The children had all been shown videos of beheadings and told by
their Islamic State (Isis) trainers that they would perform one someday.
First, they had to practice technique. The more than 120 boys were each
given a doll and a sword and told to cut off its head.
14-year-old among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious
minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three
“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told
me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy,
renamed Yahya by his Isis captors, told journalists last week in
northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the Isis training camp.
Isis extremists overran Yazidi towns in northern Iraq last year, they
butchered older men and enslaved many women and girls. Dozens of young
Yazidi boys like Yahya had a different fate: Isis sought to re-educate
them. They forced them to convert to Islam from their ancient faith and
tried to turn them into jihadi fighters.
It is part of a concerted effort by the extremists to build a
new generation of militants, according to interviews with residents who
fled or still live under Isis in Syria and Iraq. The group is recruiting
teens and children using gifts, threats and brainwashing. Boys have
been turned into killers and suicide bombers. An Isis video issued last
week showed a boy beheading a Syrian soldier under an adult’s
supervision. Last month, a video showed 25 children unflinchingly
shooting 25 captured Syrian soldiers in the head.
In schools and
mosques, militants infuse children with extremist doctrine, often
turning them against their own parents. Fighters in the street befriend
children with toys. Isis training camps churn out the Ashbal, Arabic for
“lion cubs”, child fighters for the “caliphate” that Isis declared
across its territory. The caliphate is a historic form of Islamic rule
the group claims to be reviving with its own radical interpretation,
though the vast majority of Muslims reject its claims.
terribly worried about future generations,” said Abu Hafs Naqshabandi, a
Syrian sheikh who runs religious classes for refugees in the Turkish
city of Sanliurfa to counter Isis ideology. The indoctrination mainly
targets Sunni Muslim children. In Isis-held towns, militants show young
people videos at street booths. They hold outdoor events for children,
distributing propaganda, soft drinks and lollies.
adults, “We have given up on you, we care about the new generation,”
said an anti-Isis activist who fled the Syrian city of Raqqa, the
extremist group’s de facto capital.
With the Yazidis, whom Isis
considers heretics ripe for slaughter, the group sought to take another
community’s youth, erase their past, and replace it with radicalism.
his little brother, their mother and hundreds of Yazidis were captured
when Isis seized the Iraqi town of Sulagh in August. They were taken to
Raqqa, where the brothers and other Yazidi boys aged 8 to 15 were put in
the Farouq training camp. They were given Muslim Arabic names to
replace their Kurdish names. Yahya asked journalists not to use his real
name for his and his family’s safety.
He spent nearly five months there, training eight to 10 hours a day, including exercises, weapons drills and Koranic studies.
told him Yazidis are “dirty” and should be killed, he said. They showed
him how to shoot someone from close range. The boys hit each other in
some exercises. Yahya punched his 10-year-old brother, knocking out a
The trainer “said if I didn’t do it, he’d shoot me”, Yahya
said. “They … told us it would make us tougher. They beat us
In an Isis video of Farouq camp, boys in camouflage
exercise and shout slogans. An Isis fighter says the boys have studied
jihad so “in the coming days God Almighty can put them in the front
lines to battle the infidels”.
Videos show boys crawling under
barbed wire and practising shooting. One kid lies on the ground and
fires a machine gun; he’s so small the recoil bounces his whole body
back. Boys undergoing endurance training stand unmoving as a trainer
hits their heads with a pole. Isis claims to have hundreds such camps.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented at least 1100 Syrian
children under 16 who joined Isis this year. At least 52 were killed in
fighting, including eight suicide bombers, it said.
in early March. Fighters left the camp to carry out an attack, and as
remaining guards slept he and his brother slipped away, he said. He
urged a friend to come too, but he refused, saying he was a Muslim now
and liked Islam.
Yahya’s mother was in a house nearby with other
abducted Yazidis – he had occasionally been allowed to visit her. So he
and his brother went there. They travelled to the Syrian city of Minbaj
and stayed with a Russian Isis fighter, Yahya said. He contacted an
uncle in Iraq, who negotiated to pay the Russian for the two boys and
their mother. A deal struck, they met the uncle in Turkey, then went to
the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk.
Now in Dohuk, traces of Yahya
and his brother’s ordeal show. When his uncle handed Yahya a pistol, the
boy deftly assembled and loaded it.
And he will never forget the videos.
“I was scared when I saw that. I knew I wouldn’t be able to behead someone like that. Even as an adult.”