The Islamic State’s recruitment of children has been extensively and graphically documented. The militant group has used children as young as 7 as combatants, messengers, drivers and guards. Islamic State propaganda videos depict juvenile executioners from its “Cubs of the Caliphate” unit shooting prisoners at close range. Although the Islamic State has become notorious for its systematic indoctrination and use of children, media coverage has largely failed to acknowledge that it is but one of many armed groups in Syria and Iraq that have recruited underage girls and boys.

In a new study for United Nations University, I analyze patterns of child recruitment by 10 of the major armed groups participating in the geographically linked conflicts in Syria and Iraq. I found that while children’s pathways into and out of armed groups are rarely linear and their roles are fluid, we still see several patterns.

The many factors of child recruitment in complex conflicts

The study includes evidence from in-depth interviews with 144 individuals, including 16 children and 33 adults currently or formerly associated with armed groups, and a pilot survey of 45 Iraqi children detained in a juvenile reformatory in Irbil on charges of joining the Islamic State. All names or identifying details have been changed to protect those interviewed.

The study includes, in addition to the Islamic State, such diverse groups as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the primarily Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). All have recruited children, yet they vary significantly in the extent to which they do so, their motives and techniques, and the roles for which child recruits are used.

Existing explanations for the motivations of children who join such groups generally focus on a single variable — often ideology — without examining interactions and correlations among contributing factors. Past work also tends to focus exclusively on the recruiting practices of a single group, without examining the trajectories of children who move among different groups over time, even though such “side-switching” is commonplace in multiparty conflicts.

One Iraqi boy who had been working in a steel factory in Nineveh province since dropping out of elementary school was first recruited by the Islamic State at age 17 to cook for fighters. Even though the group had killed his father, a former police officer, the Islamic State job paid better than the factory and helped him support his mother and six siblings. A few months later, he was again recruited by an uncle in the PMF to spy on the Islamic State. After a fellow Islamic State member caught him taking photographs — for which his uncle had offered him 3 million Iraqi dinars (about $2,520) — he was imprisoned by the group. He eventually escaped, only to be caught by Kurdish security forces and sentenced to detention in a juvenile reformatory in Irbil, where I interviewed him in April.

This trajectory — from child labor to recruitment to prison — exemplifies the complexity of children’s experiences before, during and after their association with armed groups in Iraq and Syria. Although these patterns are highly complex and context dependent, certain trends are discernible.

Drivers of child recruitment in Iraq and Syria

First, children living in conflict areas often feel powerless, and armed groups offer them a sense of control in a chaotic and unpredictable environment. Several of the children interviewed or surveyed for this study said they joined the armed groups for protection or survival. One 17-year-old Iraqi boy with a heart condition joined the Islamic State in exchange for the promise of a free surgery that he could not otherwise afford. Children have also joined or married members of armed groups “as a kind of protection bargain,” according to one interviewee. A paradox of civil wars is that it is often safer to align oneself with a violent group than to remain unaffiliated.

Second, the recruitment of children by these armed groups is highly correlated with other forms of exploitation, including child labor, early marriage, sexual abuse and trafficking. Because these different practices frequently interact with and amplify one another, a child who experiences one is likely to experience others. Many of the children interviewed and surveyed for the study had previously dropped out of school and were engaged in low-wage, unfulfilling and dangerous forms of child labor at the time of their recruitment. One 16-year-old detainee who had dropped out of school at age 9 to sell chickens asked his father’s permission to move for a better job. When his father refused, he joined the Islamic State to escape what he saw as a dead-end career with “no future.”

Third, the decision to join is heavily influenced by preexisting social and familial networks. Groups of friends often join together, or a child who joins a group will encourage friends to follow suit. Tribes often join or switch allegiance between groups collectively, as do brigades.

Prospects for the future

Exit from armed groups is possible, but children who seek to disengage — either voluntarily, by deserting or involuntarily, through capture and imprisonment — must overcome steep social, legal, economic and psychological barriers. For children who initially joined armed groups in pursuit of a meaningful life, many who disengage struggle with feelings of worthlessness and disempowerment. One young man who joined Jabhat al-Nusra at age 14 and was interviewed in southern Turkey, where he had traveled to receive medical treatment for a leg injury, reported feeling “lost,” as if his life had “no purpose.” He said, “I am nothing without a weapon.”

Our study did find that some children who have disengaged from armed groups are interested in returning to school. Of the 45 juvenile detainees surveyed, 79 percent of those who responded said that if released, either education or vocational training would be the most important resource to achieve their life goals. In Mosul and other areas previously controlled by the Islamic State, schools have reopened, but children are confronted with daily reminders of the conflict. Many Syrian and Iraqi children still find it impossible to imagine a nonviolent future because of the trauma they have experienced, obstacles to reintegration and continuing proximity to a conflict with no end in sight.

Mara Revkin is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and a Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. This article is based on her research for the United Nations University’s study on Children and Extreme Violence.