In the wake of a video purporting to show a child executing two prisoners, Islamic State militants released images Thursday of toddlers practicing their skill with toy guns.
"Lions cubs ... raised in the land of the Caliphate," the caption reads for the series of six photos shared online by supporters of the militant group, which controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. The pictures show small boys playing, rather grimly, with toy assault rifles.
Two images depict a child somberly aiming down the sight of a mock M-16 from a kneeling and a prone stance. Another picture features a toddler, appearing to be no older than 3, cradling a gun with a forlorn expression on his face.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant groups, the photos were issued from the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqah, Syria.
Islamic State has put a premium on the use of propaganda and has made savvy use of social media. It routinely uploads images and videos of children engaged in religious study or prayers. It has also shown children at play with the corpses of dead prisoners, using decapitated heads as soccer balls and shouting slogans supporting Islamic State.
The militant group blitzed through large areas of Syria and Iraq in June, wresting control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, before marching toward the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. An offensive two months later on Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq spurred a wide-scale U.S.-led aerial campaign to stop the group's progress.
Human rights groups have accused Islamic State of using child soldiers. Residents of areas under its control claim the group sends its fighters to schools to recruit children.
A video released Tuesday showed a boy who appeared to be about 12 using a gun to apparently execute two men who were identified as Russian prisoners of Islamic State.
The Sunni extremists espouse a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, with punishments including amputations, crucifixions and beheadings. It has unleashed a wave of attacks on the region's minorities, with systematic kidnappings and massacres.