In late 2016, Al-Shabab banned Somali-style Islamic schools known as Dugsi Quran that it does not control in its territory. Instead, it created an Islamic educational system that is directly run by the group, and known as ‘the Islamic institutes’ by its subjects. The Islamic schools are based on clan boundaries and paid for by clansmen, under strict supervision by local district waali (district commissioner) and Hesba (AS police).
Clans are allocated quotas of children aged 8-15 that they have to hand over to the special institutes that AS creates for each clan and also pay for the education provided. For instance, in late 2017, a clan living in the area of Baidoa was told to create a second institute and pay 50k USD – paid annually – and provides 100 children to be taught ‘Islam’. Clan elders are forced to see to it that their fellow clansmen pay the money and hand over the assigned number of pupils. Elders that refuse or are seen to be slow to respond have been imprisoned, according to defectors.
Children are indoctrinated in the Islamic institutes and made to understand current affairs through a Jihadi worldview. Additionally, the illegitimacy of the Somali government and the obligatory nature of the AS Jihad are ingrained upon them. Quran teaching is done at a faster pace than in traditional schools in order to make time for Jihadi literature. Most children graduate within two years, with many being sent directly to a training camp if they have passed age 15, the Islamic age of maturity.
According to a former child soldier who defected from AS, many of the children are recruited without the knowledge of their parents and without being allowed to bid them farewell. Some children are coerced into joining military training camps, and defectors have said that many of these children are among the most ideological and fanatical fighters they have encountered.
This is because the children have only been schooled in the AS system and have not been given an opportunity to hear an opposing argument. With no other view to counter the AS narrative, they become the ideal ideological fighters for the group. Indicative of its severe manpower problems, AS has used children who have not yet graduated from its religious schools to fight battles. In Ramadan of 2017, it deployed children from various southern Somalia schools it ran, with many of them not being aware that they were being sent into battle.
Parents trying to protect their children from the AS recruitment system have resorted to desperate measures. According to residents in AS-controlled territory, some clans have started buying children from poorer clans to take the place of their children. For instance, in one central Somalia AS-controlled town, residents were ordered to provide 40 children. The families that could afford to raised $1,000 each to buy 13 children from southern Somalia to replace their children. This has in effect created a child slave trade, with the tacit approval of AS.