The radical Sunni insurgent group that has branded itself the Islamic State (IS) takes its propaganda efforts very seriously, so much so that it publishes a sleek, full-color, English-language digital magazine called Dabiq — the latest issue of which highlights killings committed by two of its so-called "lion cub" child soldiers.
The eighth issue of the publication emerged on social media earlier this week, and is notable for including a two-page spread about boys that IS had previously depicted killing prisoners on video, along with an interpretation of Islamic scripture that it claims justifies its use of children as executioners.
One of the boys included in the spread was shown in a video released in January in which he appeared to shoot two accused Russian spies in the head. He closely resembles a child who appeared in an IS video last November as one of a number of purported Kazakh nationals whom militants filmed as they underwent military training.
The other boy was shown in a video released in March that depicted him killing a Palestinian man who was accused of spying for Israel's intelligence agency Mossad.
Both kids look to be no more than 12 or 13 years old.
"These are the children of the Ummah of jihad, a generation raised in the lands of malahim (fierce battles) and nurtured under the shade of Shari'ah, just a stone's throw from the frontlines," says the text accompanying photographs of the boys. "The Islamic State has taken it upon itself to fulfill the Ummah's duty towards this generation in preparing it to face the crusaders and their allies in defense of Islam and to raise high the word of Allah in every land. It has established institutes for these ashbal (lion cubs) to train and hone their military skills, and to teach them the book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger."
The use of the boys to carry out terror killings drew widespread condemnation — a reaction that IS says it predicted and sought out.
"As expected, the kuffar (infidels) were up in arms about the Khalifah's use of 'child soldiers,' " the text says.
IS claims that its use of child soldiers — a war crime under international law — is allowable because it was depicted in the Sunnah, a text that describes the teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
The magazine says that the Prophet "would allow those capable from amongst the young Sahabah to participate in his battles against the mushrikin. It was two young boys from the Ansar who struck down Abu Jahl in the battle of Badr."
Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, told VICE News that while the insurgent group's reading is rooted in the realities of 7th Century Arabia, there is little question among scholars that such interpretations have been modified in the centuries since.
He also noted that the children depicted by IS — which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, and by its Arabic acronym Daesh — appear to be much younger than the adolescents that on occasion fought during the early years of Islam's expansion.
"Islamic history does record instances of youth fighting in the wars waged by the Prophet Muhammad against his adversaries," Moosa said. "But we know for certain that these fighters were not children."
"One of the requirements for a fighter or soldier is that such a conscript must reach the age of moral majority, put around 15 to 17, depending on when a male youth reaches puberty," he added. "For all ethical and legal purposes, such as marriage and conscription, contemporary Muslim orthodox jurists and scholars have adjusted those ages to what is acceptable and morally justifiable in our time. They have increased the threshold age."
Still, scholars of Islam note that simply disregarding what IS selectively calls forth from scripture would avoid addressing real ambiguities in how to interpret religious texts.
Ahmed Souaiaia, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Iowa, told VICE News that the lack of a central religious authority in Sunni Islam — the strand that IS claims to follow — can "make it easy for anyone to justify anything in religious terms."
He added that clear distinctions can be made, however, between the rights and obligations of adults and minors — even if the line dividing them has evolved over time.
"Fighting in a legitimate war is governed by the laws that cover any obligation in Islam: it is only obligatory upon adults," Souaiaia said. "Adulthood is a strict condition that applies to all acts of worship, as well as other civil and criminal law cases."
Since the rise of IS last summer, when it captured large stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria, Islamic scholars have consistently poked holes in the group's hardline interpretation of scripture, which they say elides centuries of theological and judicial evolution and is often misleadingly incorrect.
"In the Prophet's time, people made war using the bow and arrow and they rode on camel and horseback," Moosa pointed out. "We do not see ISIS resort to those technologies of the past or the practices related in the Sunna, the example laid out by the Prophet."
Its promulgation of a twisted interpretation of Islam has spurred Muslim communities around the world to organize against the group. One of the latest to do so is the Muslim Youth League UK, which has been alarmed by the insurgency's recruitment of young Muslims. It has organized what it calls a "jihad against ISIS."
Jihad, despite its Western connotation with terrorism, refers to the religious duty for Muslims to resist or struggle against injustice.
"Our efforts are aimed at deterring further ISIS recruitment in Britain and defending the Muslim community, who feel their religion has been hijacked," said the youth league's president, Shaykh Rehan Ahmed Raza.
Whether despite or because of the militants' brutal depictions of atrocities, a steady stream of Europeans, many of them not yet of legal age, have sought out the self-declared caliphate. The current issue of Dabiq has a large advertisement featuring a red-bearded French fighter named Abu Suhayb al-Faransi that encourages Western Muslims to join IS in Syria or Iraq.
Moosa said that regardless of the group's reach, IS has exploited and perverted Islam beyond measure.
"For ISIS to rely on the authority of the Prophet is expedient rather than moral," he said. "It is harmful to those children in the short- and long-term to make them execute people. But for a death cult like ISIS, there are no moral thresholds or qualms."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford