If this is not an evil endeavor, then the definition of ‘evil’ has changed from what I understand. Everyone with any bit of humanity in their heart should be fighting to exterminate this scourge from the face of the earth.
By Maria Abi-Habib Dec. 26, 2014 4:11 p.m. ET
Jomah, a 17-year-old Syrian who joined Islamic State last year, sat in a circle of trainees for a lesson in beheading, a course taught to boys as young as 8.
Teachers brought in three frightened Syrian soldiers, who were jeered and forced to their knees. “It was like learning to chop an onion,” Jomah said. “You grab him by the forehead and then slowly slice across the neck.”
A teacher asked for volunteers and said, “Those who behead the infidels will receive gifts from God,” recalled Jomah, who didn’t want his full name revealed. The youngest boys shot up their hands and several were chosen to participate. Afterward, the teachers ordered the students to pass around the severed heads.
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“I’d become desensitized by that time,” said Jomah, who has since defected to Turkey with his family. “The beheading videos they’d shown us helped.”
The enrollment of hundreds of boys in such militant training camps is another tragic facet of Syria’s nearly four-year-long civil war—and its impact could trouble the Middle East for years to come. Parents worry their boys will be forever lost to the indoctrination of Islamic State.
The militant group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq, has remade the secular education system in territory under its control, leaving families to choose between a radical Islamist education or nothing.
Islamic State religious schools in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Deir Ezzour—where, for example, chemistry has been replaced by religious studies—have become a conduit for recruiting boys to the fighting ranks, five former child soldiers and several adult militants told The Wall Street Journal in Turkey, where they are refugees.
One of them, 17-year-old Ismail, said he was ordered this summer by his Islamic State superiors to help behead every male ages 14 to 45 from an enemy Syrian tribe in Deir Ezzour. The teenager said he balked, but his 10-year-old brother took on the job with zeal. Activists said hundreds were killed.
Ismail, who was wounded on the first day of battle, said he defected in August and fled to Turkey without alerting his brother. He worried that his brother—who joined Islamic State at age 9—would tell. Deserters are killed, Ismail said.
“You’re an apostate. If you don’t come back, we will punish you by God’s law,” the boy said when the brothers finally spoke by cellphone, recalled Ismail, who couldn’t persuade his younger brother to defect. Ismail said he felt guilty for having encouraged the boy to join the militants.
Jomah, who quit Islamic State after five months, said he had joined partly for the money and partly out of boredom. He said he had too much idle time after his school in Minbij, a small town in northern Syria’s Aleppo province, was shuttered.
‘I feel guilty…But in that period, I was only thinking of how to defeat the regime.’ —17-year-old Ismail
Most of the boys interviewed by the Journal said they suffered from nightmares of fighting on the front lines and a few suffered memory loss. They all recalled their first killing, but some became agitated when pressed for details. Their accounts are supported by videos released by Islamic State that show children holding severed heads or mocking people about to be executed.
Islamic State’s media arm in Deir Ezzour released a video this month showing a regime soldier under interrogation. It later shows his decapitated body hanging from a fence as eight young children play with the head and yell insults at the corpse. “This is an apostate, an infidel!” yelled one child, smiling. “God curse your father who gave birth to you, you dog,” another child said. “Bring us another one, a live one!”
In Syria, some desperate families send their sons to training camps in exchange for $150 a month, hoping to retrieve them once the fighting ends. Other children are influenced by town-square events where Islamic State militants give away juice and candy while showing propaganda videos that include killing. The public events substitute for entertainment in places under fundamentalist Islamic State rule, attracting many children whose secular schools have closed.
Human Rights Watch in a June report condemned both the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Islamic State for recruiting Syrian children under the “guise of education.” The practice echoes the schooling of Afghan children by the Mujahedeen and Taliban during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s, a campaign that molded many of today’s Taliban fighters.
For Ismail’s family, the motive to sign up their children for war was the defeat of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The more secular Free Syrian Army, or FSA, had swept their town of Deir Ezzour in 2011. Ismail, who was 14 years old at the time, and his younger brother, who was 7, both joined the FSA.
In early 2012, Nusra Front, a branch of al Qaeda, sank roots in town and the boys switched allegiance. By the summer of 2013, they had joined Islamic State. “I feel guilty,” Ismail said. “But in that period, I was only thinking of how to defeat the regime.” Ismail keeps a cellphone photo of his younger brother with an AK-47, wearing a camouflage uniform and a black balaclava with white Islamic script. The boy holds up a finger to proclaim his faith.
“Before the revolution, children of age 7 entered school, it was law,” Ismail said. “Now, it’s like a new law, that the children of 7 must fight.” When Ismail and his young brother joined Islamic State, they underwent a 45-day course in Shariah, or Islamic law, followed by 15 days of specialized military and explosives training in Deir Ezzour.
Their days started at about 4 a.m. with prayers, followed by three hours of Shariah study. Breakfast was at 7 a.m., and then an hour of sports, Ismail said. From 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., the boys underwent weapons training with guns and mortars.
The day ended with three hours of Shariah study until night prayers and bedtime at around 9 p.m.
After their 45-day training, an Islamic State emir, or prince, presided over a graduation ceremony, where the boys were divided up into groups for specialized training. For 15 days, they prepared for either joining the battlefield; guarding military installations; serving as bodyguards for prominent commanders; or becoming suicide bombers. “The stupid ones were always chosen for suicide bombers,” said one 14-year-old former soldier, also from Deir Ezzour and now in Turkey.
As Syrian schools fell under the control of Islamic State, radical Islamic preachers replaced certified teachers. History and philosophy were taken out of the curriculum. In Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa and Deir Ezzour provinces, schools are either seized or closed, depending on whether they have enough of their own teachers to staff classes. In Aleppo, Syria’s most populous province, the militants focused on taking over military installations, then schools, activists said.
The takeover of Syria’s secular schools began when Nusra, the al Qaeda-linked group, consolidated power in 2013 across pockets of Syria, according to teachers. Reem Sheikh, a 34-year-old Syrian school administrator now in Turkey, recalled hearing a commotion in June 2013 outside her former office in Deir Ezzour. Nusra militants had surrounded the building, holding guns and large plastic bags. The bags were filled with conservative, Islamic clothing for female students. The militants demanded that girls wear conservative dress and be taught separately from boys, Ms. Sheikh said. They were ordered to scrap secular subjects.
“I tried to convince them, tell them it’s necessary to teach science,” Ms. Sheikh said. For a time, Ms. Sheikh said, they got away with disobeying Nusra. That changed when Islamic State swept through the town a year later. In August 2014, Ms. Sheikh said her school was surrounded once more by militants. Teachers were marched to the nearby mosque. Women were segregated on the second floor from male teachers and the militants on the first. “Don’t open the schools this year and wait for our conditions,” she recalled one militant saying. The men berated educators for their liberal teachings. One science teacher who tried to argue was beaten and arrested, Ms. Sheikh said.
Deir Ezzour ’s schools remain closed. Children are allowed to attend mosques and learn from Islamic State-approved preachers. “They don’t intend to reopen the schools because they don’t want to deal with learned people,” Ms. Sheikh said. “Their ideology is all about submitting.” An Egyptian emir is the head of education for Islamic State in Deir Ezzour province. “When I spoke to him, he sounded young,” Ms. Sheikh said. “And his Arabic didn’t sound like he was educated.”
Islamic State has used children in other ways. In May, a convoy of school buses carrying some 250 Kurdish students through Aleppo was seized by Islamic State. The children were returning from government exams to their homes in Kobani. Militants released the girls but held more than 150 boys, ages 14 to 16. The children were used as bargaining chips for a prisoner exchange. Islamic State, which is battling the Kurds for control of Kobani, demanded the release of their imprisoned fighters in exchange for the Kurdish students.
Some of the young Kurds were beaten and tortured, said four boys who were held and released. The captives underwent Shariah training that was similar to the study described by Ismail and others. Murad, who didn’t want to give his full name, said he spent his first few days listening to the screams of others. The 15-year-old boy watched classmates emerge from the basement, a makeshift torture chamber. The students were released to their families in stages, with the last group held five months before returning home in late October.
Murad was released after about a month, but the fundamentalist influence of his captors lingered. He yelled at his mother for baring her arms at home and demanded she keep her face veiled. He commanded his father to abide by religious custom and pray five times a day. What scared his father most, he said, was hearing Murad sing Islamic State propaganda songs when he was alone. The captives had been forced to sing the songs after morning prayers. “All the time, he is singing that damn song,” said the boy’s father. “I want to have peace from that song.”
—Rashed Alsara, Mohammed Nour Alkara and Dana Ballout contributed to this article.
Write to Maria Abi-Habib at email@example.com
The Child Soldiers Who Escaped Islamic State – WSJ.