For the ‘Children of ISIS,’ Target Practice Starts at Age 6
Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick4 days ago 333
A photo posted on social media accounts by ISIS supporters of a youth with a
weapon. (Obtained by The Washington Post)
Paris-The interview had gone on for nearly an hour when Taim, a slim, dark-eyed
boy, started to fidget. The 8-year-old asked for paper and settled back in an
oversize hotel chair to draw a memory.
His picture, in a child’s bold scrawl, was a scene from the small park near his
house, a place where he used to play in the days before the bearded men with
guns took over the city. A crowd in the park had gathered around two figures,
and Taim remembered them vividly: A man with one eye, and a bald man who seemed
upset about something.
“He was looking very angry,” Taim said, narrating his drawing of the bald man.
“He is holding the other man and he is also holding something in his right hand.
“The other man has no eye — they had already taken his eye, you see?” he said,
pointing to the second figure. “And then the other men stood behind him, and
the head of the man with one eye just fell.”
The boy’s slender finger touched the page to show the severed head he had drawn.
“His head just fell,” Taim repeated.
The boy closed his eyes, as if to make the image go away.
“No,” he said finally. “I don’t want to remember it.”
During the two years since the founding of the self-declared caliphate in Iraq
and Syria, an estimated 6 million people have lived under the rule of ISIS. At
least a third of them — about 2 million souls — are younger than 15.
These are, in a real sense, children of “the caliphate.” Collectively, say
experts who have studied them, they are a profoundly traumatized population:
impressionable young brains exposed not only to the ravages of war but also to
countless acts of unspeakable cruelty, from public floggings and amputations to
executions — the crucifixions and beheadings that have contributed to the
terrorist organization’s global notoriety.
The Washington Post interviewed five boys whose families escaped from ISIS
territory, including Taim, a Syrian refugee interviewed near his temporary home
in Europe. The location of the refu¬gee facility is being withheld by The Post
at the family’s request. The newspaper also reviewed videos, reports and
transcripts containing the stories of dozens of other boys and girls whose
experiences are broadly similar to those interviewed.
Some, such as Taim, also ended up in the terrorist group’s schools and training
camps, where they were force-fed a diet of ISIS ideology and gory videos.
Isolated from their families, they were taught to shoot rifles and throw
grenades, and were encouraged to volunteer as suicide bombers, a role extolled
by their instructors as the highest calling for any pious Muslim youth. Several
described being made to witness — and even participate in — the executions of
Aid workers who interact regularly with such youths describe deep psychological
wounds that may be among ISIS’ most enduring legacies, setting the stage for
new cycles of violence and extremism many years after the “caliphate” itself is
wiped away. But relief organizations are straining to offer even limited
counseling to children in the region’s overflowing refugee camps, and officials
said even fewer resources are available for those living in shattered Iraqi and
Syrian towns that were recently liberated from terrorist rule.
“Everyone has been traumatized,” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the
Institute for Global Engagement, a charity that works with families fleeing
ISIS. In counseling sessions set up by his organization in northern Iraq, he
said, “you can watch how these kids try to begin working through this stuff,”
sometimes with words but often in drawings that seem to conjure up the same
“We see kids drawing pictures of watching ISIS chopping off heads,” said
Seiple. “What do you do with that, besides weep?”
Taim was 6 when the militants with their black flags rolled into Raqqa, a city
in north-central Syria. The streets of ISIS’ future capital had already
witnessed sporadic battles between rival factions since the start of country’s
civil war in late 2011. Now, with the terrorists in charge, the fighting would
ease, but the bloodshed would grow steadily worse.
Taim, among the youths interviewed, was exposed to an unusually wide range of
experiences during the nearly two years his family lived in “the caliphate,”
from attending a school supervised by ISIS instructors to undergoing military
training in a camp intended to turn young boys into warriors and suicide
bombers. In other respects, his story is strikingly similar to that of the four
other boys, all of whom described harsh conditions and the brutal treatment of
ordinary citizens, including family members. The Post agreed not to identify
the boys, or photograph them, to protect their privacy and prevent possible
retaliation by ISIS supporters. Taim’s family name was withheld at his parents’
Bright and alert with a shy smile, Taim turns wistful when asked about his
memories of the early weeks after the jihadists took control. Before ISIS,
daily life revolved around family, play time and his local school, which he
adored. “I loved school,” he said with a grin, listing math, art and sports as
Initially, the town’s new occupiers closed his school, turning the building
into a military base, Taim’s family members said. When students were finally
allowed to return months later, the militants were still there, a physical
presence in the classroom. They gave out trinkets and prizes and personally
oversaw the introduction of a new curriculum, developed and approved by ISIS.
“They would give us toys at the beginning,” he said, “but when the lessons
began, they were very serious. They would mainly teach us about Islam.”
For Raqqa youths, the lesson about harsh justice appeared to serve as both a
warning and a justification for the cruel punishments the militants were
beginning to inflict on the city’s residents for violations ranging from
suspecting spying to smoking cigarettes.
Over time, ISIS replaced traditional classroom textbooks with new ones, written
and published by the terrorists themselves. Many of the books have been
collected and studied over the past two years by Western analysts, who describe
the group’s educational literature as thinly disguised propaganda.
For very young children, lessons on arithmetic and handwriting are illustrated
with pictures of guns, grenades and tanks. For older pupils, books on science
and history glorify martyrdom and portray the creation of ISIS as humanity’s
Jacob Olidort, an expert on extremist literature who has analyzed dozens of
such texts, said the literature is a serious and systematic attempt at shaping
young minds, with the aim of producing not just believers but militants.
“What we learn is that education is not only part of their arsenal, but an
entire theater of conflict,” said Olidort, a scholar at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re trying to create a jihadi generation.
It’s not just believing the right creed, but being able to fight. It’s about
convincing young people that only their perspective on the world is right and
everyone else’s is wrong.”
For Taim, some of the most memorable lessons were not contained in books.
Often, he recalled, ISIS’ teachers admonished the children to act as
informants, promptly reporting any behavior by their parents that violated
religious laws or suggested opposition to the group’s rule.
One day, he said, the teachers marched the class into a nearby park and made
the children stand around an open pit — a future grave, one of the instructors
said, for any child who failed to speak up if his parents were resisting or
hiding from ISIS.
“If we did not tell them,” he said, “they would throw us into the hole.”
Even under the rule of terrorists, Taim’s parents sought to preserve a few
fragments of a normal life for the young family. His mother donned the heavy
abaya robe and double veil whenever she ventured outside to shop, and the
family’s daily rhythm adjusted to accommodate the terrorist group’s strictures
on participation in daily prayers.
But privately, the parents worried that life under the regime was profoundly
affecting their oldest son. A walk to the nearby al-Rasheed Park — a favorite
playground before the civil war — entailed a risk of encountering decapitated
corpses, part of a grisly display that followed the near-daily executions in
Raqqa’s main square. The boy personally witnessed several beheadings, and years
later he could describe vividly how the bearded executioner would hold the
victim’s head with one hand while using the other to slice and hack.
“There was a lot of blood. A loooootttt of blood,” Taim said, drawing out the
But a bigger jolt came on the day that Taim burst into the house and began
packing his belongings, announcing that he had been selected for a special
training camp for boys. The parents had heard about the place, a kind of boot
camp for preteens where children received intensive instruction in weaponry,
combat skills and ISIS ideology.
Taim insisted that “it was his will” to leave home to enroll in the camp, and
he accused his parents of neglecting his religious education, his mother said.
She knew the futility of opposing the ISIS’ wish for her son, yet she tried to
talk him out of going. Stay, she told her son, and the family would go to
mosque more frequently.
“I said, ‘Come home and pray! You can pray at home!’ ” she recalled. “He said,
‘May Allah deprive you, as you deprived me.’”
The camp in which Taim eventually enrolled was one of dozens established
throughout “the caliphate” to train boys as young as 6. Some are named after
the organization’s leaders and heroes, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the
Jordanian who founded the Iraqi terrorist group that would later call itself
All are prominently featured in the jihadists’ online propaganda, which
includes video footage of young boys in camouflage uniforms firing weapons,
assisting in executions and training for suicide missions.
“ISIS seduces young boys into their training camps and puts so many resources
into training them for absolute loyalty and obedience,” said Anne Speckhard, an
expert in violent extremism and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at
Georgetown University Medical Center. For ISIS, she said, the camps are most
effective as a production line for suicide bombers, “because children are the
easiest of any of their cadres to totally manipulate.”
The Washington Post
Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick