February 1, 2017:
In Somalia the local Islamic terror group al Shabaab has been surprisingly resilient despite years of heavy losses. The reason is growing dependence on using children and apparently at least half the current al Shabaab gunmen are armed boys under age 18 and a growing number under 14 years old. This is why, despite losing control of 90 percent of the area it controlled at its peak in 2012, al Shabaab still operates. Yet it survives and the growing use of child soldiers was noted as early as 2010 when the fighting in Mogadishu (the old capital of Somalia) was not going well for al Shabaab and many of their fighters have been killed or discouraged enough to desert. Unable to entice enough men to join they have convinced (or coerced) some clan elders to allow kids (large enough to handle an AK-47) to join the fight. The kids have been eager for the opportunity to have an AK-47 of their very own, and people to shoot at. This is a big deal for Somali teenagers. By 2012 it was noted that 10-20 percent of most al Shabaab fighters appeared to be kids. The teenagers are not the best fighters. Most are impulsive and inexperienced so they do not last long if there is a lot of fighting and even then they require more supervision than adult fighters. But given the choice between disappearing because of heavy casualties or recruiting more and more kids, many African irregular groups (bandits, rebels, Islamic terrorists) will resort to the use of kids.
This is not a new phenomenon but it did not become as affordable and widespread until the 1990s. That’s because after several million cheap Cold War surplus AK-47s began showing up in Africa in the 1990s, the "child soldier" became a more practical solution to heavy personnel losses. The world market for AK-47s was glutted by the late 1990s. The only market left was Africa, but only if you were willing to sell cheap. The gunrunners were, and still are, very active in lawless places like Somalia and eastern Congo. For a while al Shabaab obtained a lot of its weapons from Iran (via Eritrea), or from local gunrunners, using Iranian cash. But there was always the black market where the weapons were more expensive but it the armed kids could be turned into earners, it worked. Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden, has been the home of gunrunners for centuries.
The cheap AK-47 made it possible to use kids as young as 10-14 years old, as soldiers. This was a new development, because the old weapons (spears, swords, bows) required muscle. Kids had to be older, and stronger. But now, if you could lift a 4.5 kg (ten pound) AK-47 and pull the trigger, you were a killer. Child soldiers changed everything, because warlords could just kidnap or entice kids and quickly brainwash them. These armies of child killers made insurrection and anarchy more common. Tens of millions of Africans fled their homes to avoid these tiny terrors, and many of those refugees died of starvation or disease. These victims were just as dead, even if the bullets didn't get them. In fact, few AK-47 victims died from bullets. It was the massive fear, and breakdown of society, and the economy, that killed most people confronted by all these cheap AK-47s. The kids weren't very good shots, but if they got close enough to you, they were capable of unimaginable horrors. Al Shabaab is continuing this vile tradition, although in the name of God.