In 2013, prominent Salafi cleric and vocal Al-Qaeda advocate sheikh Abdallah al-Muhaysini left Mecca to bridge the differences between Syria’s jihadist ranks. Today, the Saudi sheikh serves as both chairman of the Jihad’s Callers Center, a training institute for religious leaders in collaboration with Jabhat a-Nusra, and is a senior judge in the Victory Army.
As one of the most vocal and influential jihadist leaders in Syria, Muhaysini recently turned to youth mobilization. Last month, he launched “Go Forth,” a campaign aimed at recruiting 3,000 child and teenage soldiers, largely across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Through festivals, passionate sermons and cash incentives, Muhaysini is targeting Syria’s recently displaced youth populations.
On April 20, a Syrian human rights organization responded by launching “Children Not Soldiers” an underground effort to “spread awareness of the dangers of recruitment,” says Mohammed, a member of the organization Jabhat a-Nusra Violations who asked for his full name not to be disclosed.
“No to the recruitment of children.” Photo courtesy of Jabhat a-Nusra Violations.
The anti-recruitment campaign holds meetings in secret and late at night to avoid being discovered by the ruling Victory Army. There, Mohammed and other volunteers describe to parents the realities of Muhaysini’s campaign.
“The children were forced to sit through many hours of sharia courses each day,” he says. “They were put through physical training as well as weapons training. There was no time for fun. There was no free time. They did not get to see their parents,” Mohammed tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.
“Absolute obedience to sheikh Muhaysini was required; it trumped a child’s obedience to their parents.”
Q: What do people think about Muhaysini’s “Go Forth” campaign? How do they lure children?
“Go Forth” is a massive campaign. It is well thought-out and well funded. It taps into people’s deepest emotional, religious and passionate natures. The events that the sheikhs organize across towns, villages and cities have the feel of a festival. They bring people in with games that draw on religious themes, all while advancing their core messages.
They have a well-supported media campaign that involves putting up highway billboards and posters as well as other pages across social media. They also organize personal meetings with members of the community. Their activities are all done in a very comforting manner.
With regard to how “Go Forth” was received, at its inception it was very successful. This was largely due to the lack public awareness and the absence of educational organizations to warn of the dangers of “Go Forth.” Furthermore, after the large displacement of people following Russia’s bombings, children in particular found themselves vulnerable to recruitment, and “Go Forth” exploited these very weaknesses. Their campaign would also give children cash payments between $100 and $150.
Q: Talk about why there is a need for the campaign “Children Not Soldiers.”
This campaign emerged once our team began documenting the number of innocent children who had been recruited into becoming fighters through financial, religious, and other cultural incentives. The need for “Children Not Soldiers” was further strengthened after the Jihad’s Callers Center began their campaign “Go Forth.” Their mobilization effort aims to recruit 3,000 child and teenage soldiers and does not even require parental consent for the recruitment of children.
We have documented 500 children whom this campaign recruited. Some of these children fled after just one week and told us of their suffering, of their military training, and of the total absence of any remotely appropriate activities for children.
Q: What have you documented so far regarding violations against the rights of children? Is your group in contact with any international organization associated with this issue?
First off, recruitment of child soldiers is itself a violation. We have documented 500 children who have been recruited in addition to a little girl whom Jabhat al-Nusra shot last year. Five hundred children. That number comes from the campaign “Go Forth.”
“Children Not Soldiers” is not directed against any one armed group. Rather, it is against the recruitment of child soldiers by any group or armed forces. However, after “Go Forth” was launched, it became a necessity to start our campaign.
We do not have contact with any international organization. Our campaign is neither funded nor sponsored financially or administratively by any organization except for the group Jabhat a-Nusra Violations.
Q: How can you convince parents not to allow their children to join Muhaysini, and, by extension, Jabhat a-Nusra?
We organize a number of activities. These include meetings in Idlib with children and their parents aimed at imparting the dangers of recruitment. We graffiti, poster walls and distribute leaflets, which discuss the dangers of such recruitment, all with graphic designs specially tailored to children. This messaging campaign draws on both religious and non-religious points.
The meetings we conduct with children and their parents are done in secret; they are not publically announced. We aim to spread awareness of the dangers of recruitment without letting it be known that these ideas are coming from a formal campaign. We also try to convey positive messages, namely the role of Syria’s children in working to rebuild the country, one free of violence.
These meetings rely on support from local communities, namely from schoolteachers and other activists.
Q: As you have spoken with children who have fled these recruitment camps, what have you heard of their experiences? How were they trained?
The children were forced to sit through many hours of sharia courses each day. They were put through physical training as well as weapons training. Regardless of their mental state, these children were always treated with total intensity. There was no time for fun. There was no free time. They did not get to see their parents.
Absolute obedience to sheikh Muhaysini was required; it trumped a child’s obedience to their parents. These kids were never to question the ideas that were being planted in their minds.
Q: It certainly seems that the work that you do can be dangerous given the chaotic security situation in Syria. What steps do you all take as activists in order to safely perform your work?
The working teams in Syria are given access to security information to ensure their safety. The work they do is conducted secretly and at late hours.
The goal of our campaign justifies the danger of the work. Regardless of the circumstances, the results are what are important.