Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Zarqawi’s Cubs: Extremist Syrian faction touts training camp for boys

    Tuesday, December 17, 2013   No comments

By Joby Warrick
At first glance, the training camp appears no different from the many others shown in propaganda videos posted by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Hooded recruits in camouflage shoot at targets or march in formation under the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

But look closer and the “fighters” appear quite small. The tallest are barely chest-high to their instructors, and the shorter ones wear ill-fitting uniforms and appear to struggle under the weight of their weapons. A photo of the recruits without their hoods confirms that all of them are young boys.

They are “Zarqawi’s Cubs,” the youth brigade of Syria’s most fearsome Islamist rebel group and one of the newest manifestations of al-Qaeda’s deepening roots in rebel-controlled sections of the country. Building on earlier efforts to expand their influence in Syrian schools, radical Islamists appear to be stepping up efforts to indoctrinate and train children, some as young as 10, according to independent experts who have studied the phenomenon.

The establishment of the Zarqawi’s Cubs camp — revealed in a video posted last month by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — is viewed as particularly worrisome because of the similarities to Iraq’s “Birds of Paradise.” That brigade was created a decade ago by the same terrorist group, in its earlier incarnation as al-Qaeda in Iraq, to train children for military missions, including suicide bombings.

“This is the future threat,” said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit organization that has tracked the exploitation of children by Syrian fighting groups over the past two years. “These are the children of al-Qaeda.”

U.N. agencies and human rights groups have accused multiple Syrian factions — including secularist rebels and pro-government militias — of recruiting children for military roles ranging from scouting to actual combat.

Researchers from Human Rights Watch interviewed boys as young as 14 who were used to transport weapons or serve as lookouts. Even younger children were put to work loading bullets into magazines for assault rifles, said Sarah Margon, acting director of the group’s Washington office.

“It’s something that children often do because their fingers are smaller,” Margon said. But such practical considerations aside, “for those looking to indoctrinate, it is a ripe setting for indoctrination,” she added.

The Obama administration last year imposed restrictions on some of its nonmilitary aid to Syria in part because of concerns about the use of child soldiers. Invoking a 2008 law forbidding assistance to countries that use child soldiers, the administration approved restrictions on certain types of nonmilitary aid to Syria as well as the Central African Republic, Burma, Sudan and six other countries, according to State Department documents.

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