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Children in Violent Extremist Organisations in the Middle East and Africa

The purpose of this study is to analyse the phenomenon of child recruitment in relation to VEOs in the Middle East and Africa.

Transnational - Security & Conflict - Format: PDF - Size: 1.76 MB - Date: Feb, 2023 - Pages: - Copyright: NATO Strategic Direction South HUB - Tags: MENA, Extremism

Child recruitment in Africa and the Middle East continues largely unabated. Although the annual rate of recruitment appears to have slightly declined since 2017, such changes are assessed to be primarily driven by temporary fluctuations.

With the emergence of new conflicts/escalation of existing ones, the number of children recruited per year is estimated to be on the increase and the phenomenon of child recruitment continues to change and evolve significantly. Over the past few years, violent extremist organisations (VEOs) have increasingly engaged in systematic and sophisticated indoctrination of recruited minors. Likewise, some of these groups have demonstrated increasing willingness to recruit girls for more operationally relevant roles, including suicide-bombing missions.

Furthermore, there has been a disproportionate amount of attention vis-a-vis the children of foreign fighters located in Syria’s Al-Hol and Roj camps, even as there are currently far more minors across Iraq and Syria who have a perceived association with DAESH and whose societal integration could pose challenges on a bigger scale.


The purpose of this study is to analyse the phenomenon of child recruitment in relation to VEOs in the Middle East and Africa.

Firstly, the report analyses the structural factors that increase the vulnerability of children to recruitment – in other words, the ‘supply side’. Secondly, the report examines the ‘demand side’ represented by the VEOs. These are analysed with regard to their modus operandi, incentives and key trends, including differences based on gender.

Importantly, the scope of the report goes beyond the strict confines of child recruitment, for two primary reasons. Firstly, the available data provides only a mere approximation of the phenomenon. Secondly, recent trends point to a much broader challenge stemming from children’s indirect affiliation with VEOs.

To better understand this phenomenon, the NSD-S HUB also commissioned a series of ‘Food-for-Thought’ papers that helped bring to light local and regional knowledge, insights and recommendations.

Key insights

  • The relevance of specific drivers behind child recruitment changes over time.
  • At the individual level, financial motivations appear to be more relevant for boys than for girls.
  • Negative personal experiences are a stronger source of resilience for girls.
  • Social stigma emerged as a key prospective driver for the future recruitment of children.
  • The ability of VEOs to directly control, or project notable influence over, territory/communities belongs among the key drivers for large-scale child recruitment.
  • Child recruitment, coupled with systematic indoctrination, appears to have notably amplified over the past decade.
  • VEOs that primarily engage in undogmatic recruitment of children are more likely driven by short-term goals and ad-hoc operational needs.
  • Child recruitment has significant ripple effects. The practice hardly ever remains limited to only one actor/perpetrator in a certain area. Rather, once it emerges, it tends to spread rapidly.
  • Significant child recruitment begins at the age of 10. However, VEOs are assessed to have a strong preference for recruitment of children between 12 and 17 years of age.

Key recommendations

  • In the short-term, reducing the territorial control of a VEO derails their capability to recruit children on a large scale.
  • An increased focus on the VEOs that do not systematically indoctrinate underage recruits could potentially lead to the release of more children.
  • In the long-term, other measures could be adopted to increase resilience to child recruitment and prevent this practice from (re)emerging.
  • This includes, inter alia, disseminating local counter-narratives, once a VEO’s control over a certain area has diminished.
  • Such measures also entail engaging minors in dialogues about violent extremism and implementing a more gendered approach to enhancing the resilience of boys and girls.
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