Early-Warning Indicators of Armed Conflict and the Recruitment of Children as Soldiers


This is a transcript of the first episode of the Intelligence Podcast: OSINT and its application, a podcast about the various broad applications of open-source intelligence. Visit our podcast page to find out more.

Anne-Lynn Dudenhöfer, Intel Desk Lead at HENSOLDT Analytics, sat down with Dr Shelly Whitman, Executive Director of the Dallaire Institute, to discuss early warning indicators of armed conflict, the development of predictive models, and the recruitment of children as soldiers.

Some sentences were shortened and edited for clarity.

Q: Today my guest is Dr Shelly Whitman, Executive Director of the Dallaire Institute for Children Peace and Security, formerly known as the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative. Would you be so kind as to share a few sentences about yourself so our audience can get to know you?

Dr Shelly Whitman: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me, Lynn, and thank you for the opportunity to be with you today. I am the Executive Director of what is currently known as the Dallaire Institute for Children Peace and Security. We are based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the Dalhousie University Campus. In terms of my work, I’ve been working as the Executive Director for the last 12 years so it’s been a huge part of who I am and the building of it – from what was originally the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative – has been something that has been an incredibly proud moment for me.

I have experience in working in Africa, as well as in conflict mediation, and at the United Nations through the United Nations Children’s Fund, which was my first professional job coming out of my studies. Working at the Dallaire Institute has been a wonderful opportunity to tie all of those elements together and to really understand how we can think about children, peace, and security in a much different way.

Over 420 million children live in areas, that are affected by armed conflict. Which is apparently a 50% increase since the 1990s. So until recently, the efforts to tackle this child soldier recruitment have been largely reactive and to break the cycle of violence and exploitation it is required to address this issue preventatively. What value intelligence gathering and data collection can provide for the prevention of child soldier recruitment and exploitation?

One of our biggest challenges has been collecting, collating, and analyzing data that is relevant to children in the conflict zones that we’re dealing with.

First, you have to create an awareness of why it’s even important to have that data. Secondly, it’s about ensuring we have data that is disaggregated by age. Even when we think about children, we tend to talk about them like there’s this monolith. But there is a difference between a child, who is a toddler and a child, who’s of school age, and a child, who then is a teenager. There’s so many different developmental dynamics, that we have to understand. The ability to create that awareness of the need to have the differential data – and what that means in terms of a better set of responses in terms of prevention – is critically important for us to be able to work with those, who are in positions to be able to collect the data and the reports.

Oftentimes it’s just not something on the radar. We just held our third annual Knowledge for Prevention Symposium in Kigali, Rwanda, and in that work, we are trying to address early warning indicators for conflict prevention. There are many organizations, that are working on early warning systems and we have analysed their particular systems. What we have seen is there are zero indicators related to children, let alone disaggregated in the ways I just described.

Could you provide some more background information about the Dallaire Institute and its core mission?

In terms of the Dallaire Institute, our core mission is trying to progressively end the recruitment and use of children as soldiers around the globe. Our vision is a world, where we want to see the recruitment and use of children in armed violence as something that becomes unthinkable. So that if we ever enter into conditions of violence and war the last thing we would think about would be recruiting and using children to participate in that violence or war.

This core mission and vision come from the lived experience of our founder, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, who’s now retired but was the UN force Commander in 1994 during the Rwanda genocide.

We conduct our work as a result of his experience trying to find ways to prevent the recruitment and use of children as something that he faced and was unprepared for during that time.

You took up the post of Executive Director of the Dellaire Institute in 2010. What is your story, what motivated you to work with the Dellaire Institute specifically?

I had conducted research in my graduate studies on genocide and genocide prevention in particular. That coincided with the time of 1994 and 1995. What was happening in the world in terms of Rwanda was something that was of great interest to me and probably even more interesting to me was how little attention the world was paying to that conflict.

I was curious as to the politics of when we intervene in conflicts and why don’t we do more to alleviate the suffering. I saw that there was a posting for a job at UNICEF headquarters in New York to work with Stephen Lewis, who was a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and, at that time, was Deputy Director of UNICEF in New York. He had a posting for a job for a researcher to work on what was then called the Organization of African Unity’s Panel for the investigation into the Rwanda genocide.

The OAU at that time created this panel and he needed young researchers to work with him. I looked at that and I said, that’s exactly the job I’m supposed to do. Lo and behold, I had the interview, he hired me, and I came to New York.

What was so interesting about it is I worked at UNICEF headquarters, and I was immersed in all of these issues related to children, armed conflict, and child protection. But I was working on this file of helping with the research and writing of that particular report on genocide. It was actually the first time that I encountered General Roméo Dellaire because we had an eight-hour interview with him at that time about his experience. The combination of those two worlds was so fascinating for me.

It gave me the opportunity to meet a mom, who had travelled all the way from Uganda because her daughter had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army at that time.

Seeing the convergence of those issues but also feeling so incredibly emotional about the fact that there was this woman, who had travelled all the way to the UN to ask for help to get her child back, I did not understand. Why wasn’t the world doing something more to address these issues and how could we remain silent?

I know this is a bit of a long story that I’m giving you but from there I was compelled to go to Africa to experience many of these issues that I had been studying and writing about.

I ended up going to Botswana, where I lived for seven years. I was hired to work for the former president of Botswana. He was the mediator for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue for the peace process in the DRC. It was an actual progression from some of the work that I had been doing but probably one of the most life-changing experiences for me to understand how peace processes do or don’t work. And all of the politics behind it.

I did that job for about 2.5 years or so. Then I stayed in Botswana and ended up lecturing at the university and working with young people there. And that eventually led to me making a decision to come back home after I had my own children.

Coming back to Canada I had an opportunity to start working at Dalhousie University as a lecturer and then to take on the role of the Deputy Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies that existed at Dalhousie at the time.

When I took on that role I was really clear that I would only take it on if I could reshape the Center for Foreign Policy Studies and have some of the issues, that I was passionate about, part of it. They agreed and it then led to me being involved with the initial beginnings of what General Dallaire was creating for the child soldiers initiative out of his research work that he had been doing on it.

Then I began getting involved with his work. Eventually, he and those who had been involved at that time said that this initiative needed a home and it could be placed at Dalhousie. I agreed to do that and in January 2010 I took it on and felt that it was something that could be built with very, very little resources, almost no staff at the time, to what we are now today almost 12 years later.

Let’s dive right into a complex situation. What are some of the main push and pull factors for the recruitment of child soldiers, for example, on the African continent?

This is a bit of a complex question of course because the push and pull factors have been varying depending on context and time and place. But there are some common factors that we can look at.

On the one hand, you have some of the factors that are related to whether or not you have large populations of children, who are in an area where it’s impacted by conflict. Those are factors such as: high levels of poverty, lack of employment, education opportunities that are limited, whether or not there’s general insecurity that prevents children from being able to venture to school or back, etc.

Those are some factors that we understand to be very important. But while those factors are important, probably some of the factors that are even more significant are related to things such as whether or not a young person feels a sense of purpose and do they understand their sense of purpose. Do they have a family that supports them in finding that. Whether or not they feel revenge because of having experienced or witnessed violations against their community or their families. If they feel a sense of powerlessness, an inability to impact injustices and wrongs that they have observed. Also, aspects related to their identity so these elements of who they are and what their belief systems are, whether or not the communities in which they are in helping them with understanding all of these elements. These aspects tend to be much more common globally than we tend to think. So while you ask me the question about Africa and those perspectives, those last four points that I raised are things that are relevant right here in Canada too. When we think about youth involved in criminal networks and gangs or extremist groups, there are in places like Europe as well.

Talking about prevention, in one of your publications on preventing child soldier recruitment, you mention that to progressively end the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, practitioners must focus on effective prevention. You also state that a transformational shift is needed to move from merely good intentions to preventive action or preventative action. What is your definition of effective prevention in this context as opposed to ineffective prevention?

I think that’s one of the challenges that I’m always posing to those, who are working in this field, whether it’s non-governmental organizations or the United Nations or governments that we collaborate with. We use the word „prevention” but we really are focusing on remedies after the fact.

If we’re serious about prevention, what we need to understand is that when we think about protection of children and we think about access to some of the most basic services that children need – from healthcare to education to social services to effective security – oftentimes those particular areas that most impact children are also the areas where we put the least resources into. In many parts of the world, education is the thing that suffers the most from cuts. I know here too, in our country, when we talk with teachers and educators, they will continuously complain about how every year there’s something else that gets cut.

Why do we do that if we’re quite serious about wanting to protect children? That is something for us to really think about. And yet, it doesn’t seem as if spending on things like military expenditures is reduced in the same way so there’s a reallocation of the way that we think and the way that we prioritize.

Again, it's about putting children at the heart of all of the decisions that we are making, thinking through the long-term implications, and whether or not the approaches that we are taking are child-sensitive. It's a transformational shift in the way we think about the order and priority of the world.

Use the COVID-19 pandemic as an example and the measures that we put in place. We did not think very clearly about the impacts that it would have on children. 20 years from now we’re going to look back at this period and have all kinds of studies talking about the impacts of COVID-19 on kids and what occurred as a result. Again, it’s about putting children at the heart of all of the decisions that we are making, thinking through the long-term implications, and whether or not the approaches that we are taking are child-sensitive. It’s a transformational shift in the way we think about the order and priority of the world.

Prevention is a well-known subject in the realm of peace and conflict but one of the Dellaire Institute’s goals is to put children at the forefront of this conversation. What new methodologies are required to enhance existing knowledge and gain a better understanding of the recruitment of child soldiers?

From our perspective, one of the core areas that we’ve worked on is to improve the security sector actors’ responses. This means, both their tactical as well as their strategic preparation for context in which children might be vulnerable.

What’s really interesting for us is that over the past 12 years we’ve worked hard in understanding that perspective. What is their role? What can they do? Where are the points of collaboration and,  what we would call, strategic complementarity? When it’s non-governmental organizations, they might need to understand how to collaborate. Whether it’s a better use of things like intelligence gathering to understand the context on the ground and the realities of their approaches.

I am going to use an example that we’re currently working on. We are engaged in Mozambique where over the past 1.5 years or so we applied this predictive model that we’ve created about understanding early warning threats for children to be recruited and used in conflicts.

We identified Mozambique very early as an area where there was great potential for recruitment and use of children through all of the signs that we were seeing. So we used that information to also talk about it at the level of the United Nations with the Secretary General’s Office and thinking through the children armed conflict agenda.

We also flagged it to the Southern African Development Community and their organ on politics and defence. It led to a communication issued by them to understand that this was something that was serious for them to recognize in terms of their response to the insurgency that was happening in Cabo Delgado, in the northern region of Mozambique.

Then it also led to UNICEF and Mozambique connecting with us asking for our help with working with the Mozambique Armed Forces. They need training, they need sensitization, they need understanding so we are now doing that. We’ve reached an agreement with UNICEF and we’ve started training over the last uh two weeks with the Mozambique Armed Forces to prepare them for their interactions with children. And why this is so important because if they should go into a situation like in Cabo Delgado and not have this information, it could result in them missing key opportunities for better community engagement.

It can also result in them reacting in a very heavy-handed way when they come across children, who might be recruited and used by those groups. When that occurs, all it does is feed into the insurgent group’s approach to try to decrease the confidence in the security forces. It leads to more recruitment.

We believe that every time armed forces are in peacekeeping settings or in their own countries to protect their populations or their border areas if they’re not prepared for those interactions what they do is leave the door wide open for those who want to recruit and use children.

This touches upon my next question, namely one of the Dellaire Institute’s projects is called Knowledge for Prevention (K4P) and it’s designed to address ongoing research and policy gaps around children’s recruitment and use in armed violence. Part of this project is the development of a predictive model for estimating the likelihood of children’s vulnerability to recruitment. Could you provide more details about the data sets this model is based on?

We have data sets that have been provided to us by researchers from around the world. The more that were collating those research pieces, the we converge those data sets together to continue to look for the child-centred indicators. We also look at how we can use those data sets to also be combined with other data sets on conflict and when we bring them together we are seeing patterns.

Currently, we are working on what we call version 2.0 of the K4P predictive model. We’ve had the first version and we’ve had some really interesting results that have come about from that. We could predict with about 86% reliability two years out when we would see potential recruitment and use of children in the conflict zones.

What we couldn’t do very well with that first version though is predict what we would call „not child soldier use”. We could predict with certainty when „yes” but not a certainty of „not child soldier use” so that was less reliable.

Now in this next round, we’re trying to get into some deeper indicators, which would help us to be able to understand a bit better why in this situation we were able to predict it really well. And in another situation, how would we understand what the difference would be that would result in „not child soldier use”?

For example, the kind of focus that we have right now on understanding things like different cultural indicators that could make a difference for us.  Those are really fascinating pieces and can be very different. For example, if you look at Latin America there are some elements culturally when it comes to children that could be very different from an area such as Asia or Africa. Even across different ethnicities and groups within the same country, there could be elements there that would be very important for us to understand.

What is one of the main predictive indicators of child soldier recruitment in an area?

For example, in the first version what we were seeing is that some of the key things that were common for us to understand were whether or not there had been a previous conflict in that particular country. Whether or not it was a coup attempt. Whether or not the state forces had recruited and used children. So what we are seeing is that when the state forces recruit and use children, the likelihood of non-state armed groups using children goes up exponentially. Right now we have seven state armed forces around the world that are still recruiting and using children.

And then whether or not there had been any history in the past of the recruitment and use of children in that conflict. In Mozambique you did have that situation 20 years ago, you did have a previous conflict and coup attempt.

So what we are seeing is that when the state forces recruit and use children, the likelihood of non-state armed groups using children goes up exponentially. Right now we have seven state armed forces around the world that are still recruiting and using children.

The last point is the duration of the conflict. What we have seen is that in the situations, where we have children recruited and used, you see that you have a much longer duration of the conflict. If you compare it to conflicts where there’s no recruitment and use of child soldiers, a conflict that has recruitment and use of children it’s three times as long.

In terms of OSINT, open-source intelligence, the focus of the HENSOLDT Analytics Media Mining System, what’s your opinion regarding the ways in which intelligence can add value to the prevention of child soldier recruitment? Are there any stages at which intelligence can be particularly helpful like identifying vulnerabilities and protecting children from exploitation?

There’s probably so many things that I’m not completely aware of but I think that there are so many ways that intelligence is gathered. Especially things that are related to geospatial information or aerial photography or aspects related to climate change indicators, such as water shortages. It’s fascinating to me to look at.

As an example, Madagascar right now. If you’re aware of how devastating the impact of drought is there at the moment and how do those things drive up potential for children’s vulnerabilities.

There are so many different dynamics that we could certainly understand just from intelligence gathering.

I also think what would be exceptionally important is to be able to pinpoint down to a community level. It’s often challenging for us to have data that is so specific to a particular community or area. But again, if I reference the Cabo Delgado situation with Mozambique, the really important thing about having information that’s narrowed down to a smaller geographic region, the quicker our ability to react. It means that we would have a chance of preventing it from spreading wider.

When we can see population movements and we can understand some of the challenges, as I said whether it’s climate change, agriculture, or aspects that are potentially related to even things like resource extraction, those are huge implications for us to understand. The more we can bring those elements together to try to understand what are the patterns, the more we can be aware of and understand some of the early warnings.

One more dynamic that’s really important to understand. We were having discussions with a participant at our conference last week, who is working in the DRC with the MONUSCO, the UN mission there. They were giving us some data that they were collecting from children, who had been recruited and used. It was so fascinating to look at things like the duration of the time that the children were engaged with the armed groups they might have been recruited and used in. If we can also understand the length of time that a child may be a part of an armed group, there’s a period there, where, if we can get them out at a much earlier phase, we’re going to go a long way to preventing others from being recruited and used. And we’re going to prevent them from really becoming so indoctrinated that it becomes a challenge to reverse those dynamics.

Globally there are things we can understand. And then more at a local level, there would be very interesting sets of dynamics we could try to read into. We could also be finding ways to collate the data a little bit differently from the children themselves and how that could be used to impact the things we might look at and the patterns we might need to understand.

I ran an open-source intelligence analysis of the attack on Palma earlier this year. I always say that open-source intelligence is a great method, for example even on the African continent, where there isn’t great social media coverage, you can still monitor TV and radio. But then if you combine that with, for example, imagery intelligence, geospatial intelligence as you said, and then also with human intelligence, for example, researchers or local NGOs on the ground, then you really get the whole impression of what is going on. I think that the combination of these methods is really valuable.

Regarding early warning systems and predictive modelling, especially in the security sector, these are often overused as buzzwords. What are some of the real-life issues surrounding early warning systems in your opinion?

The first thing, which I did mention a bit earlier, is all early warning systems need to have even the thought to have indicators related to children.  Understanding what some of those indicators might be. They might be related to school enrollment. Have school enrollments gone down over the past six months? Are there patterns in which children would typically be playing in particular fields or areas that they are no longer a part of and why?

On-Demand Intelligence Webinar: OSINT & IMINT

Watch the entire Intelligence Briefing on the topic of "OSINT and Imagery Intelligence Analysis in Countering Terrorism and Insurgency: An African Perspective" now.

A really interesting thing also is related to aspects such as children, who are working; children, who might be doing things like helping out with agriculture. Are they no longer doing that kind of work because they’re being drawn into something more lucrative?

Thinking through dynamics is also related to faith-based topics. What are the teachings that might be happening? What are the things that are being discussed in sermons, as well as thinking through patterns of elections or youth groups associated with political parties?

To add to your point about some of those open sources, it’s also social media. Young people are oftentimes five steps ahead of adults in the newest and latest when it comes to whichever type of social media platform they might be using. As a parent of four boys, they teach me about social media.

This kind of dynamic, where we might want to understand a youth-informed approach to what would be the most important indicators for them, would also be an important element for us to look at.

Are there any technological advancements or advances that have recently rendered the Dellaire Institute’s mission to protect children from exploitation more difficult or more dangerous?

It’s a good question and I don’t have a particularly good answer to it because we have only just gotten into the mode of the predictive model being created. Now what we’re trying to focus on is how we take that predictive model and create what we would call a series of potential responses.

The Mozambique context is the first time that we took the predictive model and said, here’s what our response would be. Now we are in the midst of providing that response and hoping that we’d be able to collect the impacts on the potential of what we were able to do to try to avert and reduce child soldier recruitment.

There are other contexts in which we get what we call „a worry list” every month on potentials. But we don’t always have the programmatic connections in those countries because we’re pretty small. What we need to do is to be able to build partnerships and have a set of responses that we’re trialling right now to see which response would actually lead to the best potential outcomes.

This is probably our greatest differential from other organizations working on early warning, where they tend to flag the warning and they put out the reports, which flag the warning, but they don’t have a response. What we’re trying to do is to bridge that gap by saying, we’re not the early warning specialists but we’re specialists in preventing the recruitment and use of children. How can we work with some of those big early warning systems that exist and then take the potentiality for recruitment and use and partner? Whether it’s with UN partners, NATO, the African Union, to countries that we have partnerships with. For example, Rwanda is a huge contributor to peacekeeping on the African continent.

Are there those partners we can work with and we can tell them, here’s the information we understand and these are the responses that are required to prevent the recruitment and use of children. And if we could do that and we could show a few examples that actually worked, we truly believe that what we do could be transformational.

The Intelligence Brief Podcast: OSINT and its Application

Early-Warning Indicators of Armed Conflict and the Recruitment of Children as Soldiers

How can intelligence gathering inform preventative action, and how can actionable intelligence advise security forces, for example in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique? Furthermore, what issues surround the development of early-warning systems?

Anne-Lynn Dudenhöfer and her guest, Dr. Shelly Whitman, Executive Director of the Dallaire Institute, discuss how to develop predictive models and what the early warning indicators of armed conflict are, which can inform preventative action.

HENSOLDT Analytics
HENSOLDT Analytics

HENSOLDT Analytics is a global leading provider of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) systems and Natural Language Processing technologies, such as Automatic Speech Recognition, which are key elements for media monitoring and analysis.