A recent spate of videos showing children and teenagers in Syria attending al-Qaeda-linked training camps has raised alarm among activists and observers, who say this practice by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exploits children and turns them into fighters.
One video, apparently showing a 4-year-old boy taught to fire a weapon by ISIS fighters, sparked condemnation and calls for immediate action.
The child, who introduces himself as the namesake of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, says he is from Uzbekistan and belongs to ISIS. Men with Gulf accents have him say "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria".
In a February 4th report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the suffering of children during the conflict in Syria as "unspeakable and unacceptable".
The recruitment of child soldiers has devastating psychological effects, Egyptian child psychologist and Cairo-based Ain Shams University lecturer Enas al-Jamal said.
"This child grows up on violence and the use of force, while internally suppressing fear that could erupt at any time after he is moved away from the fighting," she said.
Such recruited children need special psychiatric care and rehabilitation, al-Jamal said.
"However, the difficulty in rehabilitation stems from the fact that they were subjected to comprehensive brainwashing that turned them into killing machines, convinced of the legitimacy of murder and suicide via suicide bombings," she said.
Children 'have no choice'
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates recruit children for several reasons, said Cairo University psychology professor Waliyuddine Mukhtar.
"The first is that children-- especially those under 10 years of age-- cannot think for themselves. In other words, they are controlled and have no choice," he said. "Thus, saturating them with jihadist ideology and ideas, especially persuading them to carry out suicide operations, is very easy compared to older (recruits).
"As a result, years from now a new generation of youth will emerge and pose a very serious threat not only to Syria, but to surrounding countries as well."
Al-Qaeda affairs specialist Abdul Kareem Ahmed said, "Al-Qaeda's focus on spreading these videos and images carries two messages. The first urges older youth to volunteer to join its ranks. The second brainwashes those who subscribe to its ideology into pushing their children to join the fold under al-Qaeda's banner as soldiers from childhood."
Orphans and the children of foreign fighters
No one can conclusively say anything about the identities of these children or their parents' whereabouts, said Tariq Abdo, co-founder of the group 'No more recruitment or use of children in armed action in Syria'.
But the disappearance of many of the children who lost their parents in opposition-held areas 'increases the likelihood that ISIS recruited them and merged them with other child soldier recruits at al-Zarqawi's Cubs camp,' Abdo said. These groups also recruit the children of jihadists, including the children of Arab and foreign fighters "who came to wage 'jihad' in Syria', he continued.