“Caliphate Cadets”: eyes within towns, suicide bombers on battlefronts, nucleus of a new generation of extremists recruited by IS
Investigative report by Mohammed Awad
A white car raising the banner of the so-called “Islamic State” entered the popular district of ‘Al-Mattahen’, west of Mosul city, and then stopped amidst a narrow thickly-populated lane, where three militants got off, made their way to Falah Obeid’s house and knocked on the door. One of them was a big bearded man. He said to the householder while tapping his shoulder with his right hand, ” Congratulations Sheikh; your son raised your head high. He martyred bravely and fearlessly and will without fail give you preemption on Doomsday “.
A moment’s stunned silence overshadowed the place where crowds of the lane’s folks were seen looking at each others’ staggered faces. The bereaved father got into the hall of his house where moments later mother’s and brothers’ loud shrieks were heard from inside. This is the way the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant “ISIS” broke the news of the killing of Salem Falah Obeid in mid September 2015, according to Abdul Allah, a neighbor of Salem’s family.
The 16-year old Salem had not yet finished his elementary study. He is the fifth son of a family immigrating from Sinjar Constituency to a poor district in Mosul in 2009 in the wake of a wave of drought that struck their agricultural crops then. Prior to ISIS’s domination of Ninnoy Governorate, Salem was working in a small plastic-making workshop owned by one his father’s acquaintances, who describes him as a “decent helpful shame-faced lad with a low voice”, but his behaviour and appearance dramatically changed when his beard began to grow.
“Late in 2014, Salem quitted his work in the plastic workshop and began to wear long hair and be dressed in the familiar Afghan attire. He then started to be in charge of some tasks in the city, within the ranks of the so-called “Islamic Police”. But he was used to drop in at times only to say hello, nothing more”, said his ex-employer.
In the consolation ceremony held for Salem in the district, the lad’s picture and his recent talks about “Jihad and martyrdom” were all what was left in the memory of his family, relatives and friends. His corpse was torn off into stumps after he had carried out a suicidal operation using a car bomb nearby Baiji Refinery in Saladin Governorate.
His neighbor who came to pay respect in the consolation ceremony says that he saw Salem distributing sweets in the district two weeks prior to his killing feeling happy to finally see his name among the suicidal bombers’ lot. “We thought he was only boasting about it and couldn’t in any way believe that he would actually carry out a suicidal attack.”
That lad was one of thousands used by Islamic State Organization as fuel in their own inventive war tactics since they took the reins in Ninnoy Governorate and its center city Mosul in June 2014 and eradicated the border lines with neighboring Syria.
In the battles waged in Baiji, Tikrit, Ninnoy Valley, and edges of Karkuk, as well as in Ramaddi and Al Anbar Governorate’s boroughs and lately in Faluja, the IS manipulated hundreds of suicide bombers, to effectuate penetrations within the ranks of Beshmerga, Iraqi army, and the militias of “Alhashd Al-Shabbi”.
From leader’s cub militants to caliphate’s cadets
According to some local officials in Ninnoy, the number of males under 18 in the governorate is estimated at 750,000. In their preparations for invasion, the militant groups recruited dozens from them to have them trained to carry out assassination operations using muffled pistols and adhesive explosive canisters targeting senior local and government officials. “They took good advantage of the young’s unnoticed easy agility that cannot draw any attention”, said former operations leader Major Mahdi Subbeih Al- Gharawi during his testimony before the parliamentarian ad hoc commission concerned with investigating the causes behind the downfall of Mosul.
Only a few days after the declaration of the “Caliphate State”, the idea of getting such lads involved in a specific organization of their own arose, and included the sons of those coming from Central Asian countries, Europe and Northwest Africa. A leaked document entitled “Principles for the administration of the Islamic State” states that it is significant during the early days of the invasion to observe the “educational and social change that took place after the invasion”. Abu Abdullah Al Massri, the document writer, attaches great importance to “Settling the new immigrants and their families in the Islamic State” and erecting camps to amalgamate sons of immigrants and non-Muslims together and make Arabic the dominant language there.
In this way, and within weeks, the project of the “Caliphate Cadets” was born targeting each and every male child without defining any age limit for their recruitment. In its exaggeration to propagate for massing recruits, the organization went as far as publishing pictures of a sucker baby lying near a black banner and surrounded by machine guns.
“Advertising for the opening of camps for training children in Ninnoy began in September 2014, and since then the number of children sent to the Syrian side diminished and focused solely on particular cases. ” said Ahmad Al Gabbourri, a former teacher at “Fatthy Al- Ali Mosque” west of Mosul, who added saying, ” We received in the same month directions from ‘Diwan of Mosques and Al Da’wa (Islamic Missionary Work), to publicize the name ‘ The Caliphate Cadets’ in the course of our speeches and sermons.
It is actually rather hard to detect an equivalent to the name ‘cadets or rather cub militants’ in Iraq’s vocabulary history of ‘Jihad Groups’. The only faction including young recruits who was declared by Al-Qaeda cells ten years earlier was in Dialli under the name “Paradise Birds”. However, we can go back to the 90s of the last century when Saddam Hussein’s regime got schools’ students involved within formations so-called then as Saddam’s Fedayeen, i.e. commandos. The difference is that they were only utilized for warfare propaganda, as no sources ever referred to their actual participation in any battles, unlike what is happening now.
Lessons on suspected agnosticism
Al-Gabbourri reveals that the very early steps of the ‘Caliphate Cadets’ project started by taking hold of the existing religious centers. The organization launched a wide ranging detention campaigns capable of reaching hundreds of religious preachers and Imams, particularly those who were close to the Islamic Party (a part of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement) and consequently dominated most of the senior positions including the religious sessions targeting boys.
The man who spoke through the Viper service hinted on the seriousness of what happened. Ninnoy comes first in the number of the mosques in Iraq, as many as 2217 in official registers. Hence he wonders, “What information or education ministries will be more influential than taking full control of 2000 grand and small mosques.”
Al-Gabbourri had actually studied religious subjects for long eight years before he became a teacher and after he was assigned to teach as many as thirty children a book entitled ‘ The Seven Contradictions of Islam’ by Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahab, he made up his mind to stay at home and give up teaching altogether. Justifying his seclusion, he said, “The syllabi of the present courses claim non-belief in Allah on mere groundless suspicions … They declare Muslim commoners as disbelievers in Allah.”
As an instance of the effect of such new religious courses, Al-Gabbourri said that 15 out of 140 lads who participated in the sessions held at Fatthi Al Ali Mosque last summer, had been transferred to train on the use of arms in military camps and then pledged their allegiance to ISIS before they could join their fighting ranks.
He assures that the eventual aim is not to recruit children, but to create ‘ an entire ISIS community ‘ and he elaborates saying, “They use children in warfare operations and in applying Islamic castigations, and in return they offer them salaries and booties so as to make their families closely related to the organization and its practices. They share in benefits and blood.”.
Road to Mosque
It is easy to notice the reference to the ‘ISIS community’ in some parts of Mosul city, particularly during daily praying times, when dozens of children can be seen dressed in Afghani attire accompanied by their parents. They seem at first sight as miniature caricature copies of senior ISIS fighters. But those who watched them carrying out death judgments in public in ‘Bab Al Toub’ region in midtown can easily realize that childhood has already been snatched from them and they are now well prepared to do anything.
Underprivileged and medium- income people inhabit a district called Al Zangeeli, which is one of the poor densely populated areas west of the city, where cement houses are seen closely adjacent to each other. There, the investigator got acquainted in August 2015 with 23 children who had pledged their allegiance to ISIS after being graduated from military and Islamic law ‘Sharia’ courses, including 9 children who were used to share in the football competitions organized for popular teams, amongst whom was a 13-year old boy named Sameer Hamady.
The road taking Sameer to the football field was the same road that leads him to Al Huda Mosque in Zangeeli region. So it was easy for him to be trapped in ISIS network. Interestingly, Sameer has been in the habit of accompanying his father to Friday Prayer since he was seven.
In fact, Sameer represents a part of the contradiction the city is witnessing. Al Qaeda Organization, which later on turned itself into Islamic State, killed his father roughly three years ago, being accused of propagating for the local elections. In spite of this, he joined the so-called ‘Caliphate Cadets’, being influenced by his football team members and mosque mates; the time he spent with them was much more than the time he spent at home.
One of the teachers in the sessions organized by Al Huda Mosque, where Sameer had been participating for three running seasons prior to ISIS’s domination of the city of Mosul, said ” The ISIS allegiance parades caught the attention of fervent adolescents… When I tried to take advantage of my cordial relations with the child’s family and persuade him to abandon his allegiance to ISIS, he answered me smilingly: Sir, we must all go to the button, because Almighty God will be waiting for us. He meant the button pressed by the suicide bomber to detonate a car or an explosive belt.”
Saber, who has not yet completed 14 years of age, was also one of Zangeeli’s football team. He was used to spend most of his time outdoors playing with his companions, especially after he had given up study like thousands of drop-outs. One morning, four months ago, he went out and never came back home. His father said, ” We looked for him in hospitals, morgues, and the nearby Islamic police stations and elsewhere with no avail. I spent a white night and next day we were informed that he joined the training camp located in a desert area in Bahaj Province.”
The father added, ” I made my way to the camp in the company of one of my relations who knew an official in the camp. We managed to meet the leader and I asked to have my son back. The man left us and was back after an hour accompanying Saleh with him. When he saw me a wide smile filled his exhausted face”.
Before his father’s arrival, Saleh had not yet pledged allegiance to the organization. His relative said, “We’re lucky to arrive before it’s too late, otherwise it would have been difficult to have him back”.
Cadet Mujahideen Batches
In spite of the young age of both Sameer and Saleh, they do not really belong to the first generation of the cadets’ project. Several witnesses refer that the very early batches were picked up from jails or from amongst the sons of the fighters who had already participated in storming the city of Mosul.
Concerning Ninnoy Governorate, until June 2014, there were 500 inmates and suspended prisoners, all under legal age, 65% of whom were indicted for terrorism. “A large percentage of them were actually innocent detainees arrested by security authorities either for sectarian reasons or for blackmailing their families.” said Younis Al Gabourri, a major police officer, who added saying, “Juveniles were not isolated from other inmates and so it was easy to recruit them”.
Abu Obayda, the preacher of a mosque east of Mosul, pledged allegiance to ISIS to save his skin. He also confirms that the first batch of volunteers under 15 years of age was prisoners or related to former fighters. That batch advanced to the Syrian city in early July 2014, since there had not been yet any training camps within Ninnoy.
Hattem, who ages 15 years now, was one of them. He has three brothers who were prior to the invasion period notorious for their smuggling activities across Iraq’s borders with Syria. Hattem spent three weeks in Syria and was back home but in a new profile, following the footsteps of ISIS militants in the way they dress and speak.
” After graduating from the training courses, that lad began to behave just like an adult man, sharing in funerals and condolence ceremonies and talking to men as old as his father and advising them to be pious and follow heavenly guidelines.”, said Abu Obayda who added saying, ” Though Hattem had not shared in any battles, yet he’s seen driving a 4-wheel car and escorting ISIS delegations during their visits to schools where they urge students to pledge allegiance through quoting religious texts fluently.”.
Recruitment Parades’ Heroes
A number of auxiliary steps have been created by the ‘Mosques and Missionary Bureau’ to attract juveniles and recruit them within their ranks, including the so-called ‘ Missionary Caravans’, i.e. passenger trucks carrying propaganda stickers cruising public places like parks and markets, while making shows performed by heroes not exceeding 15 years of age in the open air. As soon as children crowd to watch them, they start delivering their enthusiastic speeches.
In Mosul funfair city, the biggest theme park for children in Ninnoy, which is situated in the forests area, the Missionary Bureau is regularly organizing such caravans, particularly during holidays and feasts, where heavily armed children appear propagating the ideology of allegiance and Jihad.
A child surrounded by dozen others was shouting through loudspeakers saying, “Listen to me, I’m just giving you advice to fight for the holy cause of Islam and pledge allegiance to the Caliph”. He is then followed by another lad trying to mimic Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi even in the way he wears his watch in his right hand while singing national fervent songs. As for the children who were hurrying joyfully after their truck, they were looking at him with admiration.
Amen Murad, an employee in the park, says that the organization’s members use loudspeakers in calling kids to stop playing and come to watch their shows. They take advantage of attractive strongly-built children with loud voices and long hair to attract as many watchers as possible. Murrad adds saying, “Sweets are distributed among children and a contest is organized including questions on religious matters and winners are given material gifts such as toys, clothing, booklets and others.”
Obayda, 18 years, is one of the show heroes, whom the writer of this investigative report got acquainted with through one of his relatives. He is the son of one of ISIS late leaders called Abu Assad Al Iraqi, who was killed during an air raid carried out by the International Alliance in May 2015. A relative to Obayda said that the lad had been trained by ISIS information bureau in delivering
fervent speeches and doing some physical movements like stretching hand and index finger as well as communications skills with the public.
Propaganda centers in alleys
In line with the missionary caravans, information centers made their appearance in August 2014, including 4 fixed points distributed among the thickly-populated areas used frequently by pedestrians. Such points focused primarily on transmitting film materials, spreading propaganda, announcing news in addition to distributing films and publications such as ‘Al Maysara electronic magazine’ released by ISIS information bureau.
A year and a half later, the number of information centers multiplied to over 70, almost half of which were established at the inlets of large popular districts where rooms made of tin were set up with large screens fixed on the outside walls. A laptop connected with loudspeakers was also installed to be ready for transmitting news and films from time to time.
One of these information points is in Cairo district, east of Mosul. Mohammed Ibrahim (15 years) and his friends were used to spend their time there watching what is being screened. The atmosphere there is favorable with plenty of seats and if anyone of the watchers happens to hide his face on watching necks being cut off, others mock laughingly at him and call him a coward chicken.
Information points provide the syllabi offered by training camps, such as the syllabus of ‘Jihad and Monotheism Jurisprudence’. They inform anyone wishing to volunteer where and how to register. Lad Mahmoud made his way to ‘Awabeen Mosque’ at Tamouz District after Friday prayers and after having his name registered, he was given a date to join the training camp.
4500 cadet Mujahideen
In the course of two years of their control over the city of Mosul, the Islamic State apparatuses managed to recruit hundreds of children, whether as fighters on the frontlines or as suicide bombers on demand, or for giving them support within the city, being easily convinced to be at their entire command.
In the course of interviews conducted with some of the organization sources, the majority of whom are mosque preachers, who had pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al Baghdaddi, they confirmed the arrangement of five entire courses in many camps located in different places from September 2014 to the end of 2015. Course finishers are estimated at 4500 male children in the provinces of Ninnoy and Al Jazeera (west, north east and south of Mosul), and in Degla Province (Saladin Governorate and part of Ninnoy), and Euphrates Province (Al Anbar Governorate). Ninnoy’s share is estimated at more than 2000 children.
And according to Laila Zerouqi, the UN representative concerned with children and military conflicts, over 700 children were killed or had permanent deformities in many parts of Iraq during 2014 as a result of using some of them in suicidal attacks.
Whereas Iraq’s Human Rights Observatory report covering the first half of 2015 documented as many as 40 cases of suicidal operations carried out by children in the course of the battles fought in the regions located between Baiji Province and Tikrit City in Saladin Governorate.
A civilian activist named Jameel Isa, who monitored several cases of recruiting children in Ninnoy, sees that the organization resorted to all means in their enlistment of children. “They were taken to camps and had been subjugated to military training and ideological brainwashing with the objective of using them either as spying eyes to monitor their neighborhoods, or turn them into suicide bombers, or use them in their propaganda campaigns, or prepare them as the nucleus of a new generation believing in Salafi Jihadism”, he said.
Isa warns against the hazards posed by the organization’s cadets in the future. ” The issue is not only merely confined to a few hundreds of suicide bombers distributed among battle fronts or sent to public markets to explode themselves, but it is actually more complicated. Some of them were recruited to work in accountability apparatus, and others were assigned to secret superintendence tasks. Such children actually represent a time bomb ready to explode anywhere and at anytime after they have been saturated with Jihad agnosticism ideology and as the case may be they can be the fuel of any extremist groups that might arise in the future.”, he said.
Isa says that a large percentage of ISIS cadets are from those who had already lost their fathers and brothers during their fighting with the organization. “It is rather difficult to have them rehabilitated in the absence of a strong state and well-studied plans that would be indispensable in dealing with their complexes after forcing IS out of the country, owing to the sectarian and political conflicts overshadowing the features of liberation plans.” he said.
This investigation is accomplished with the support of NIRIJ Investigative Journalism under the supervision of Kami Mulhem .