Al Qaeda fighters in Syria may have sunk to a new low with a video that appears to show a 4-year-old boy squeezing off rounds from an AK-47 as jihadists exhort him on with cries of "Allahu akbar."
The little tyke, whose father stands proudly behind him, is dwarfed by the heavy automatic weapon, and props the barrel up on a street barricade in the stomach-turning clip. The gun's recoil knocks him back, and his father helps him hold it, offering encouragement in Arabic. International experts say the use of child soldiers is a disturbing trend previously seen in the bloody Syrian civil war, but the use of such a young boy is a new depth.
“Syria is unique to any other conflict we’ve worked in over the last 20 years,” Kate Adams, policy and advocacy manager at London-based charity War Child, told FoxNews.com. “Children do seem to have been targeted by both sides, more than we might necessarily see in other conflicts. Children are being used almost as pawns of the war and not just as collateral damage.”
The child, identified as "Muhammad," wears a black mask as he fires the gun, then removes it to reveal the chubby cheeks of a boy who should be playing harmless games with friends. Local reports say he arrived in Syria with his father from either Uzbekistan or Albania, along with the thousands of foreign fighters who are now answering the call for Holy War in the key Middle East nation.
The original video of the boy carried the title, "A message from one of the cubs of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," an Al Qaeda-linked group bent on establishing a terrorist state spanning Iraq and Syria. The video was removed from YouTube, but copies of the brief 30-second clip had already been released onto the web.
While Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria are clearly using child fighters, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is accused of using children as human shields. Its blanket bombing and alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens has resulted in the deaths of thousands of children among the nearly 130,000 casualties of the conflict.
“I was in the region recently and spoke to two brothers aged 5 and 8,” Adams said. “We asked them, ‘What do you want for your future?’ The 5-year-old said he wanted a gun so he can fight for his country, yet the 8-year-old said he wanted a laptop and to go back home. You can see that the very young children are very impressionable to this kind of violence, and the social damage that this is going to cause inter-generationally could be huge and incredibly worrying. People who aren’t close to the issues can see it as de-humanizing and don’t see that child as a child. It forces children out of their childhood through no fault of their own.”
There has been growing anecdotal and photographic evidence of children having been drafted into fighting for jihadists and other parties in the Syrian conflict. With many hundreds of European and other foreign young men, including some from the U.S., having traveled to Syria to fight, there is a significant fear that when these fighters return home after being further radicalized by their battlefield experiences, they might use their newly acquired skills and willingness to kill in their home communities.
Such a scenario turned to reality in Britain last summer with the horrific daylight decapitation of an off-duty soldier on a quiet London street, by two men, one of whom had previously tried to join the Somalia-based Al Qaeda-affiliate organization, Al Shabaab. Britain’s Daily Mail last week reported an alarming rise in returning jihadists, saying, “In the past month, 16 people have been arrested on suspicion of terror offenses after traveling between Syria and the UK. This compares with 24 in the whole of 2013.”
In October 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that, “Dozens of children and their parents...had fled Somalia fearing forced recruitment. Several of the children had escaped after Al-Shabaab took them from their schools and homes to training camps. The children were petrified of being re-recruited.” One 15-year-old Somali boy, interviewed by HRW, said "Out of all my classmates -- about 100 boys -- only two of us escaped; the rest were killed."
The tragedy of child soldiers has been well documented in African conflicts where children are often kidnapped and forced to fight, as well as work as sex slaves for the older soldiers. In Gaza, such radicalization of impressionable youth -- the youngest only 6 years old -- is apparently government policy. As many as 100,000 schoolchildren have attended Hamas and Islamic Jihad military training camps where the curriculum includes learning to shoot automatic rifles and playing games based on kidnapping enemy soldiers.
There have, however, been some recent successes in those behind the recruitment of child soldiers being brought to account.
“Thomas Lubango Dylo, an armed group leader, was the first person convicted [in 2012] by the International Criminal Court for his role in recruiting and using children in eastern [Democratic Republic of Congo],” charity organization Child Soldiers International confirmed to FoxNews.com. “In 2013, the Appeal Chamber of the Special Court confirmed the conviction of former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, for his role in supporting armed groups which used children during the conflict in Sierra Leone.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @ paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com.