Tiny children shoot and decapitate grown men in a new video overlaid with inflammatory religious rhetoric that was produced by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) and circulated on social media.
The video is an egregious violation of both childhood and Islam, experts tell Diyaruna, adding that the societal damage will extend beyond the brainwashed young perpetrators as it is designed to appeal to other children.
Released January 8th by the media arm of ISIL's so-called Wilayat al-Khair (encompassing the city of Deir Ezzor and its hinterland), the video shows three boys, one of them no more than 4 years old, executing three young men in rural Deir Ezzor.
The victims are accused of apostasy and of spying for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a force battling ISIL in northern Syria.
The video is presented in the style of a video game and is clearly designed to appeal to children, said Mazen Zaki, director of the new media department at Egypt's Ibn al-Waleed Studies and Field Research Centre.
It intends to entice other children to join the group’s ranks by "presenting appealing media content that starts with scenes of raids carried out by the group’s elements", he said.
A child watching the video would undoubtedly imagine himself as one of those elements, he added.
The video's inflammatory religious rhetoric begins with "an explanation of the ‘loyalty and disavowal’ (al-walaa wal baraa) concept", Zaki said.
This describes "how religious ties are stronger than kinship ties, which is essentially incitement against families and relatives in favour of the group", he said.
"The video also shows ISIL elements of all ages, to suggest that the group does not differentiate between elements on the basis of age and that all are of equal value," he added.
To illustrate this point, the video relates the story of Khitab al-Qamishli, a "cub of the caliphate" who opted to live with the group after his family decided to live "in the land of kufr" -- Kurdish territory outside the group’s control.
On camera, the boy claims he came to ISIL territory at the encouragement of his brother, Abu Baraa al-Qamishli, who was killed in an airstrike.
"In the child’s story, the emphasis is placed on rebelling against the parents’ decisions and disobeying them, to spur the children to join the group," Zaki said. "The brainwashing the child was subjected to is clearly evident."
His words are accompanied by footage of other children receiving weapons training, with alluring scenes showing a lot of laughter, weapons and sporting activities, including horseback riding, Zaki said.
As for the three victims, they meet a tragic end.
The three young men are shown confessing to working for the Kurdish forces against ISIL, after which they are tied up and executed by the children.
"The video, which is directed at children, is an act that distorts both childhood and Islam," Cairo University sociology professor Bassima Husni told Diyaruna.
With its latest video, ISIL committed a dual crime, she said: "the first is the incitement to kill and the second is the incitement of children in particular to kill, which is blatant child abuse".
"Such films help the group make the children totally unaware of the criminality [of these acts], because they are coupled with religious affirmations that are distorted by the group," she added.
During battles they fought against ISIL in rural al-Raqa as part of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were able to detain a large number of ISIL elements, "including children and boys of no more than 15 years of age", SDF platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Diyaruna.
The children surrendered as soon as their positions were surrounded, he said.
There were no senior commanders to direct or lead them, he added, "which indicates they were sent into battle on their own".
Ibrahim said it is clear that ISIL has come to rely on children because of the immense human losses it has suffered in the fighting in Syria and Iraq and as it can longer bring in fighters recruited abroad like it did before.
"It is left with only children to make up for the shortfall in the number of fighters," he said.
Children found fighting in the ranks of ISIL "are dealt with very carefully", he said. "They are transported to special camps where they are questioned by specialists, after which a search is conducted for their parents and relatives."
They are then rehabilitated into the community, and their minds are cleared of the destructive ideology planted in them by ISIL, Ibrahim said.
How effective will the future fence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border be in controlling the movement of militants?