Somalia-based terror group Al-Shabab is forcibly recruiting children as it knows they are easy to manipulate and can become “the most devoted fighters”, a counter-terrorism expert has told Newsweek.
David Otto, Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants, made the comments as a rights group warned Al-Shabab is forcing civilians to hand over their children, some as young as eight, as part of its recruitment operations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) added that the group, whose splinters are allied to both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organizations, is carrying out reprisal attacks against those who refuse to give their children to the militants for indoctrination and military training.
The group’s brutal child recruitment campaign has been taking place in three districts in the Bay region largely under Al-Shabab control—Berdale, Baidoa, and Burhakaba—since September 2017. This has prompted hundreds of children to flee their homes to avoid such fate.
“Children can be the most devoted fighters because their mind will only be shaped and permanently indoctrinated by what they are trained for,” Otto told Newsweek.
He added that similar tactics have been used by Nigeria-based terror group Boko Haram, infamous for the mass-kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in April 2014. There are fears some of them have been forced to carry out suicide bombing missions.
“The jihadist of tomorrow are the children of today if you get them at their most vulnerable stage,” Otto continued.
“Al-Shabab promises parents to educate these children in Madrasas [educational institutions] or conservative Islamic schools for their own interest and not the interest of the children.”
Otto explained that community awareness programs are necessary to empower children and ensure that they and their families are able to “choose better alternatives.”
A resident from Berdale told HRW that militants want communities to “support their fight.”
“They spoke to us in a very threatening manner,” he explained. “They also said they wanted the keys to our boreholes [watering points]. They kept us for three days. We said we needed to consult with our community. They gave us 10 days.”
Other residents said the militants forcibly took at least 50 boys and girls from two schools in Burhakaba. Days later, they returned demanding more children be handed over.
A teacher who refused to abide by their orders, explained: “They wanted 25 children. They didn’t say why, but we know that it’s because they want to indoctrinate them and then recruit them.
“After they hit me, some of the children started crying and tried to run out of the classroom. But the fighters were all around. They caned a 7-year-old boy who tried to escape.”
Who are Al-Shabab militants?
Al-Shabab, which means “The Youth”, aims to overthrow the Somali government and impose its own version of Islam in the country.
It controlled the capital Mogadishu and the southern region of Somalia from 2006 until 2011, when it was defeated by African Union peacekeepers.
The group still controls pockets of the country. It also carries out attacks in Kenya, in retaliation to the Linda Nichi operation, which saw the deployment of Kenyan troops to the neighboring country to tackle terrorism.
Al-Shabab was behind one of the deadliest attacks to occur in Africa in recent years. More than 500 people were killed when a truck laden with explosive blew up in the Somalian capital last October.
Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, declared war on Al-Shabab terrorists last year. He offered a 60-day amnesty period to militants to surrender and vowed to help them reintegrate into society.
The group, however, dismissed the declaration of war and rejected the offer of amnesty.
David Otto Institutional Representative of SECINDEF (Security Intelligence and Defense) Israel-USA International Consulting Counterterrorism in the United Kingdom and collaborating analyst of OCATRY (Observatory against the Terrorist Threat and the Jihadist Radicalization) David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.