Psychosocial Needs of Former ISIS Child Soldiers in Northern Iraq (I)

Timeframe: 2018 - 2019 / Project team: Prof. Dr. Phil C. Langer, Aisha-Nusrat Ahmad, Shereen Abdelnabi, Khesraw Majidi

Funding: Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ); Regional Program Psychosocial Support for Syrian and Iraqi Refugees and IDPs


In 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (Daesh) gained global prominence by conquering and controlling around 34,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria from the Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad and proclaiming itself a caliphate. The genocide on the Yezidi community in Sinjar and the reign of terror in Mosul marked sad climaxes of the grave human rights violations by ISIS. Lesser known to date is the group’s vast abuse of thousands of children in combats and combat-related support roles. These children are commonly referred to as child soldiers. Among the definitions that have been proposed and institutionalized in internationally binding conventions and that, e.g., differ in terms of age, the one formulated in the Paris Principles is the most prominent one. They define a child soldier as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities” (UNICEF 2007).The definition reflects an important diversity: of pathways into armed groups (from recruitment based on some kind or degree of voluntariness to forceful and violent abduction); of armed groups themselves (from the military as governmental institution to any kind of para-military militia or terror organization); of children (with regard, e.g., to age and gender); and of roles and functions within the armed group that could include fighting and killing but not necessarily as it the term includes all possible misuses of children for military-related purposes (and beyond, as the explicit mentioning of sexualized violence indicates). In case of ISIS, we differentiate between three different groups, defined by different pathways and subsequent processes of ISIS socialization, tasks and experiences as well as corresponding frames of perceiving and feeling and making sense of the experiences within ISIS and afterwards: Arab Sunni children, Yezdi children, and children of foreign fighters. These groups are also object to different ways of political, societal, and juridical dealing with and providing support for the children. In the research project, we have focused on male children of the first two groups.

Project Outline

We implemented the research project from August 2018 to June 2019 as part of a larger ongoing research program on experiences of violence in conflict and war that also include studies on youths’ agency in Afghanistan, organizational staff care in the Middle East, and psychosocial challenges of young refugees in Germany.

The research project aimed at answering the following interrelated questions:

  1. What are the psychosocial needs of former ISIS child soldiers in Northern Iraq?
  2. How are former ISIS child soldiers perceived by their social environment and how does this affect their current situation?
  3. Which services for them are already in place in the region and what approaches seem to be helpful?
  4. Which additional services should be provided to gain and sustain a meaningful state of mental integrity, social agency, and societal integration of the children?

To answer these questions, we developed a multi-methodological approach, by combining:

  • a systematic review of existing research literature
  • explorative fieldwork in the region, accompanied by formal and informal interviews with regional and international experts;
  • an actor and service mapping of organizations and projects working with former ISIS child soldiers in the region;
  • collaborative storytelling with former ISIS-affiliated children in different settings.

In addition, we participated in a joint effort to create spaces for exchanging experiences for organizations that work for and with former child soldiers and allowing for a critical discussion of our observations and interpretations.

The research process unfolded in three main stages, as illustrated below:

Collaborative Storytelling

To understand the children’s psychosocial needs who pose a highly vulnerable group we aimed at developing a method that would not expose the children in a probably problematic way but give them the opportunity and space to decide when and what to share with us. Based on intense discussions with experts working with traumatized and violence-affiliated youths we proposed collaborative storytelling as a participatory method for working with the children and slightly modified and practically refined it together with the field researchers to meet the requirements in the field. The basic methodical idea was to set up small groups of three to five children that had been affiliated with ISIS and facilitate a process of collaboratively developing a story of a fictional character of an ISIS child soldier that begins prior to ISIS, follows the character through his ISIS time into the present, with a brief outlook to his possible future.

The stories were generated from February to April 2019. The process was guided by our field researchers as facilitators who worked with the children on a regular basis over a longer period, usually once or twice a week over a couple of weeks. In total five stories by former ISIS child soldiers were collected during the course of the project. The stories depict the diverse group of former ISIS child soldiers and their current situation. While two stories were collected in juvenile detention centers where boys from Arab Sunni background were detained, three stories were collected in IDP camps, two of which were developed by a group of Yezidi children and one by a group of Arab Sunni children living in an IDP camp for so-called “ISIS families".

The research report that contains a detailed outline of the methods and key findings of the project and a tentative compilation of the collected stories are available here.

Download research report