs of the caliphate.” ISIS paraded another of these “cubs” weeks ago in yet another horrific video, with the boy identifying himself as a Kazakhstani. But this new boy remains unknown—though the authorities in France are linking him to Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old who killed seven people in the country back in 2012, while claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
This latest video is the culmination of an ISIS propaganda initiative that began weeks ago with the release of a video showing the group training young boys at a jihadist camp in Syria. In the video the boys are shown being trained to use weapons, and in what can only be described as unbelievable scenes, carry out mock executions on blond, blue-eyed dolls dressed in the orange jumpsuits that have become the trademark attire for the victims appearing in the group’s numerous execution videos. The eventuality we dreaded when we saw these children pretend to execute the dolls has now reached its grisly apotheosis with this latest video: this time the execution was real, and the victim, Muhammad Musallam, was certainly not a lifeless doll.
Of course ISIS is not the first to make use of child soldiers, for history is full of horrific accounts of the use of children as instruments of war and the methodical and highly studied methods used to rob them of whatever vestiges of their humanity still remain—turning them into obedient and highly efficient killing machines. Unfortunately, it is not just the past that is full of these accounts; in our present day the UN has identified 20 conflict spots around the world where children are being recruited as soldiers from a very young age, a tactic used not only to ensure their obedience and loyalty, but one which also makes them from very early on view violence as a way of life. A recent international report on children in Syria found that almost all fighting groups involved in the Syrian conflict were recruiting children as soldiers, while also detailing how the Syrian regime has killed and tortured children throughout the now four-year conflict—a deeply tragic state of affairs where children are both the victims of acts of violence and also the perpetrators of such acts. A doctor speaking to Human Rights Watch recently told the organization children had also been used in Syria to torture prisoners of war. What kind of inconceivable war is this where children are taught how to torture others?
In the 1970s, Cambodian dictator Pol Pot used similar methods to ISIS in his own recruitment of child soldiers for the Khmer Rouge. His main concern in those days, as it is to ISIS today, was to create a society impervious to the outside values he deemed inimical to the way of life he wished to impose. ISIS, of course, is no different in this department.
But I believe this satanic organization has sown the seeds of its own destruction; it will not last for long, and there will come a day when it will meet its sorry end. But what of the long-term repercussions of its actions, particularly when it comes to the children affected by them? What about the long-term effects of this psychology of violence which these children have inherited, and how will these acts of brutality—whether witnessed by the children, or committed by them, or both—affect the wider society in which these children will grow up and live? Indeed, one of the most well-documented dangers associated with the repeated viewing of acts of violence is that the viewer gradually becomes desensitized to what they are witnessing—perhaps a kind of unconscious defense-mechanism to shield one’s mind from the horrors being seen but which also has the unwanted side-effect of slowly transforming the horrific and shocking into the quotidian and banal, engendering a loss of feeling in the viewer in the process. But even this is not the end of the matter; being desensitized to violence is one thing, taking pleasure from it is another matter entirely, one that poses a much more terrifying danger for the future.
Is ISIS trying to create a society that has a distinct taste for conflict and killing, tastes which may even outlast the group itself? It is impossible to know ISIS’s intentions here, but what we do know for sure is that we are now faced with an entire generation of children in Syria who have been utterly shell-shocked and traumatized—and in the case of ISIS’s soldiers, entirely lost to us.
In his book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda in the 1990s, wrote that children are the most effective weapons of war: they learn fast, are easily coerced into loyalty, and are relatively cheap to maintain. Once again we are thrown between those two equally unpalatable opposites of children as victims of violence on the one hand, and as perpetrators of it on the other.
Some have described ISIS’s child recruitment push as a new form of child abuse. Abuse this most certainly is, but it is not haphazard or random; no, this is the systematic process of slowly removing a child’s innocence and replacing it with cruelty and savageness, all carried out with an almost scientific precision, and broadcast in promotional videos for the whole world to see. It is clear that we are facing a problem that will last with us for generations.
Even if the smooth-faced child executioner in the latest video is ever able to break free of ISIS and perhaps undergo treatment to rid him of whatever demons they have placed there, will he ever be able to break free of his image as a cold-blooded killer, one which the whole world has now witnessed and which will be immortalized forever on cyberspace?