SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – When a little boy who looked and sounded American appeared in propaganda video put out by the failing Islamic State this week, threatening “Trump: puppet of the Jews,” it caused a sensation as, of course, it was meant to do.
“How can a group make a child into a monster?” we ask. Yet the answer comes to us in the voices of numerous ISIS defectors and prisoners who tell us precisely how ISIS takes the blank-slate minds of children and fills them with poisonous ideologies alongside dreams of Paradise.
Children are powerful tools in the hands of groups like the so-called Islamic State, as we’ve learned after interviewing 63 ISIS returnees, defectors, and prisoners.
Trained at “Cubs of the Caliphate” camps in both Iraq and Syria, children are indoctrinated to hate—and to kill all others who do not adhere to ISIS’s strict, brutal and intolerant views of Islam. They are also taught to give their own lives in acts of “martyrdom.” \
“I saw them train young kids to blow things up. From my camp, 15-year-and-younger kids went on bombing missions. They tell us they are going to go to Paradise,” 15-year-old Syrian Ibn Omar told researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
Ibn Omar ran off to join ISIS at age 13 after having his head filled with dreams from the preachers who took over his mosque when ISIS overran his region. Impoverished and young enough to be drawn in, Ibn Omar was motivated by the income he could bring home to his unsuspecting parents, and the promises of cars and other material rewards.
In the first days, the “brothers” also appeared to be “real Muslims,” preaching the “real Islam.” Little did he know.
“I liked them [ISIS] a lot in the beginning, but later…They taught us about God, the Prophet and our religion. We spent just one month training at the camp. It was military training, not compassionate at all.” (The classic Muslim invocation is to Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful).
“A lot of the training was with weapons,” said Omar. “If you get distracted when you’re holding a real weapon they will put your finger in the barrel of the rifle and almost break it. Some of the kids were 13 to15.
Children drawn into the Cubs of the Caliphate camps serve many purposes for ISIS. Some are trained as propagandists and used in face-to-face preaching in the region, as well as in videos sent out both to the West and to their own constituents. This was the newest ISIS video of 10-year-old Yusuf, the purported son of an American soldier now threatening the U.S. in ISIS’s latest release of a few days ago.
Abu Firas, an Iraqi media emir imprisoned in Baghdad, as well as many defectors from Raqqa, told ICSVE about how ISIS films all its battles, makes video interviews with its subjects, and videos all their heinous terrorist acts to use later for recruitment and propaganda purposes.
Abu Firas, who was responsible for supplying the media arm of ISIS in the southern Baghdad region, told us ISIS sets up TV screens in its territories where children and adults can sit –theater style –to view the various feats of ISIS, including those where children behead ISIS prisoners or go to their deaths driving suicide vehicles into enemy lines.
Claims of ISIS spreading the glories of Islam, winning over so-called “infidels” and sacrificing their own lives to move immediately to Paradise are powerful recruiting tools for young minds still unable to understand completely concepts like death, the nuances of religious interpretations and the afterlife. Part of the goal is to raise an army of children who are easily and cynically sacrificed.
Soldiers from a another jihadi faction that had been on the front lines against ISIS told us they were terrified of children carrying explosive-filled backpacks. They could never be sure, and rather than mistakenly shoot an innocent, these battle-hardened men fled their posts.
Similarly all of the former ISIS soldiers who spoke to us told us that ISIS has lines of warriors in battle, the first line always consisting of young people who either race into enemy lines driving bomb-rigged vehicles, or adult cadres, who wear suicide vests intending to explode themselves rather than surrender. After all, the slogan of ISIS, taken from the Chechen rebels who joined, is “Victory or Paradise!”
They believe they win either way, in life or in death.
The dark side of the victory story is that these children can be as young as six, and ISIS is more than willing to destroy their lives. According to ISIS cadres we interviewed, some are exploded remotely. Others are cynically instructed, “Push the button and you will immediately go to Paradise.” Some are even offered sedatives to calm them in their missions.
Speaking to Abu Islam, an ISIS emir in prison in Sulaymaniyah, we learned that ISIS doesn’t view young boys in the same manner as most cultures, with theirown definition of a man, whatever the age—which means a child as young as seven can be viewed as an adult man.
“We don’t have any age limit,” Abu Islam told us. “Instead we believe that when a man’s semen develops, then he’s considered a grown-up man. We only take them when they get to that point.”
Yet when Abu Islam was shown Ibn Omar’s video clip he hung his head in shame and admitted the cherubic faces of children proudly carrying ISIS flags in the video were not men.
“We were wrong,” he admitted as we discussed how ISIS manipulates children into becoming killers.
Manipulating sacred scriptures already revered, and well known, by believers is a powerful tactic that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS have learned to rely on in their recruitment of naïve and earnest believers.
Everyone we spoke to — from ISIS returnees and cadres in Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia — had joined ISIS and its affiliates because they had come to believe in the ISIS dream of creating a new world governance with justice, dignity, security and inclusion for Muslims — Sunni Muslims in particular, in Iraq and Syria and beyond.
This is the dream that ISIS peddles over the Internet and through its face-to-face recruitment.
Indeed, although most of the defectors and prisoners had become disillusioned with the corruption, brutality and un-Islamic character they experienced inside ISIS, they often held fast to this dream. ISIS knows that through the media, the amplifying power of videos of children — particularly, and the newly released video of 10-year-old Yusuf, who purportedly traveled with his mother to join ISIS two years ago and who claims he is the son of an American soldier who fought in Iraq.
An ISIS child threatening Donald Trump and repeating the oft-claimed ISIS mantra—that the battle will move to the West—garners widespread attention because it’s an innocent involved in brutality, the son of an American denouncing our own country. When this same child describes the constant airstrikes against ISIS, he also hits a sympathetic note—we all know that children unfortunately become both the pawns of terrorists and the victims in our battles against them.
Whether we look at the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on the shores of the Mediterranean, 7-year-old Julian Cadman who died on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, or the children unwittingly killed in aerial attacks against ISIS, our hearts are conflicted. All these children are the victims of violence. Videos of ISIS-indoctrinated children both horrify and tug at our heartstrings.
Ibn Omar was next in line for a suicide attack and only stopped by his parents when he took a home leave and shared his “glorious task” with them. They immediately forced him to flee ISIS and enter Turkey. Ibn Omar was so convinced by the ISIS claims that he told us that it took over a year away from the group before he felt the brainwashing of ISIS ideologies left him completely.
Abu Islam, the Iraqi ISIS emir, also tells us how successful they were in indoctrinating children into the “martyrdom” ideology teaching them that giving up their own lives to kill others would gain them a place in Paradise. “There is an office. If anyone volunteers … ‘I want to my give my bayat [pledge],’ then he signs up for a martyrdom mission at the same time. It’s like a regular recruiting process,” he says.
In regard to the ISIS training camps with a steady stream of explosive-rigged cars being made to put the children into, to send them to their deaths at checkpoints and the frontlines, he says: “They instruct them. They know what will happen. They’re happy. It’s like a kid at Christmas. You know how happy they are? Calmly happy, knowing something good is going to happen.”
Referring to the joyful expectations of children and young people anticipating their final journey to Paradise, Abu Islam says, “They have a list of serial numbers and names. If I’m set to go next, then I’m next. If something changes the order and they aren’t sent, they start crying. If they aren’t the next one, they actually cry and get angry, and even complain, ‘My name is set to go!’ I’ve seen this with my own eyes.” Abu Islam’s own eyes were shining in admiration for the zeal of these youth that he helped to indoctrinate.
When it comes to killing, we also need to understand that ISIS is a command and control organization. Not all young people, or even adults, who go to “martyr” themselves wish to do so. Inside ISIS, orders are from the top and are not to be defied. Once in, there are no more choices to be made.
Attempting to escape ends in beheading for males, being sent back to Raqqa for females. “We were supposed to just obey,” Syrian ISIS defector Abu Abdullah explains. “If they tell you to slay others, you have to do it. Even if they tell you to behead your own father you have to do it. Whatever the sheikh tells you to do, you have to do it. When we hear the order, we have to execute it.”
According to defectors, children who were ordered to kill were often horrified, but knew that they had no choice. Follow orders and kill, or be killed. As Ibn Omar described one of his friends who was summoned, like many youths are, to carry out a beheading, “They picked him up in a truck and told him he was going to execute an infidel. He took the zarqawiya [knife] with him, and they led him to the prisoner. The person’s hands are tied, so he pulled his hair back, and sawed across his neck until he was beheaded.”
The groupthink of ISIS and their social coercion, backed up by brutal punishments, silenced any dissenters. “Some people felt upset deep down, but they wouldn’t say anything, Ibn Omar explains. If someone was executed, everyone would act happy and shout ‘Allahu-Akbar!’ They couldn’t say they were upset, or that it wasn’t right.”
“I was upset,” Ibn Omar admits.
For defectors like Ibn Omar, witnessing violence and injustices began to undermine sharia training from teachers who manipulated Islam to justify the brutality of the group.
In Iraq, the government estimates that half a million young people lived under or served ISIS. It may be even more in Syria. Now these children are returning to schools that were decimated by ISIS. Some spent two or more years in ISIS schools where learning to kill and behead and taking on the ISIS ideology was central to their curriculum. It’s a huge job to reintegrate these children back into society.
At the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, we hope that raising the voices of ISIS insiders may be one way of smashing the ISIS illusion. Justice, dignity, security and inclusion in society are the tasks of good governance and are needed to put an end to ISIS terrorism, but as the struggle to achieve these larger goals continues at a slower pace than most would like, we work at breaking the ISIS brand—using insiders to tell the truth about ISIS.
“I lost my country…Everything,” Ibn Omar says while wiping away tears. “I would tell all the children of the world—I would tell them not to join this organization. This organization is not Muslim, they’re the infidels. They slaughter innocent people. And that they are not here for real jihad. They are just here for the money. And whoever joins them cannot leave. They pretend to be Muslim but they just teach people to blow themselves up and tell you that you’re going to Paradise—but none of it is true. I would tell them not to join this organization.”