One of Canada's most famous former soldiers says the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant cannot be defeated without a strategy to deal with legions of child soldiers being indoctrinated into the violent, extremist cause.
Retired lieutenant-general — and former Liberal senator — Romeo Dallaire recently introduced a program of recruiting veterans to help train local security forces in the world's hot spots in anti-radicalization techniques and recovery efforts.
His goal is to have at least 200 former soldiers trained and ready to give instruction anywhere in the world and to that end last week received $175,000 in seed money from Wounded Warriors Canada to get a cadre of veterans trained in a pilot program.
But separately, he says, some of the training regime may be adopted as doctrine by the Canadian Army and possibly even delivered on the ground to Kurdish fighters by special forces.
Unlike Africa, where child soldiers have long been an issue, Dallaire says ISIL represents a more insidious problem because of the ruthless tactics the group employs and the fact the children are more isolated from the rest of the world.
A series of reports, including one from the United Nations, say children have been hauling weapons, acting as human shields and even becoming suicide bombers. Videos posted online show them watching beheadings as a part of their training to become jihadis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said late last year that between January and August 2015, 1,100 children under the age of sixteen were recruited by the Islamic State — something Dallaire says cannot be allowed to continue.
"There is no doubt in my military mind that the sustainment of that conflict is based on the early recruitment and massive use of young people," said Dallaire, who has been meeting senior members of the Trudeau government, and the country's top military commander to persuade them to get behind the effort.
The Liberal government's retooled anti-ISIL strategy last week did not touch on the issue of child soldiers, despite a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid.
Dallaire met officials at the White House and elsewhere last week in Washington, where the perception of the issue is evolving.
"The Americans are concerned because they have now finally captured the fact that child soldiers — and the use of children — in these conflicts is far more than a humanitarian problem," he said. "It is far more than a social-economic problem. It is a threat, and that is starting to sink in."
Since leaving the Senate, Dallaire, who encountered child soldiers in his ill-fated 1994 Rwanda peacekeeping mission, has focused on the issue through The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative. His group estimates that 250,000 children have forced to fight in armed conflicts around the world.
He said he hopes Veterans Affairs will see the wisdom of further supporting the training program for ex-soldiers, which he describes as training the trainers.
It will give veterans a renewed sense of purpose and put to use some of the skills they've learned over a lifetime in uniform, he added.
Some of the instruction ex-soldiers can give to local security forces involves getting into classrooms in at-risk countries and preventing radicalization in the first place.
Women, Dallaire says, have an important role to play in the programs because in Muslim countries they are often the only ones who can talk with the mothers of child soldiers. They even have a role in disarming the young people, because research shows boys respond more positively to a female influence.