March 3, 2015
Though not the only group in Syria to utilize child soldiers, the Islamic State's recruitment and indoctrination of children has drawn widespread international condemnation.
The group periodically releases photos depicting children—nicknamed 'lion cubs' as an homage to IS fighters calling themselves 'lions' –wearing military fatigues and performing drills to prepare them for combat.
IS utilizes several different methods to persuade kids to enroll as fighters, including “sending already indoctrinated children back home for rest periods with the knowledge that they will encourage their friends to join up,” Abu Ibrahim a-Raqqawi, the alias of a founding member of the media campaign A-Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, tells Syria Direct's Ghardinia Ashour.
“This issue is terrifyingly dangerous—they are not destroying their minds alone, but their hearts,” says a-Raqqawi.
Here, a-Raqawi talks at length about IS's history of child recruitment, how the group attracts children and what he has seen at the training camps.
The children, instructed by their recruiters not to tell their parents they are going off to one of the three camps in A-Raqqa province, often just disappear. Once in IS hands, they are subjected to nothing short of “brainwashing, total mental re-programming, a complete erasure of the child's mind followed by the insertion of new information,” says a-Raqqawi.
“When families find out where there kids are and try to contact them, the child refuses to talk, saying, 'I don't want to talk to you, you are kufar and enemies of God. You are against the Islamic State.'”
Q: When did the Islamic State begin to recruit children?
IS began to recruit children in April or May 2014, with the opening of the “Sharia Camp for Lion Cubs” in Tabqa city. It's a camp for kids under 16.
IS purposefully closed schools in order to recruit children, just as it prevented children under 13 from working on the pretext that they wanted to stop their exploitation—keeping in mind that IS recruits children at this age. They're trying to recruit children through all possible means.
A-Raqqa province, late February. Photo courtesy of @oos9oo.
Q: How does IS manage to recruit children?
There are three main methods:
First, a policy of starvation, whereby IS gives [needy] families money in exchange for their children.
Second, a type of preaching tent, or preaching celebration that IS runs for the kids in A-Raqqa city and the countryside. Through these tents, contact occurs between fighters and children, and they exploit these occasions to attract the kids and convince them [of their ideology].
There are a lot of children who actually have been convinced by IS fighters. Truth be told, it's kidnapping, because the fighters convince the children not to tell their parents [that they're at a camp]—the fighters say it's not permitted.
I've documented several of these cases. In one case, I documented a child with a picture, name, and the details of his case, even the fact that IS fighters nicknamed him 'Abu Mohammed a-Raqawi.'
When they took him to the camp, the parents searched everywhere for their 12-year old son. They asked about him at the police station, notified IS fighters that their son was missing. The IS fighters denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.
Finally, the father and mother gathered a large sum of money and went to an IS emir, who notified them that their son was located in the Sharia Camp for Lion Cubs in Tabqa city. Only when they gave him another sum of money were they able to get their child back, and this case is among the very rare ones where that has occured, inasmuch as it happened that the emir was one of the parent's relatives.
When they asked the child how and why he went, he answered that all of his friends had gone, and the IS fighters told him not to let his family know because that's haram and unacceptable.
In other cases, when families find out where their kids are and try to contact them, the child refuses to talk, saying, “I don't want to talk to you, you are kufar and enemies of God. You are against the Islamic State.” Brainwashing of children is occuring.
Thirdly: Through the mosques, since schools are rare, the children go to mosque to attend Quran memorization courses. All of the sheikhs are from IS, without a doubt, so they engrain extremist ideas in these kids' minds like jihad and whatever, and thereby recruit the kids.
In terms of erasing childhoods, the biggest event that had an impact on me occured in August, after IS took control of the Tabqa Military Airport and Liwa 93. They executed around 400 soldiers, and showed pictures of how they executed the men with machine guns.
In the al-Akisi area, which is 30km east of A-Raqqa city, around 100 children graduated [from an IS camp], and they brought over 100 regime soldiers and informed the kids that they would not graduate and get a certificate from the camp until they killed the soldiers. The kids did it without batting an eye.
This issue is terrifyingly dangerous—they are not destroying their minds alone, but their hearts.
Fourthly: You've got a group of five or six kids and they have friends who graduated from an IS camp. The IS camp gives recent graduates a rest period, and the fighters know that the kids will mix with their friends and begin to talk about what sort of heroic things they did. This inflames the other kids' enthusiasm so they go join up as well.
Q: What are the camps that are located in A-Raqqa?
There's the Shariah Camp for Lion Cubs, the Lion Cubs of the Caliphate Institute, and recently the Al-Faruq Institute for Lion Cubs.
Q: What types of training are conducted in the camps?
Training is divided into a fast class and a slow class.
IS used the fast class when the battle for Ain al-Arab/Kobani was going on, and resorts to it when it finds itself in a large battle and in need of fighters.
The child enters a sharia course for one month, and then a military course for a second month, and afterwards is sent directly to the front. Seeing as the child is young to begin with and not supposed to be on the front, and did not undergo specific training that might allow him to stay alive in a battle, a lot of A-Raqqa's children were killed, unfortunately.
The IS elements always come to announce, only orally [i.e. no written notice] that 'this child of yours has died,' without presenting the body.
There is a youth whose case was documented, a 17-year-old named Basel Hamira, whom they made carry out a suicide operation in Ain al-Arab/Kobani.
As for the slow, or long-term class:
The child enters a sharia course for three to four months, and if he passes the course he enters a war course, also for three to four months.
Sometimes the course is shortened, so the sharia part will be 40 days, or a month to two months, and then three months of military training, according to how quickly the child is able to complete these sessions.
Q: What are the childrens' duties after completing the courses?
The kids are divided into sections, a section for loading weapons and transporting ammunition, a section for transporting blood and medical supplies to the fronts, and a section used for fighting. There is another section for suicide bombers.
Q: Where are the children's families in all this? The presence of three camps—doesn't this reflect a sort of acceptance?
What can the families do? Absolutely nothing. Add to that the fact that the economic situation is bad [which leads some families to accept monetary sums for their children’s recruitment]. A child with no school or job, who doesn't do anything and is surrounded by weapons and AK47s constantly, of course will be affected by these sights, they create a sort of enthusiasm to be recruited.
Before IS, a large number [of groups] tried to recruit children and failed, but IS was able to do it.
Q: In Iraq, IS used mentally handicapped children for suicide operations. Is it the same case here?
Not at all, no. A disabled child, or one who's not physically sound will not be accepted. But there is brainwashing, total mental re-programming, a complete erasure of the child's mind followed by the insertion of new information. It's unfortunate, something totally unnatural and indescribable.
Q: Does IS have schools or programs aside from these camps?
There aren't schools in A-Raqqa city, but the sharia camp that precedes the war camp, its mission is to wipe clean the child's brain and then teach him that he must fight for God, and blow himself up or spend his entire life in jihad.
As far as IS is concerned, the sharia camp is more important than the war camp.
The war camp only teaches kids how to use weapons, bombs and AK47s, how to make bombs and things of that sort. These things are normal, possible for anyone.
The sharia camp prepares the child psychologically in order to be an effective IS fighter. He's like a time-bomb, or dough in IS's hands that they can shape as they like.
The camp is like a sharia school, not a regular school that teaches math and other topics. Rather, the only topics that the child studies are fighting, jihad, religion and fiqh.
Q: What about the schools IS opened for foreign fighters' kids?
Those schools are from first to ninth grade, they were opened only three weeks ago.
They're schools for foreigners only, for every child of foreign IS soldiers who speaks English. Arabs are not allowed to enter.
Q: Do those schools teach the same curricula?
Yes, the same curricula are taught in English, with greater attention given to the Arabic-language course and jihad. They give these children extra attention to benefit more from them later.
Q: Are foreigners' children also prepared to be recruited?
There is no doubt that they express readiness, especially the Chechens and Caucasians and those from similar areas.