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 
recurring nightmare.

“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 
favorite subjects.

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 
crowning achievement.

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
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