Investigative Report by Muhammad Awad
Early in June, 2015, and inside the children recruitment center in the city of Mosul, some IS fighters blindfolded Mahmoud Ibrahim (15 years) and his companions, and then a medium-sized bus carried them and rushed to an unknown destination. During the journey that took over an hour, they were listening along the road to some IS fervent songs which herald triumph and paradise for the Islamic State’s sons. The bus came to a stop and one of the IS militant began to free the eyes of the young volunteers while greeting them saying, “Welcome Caliphate cadets”.
Mahmoud depicted the details of his young brother’s journey and the whereabouts of his training location. He confirms that it is ‘Abdullah Bin Omar Institute’ at Tel Afar Province and it looks much like military academies. It provides both theoretical religious lessons and practical training in fighting and use of weaponry. The camp includes volunteers from different nationalities, mostly Turkmen and it is well-known for its high commitment and laborious training within a framework of precise organization. Courses there last from one to two months.
Soon after arrival, Mahmoud and other arrivals filled in registration forms containing personal information, education level, sporting skills, and experience in use of arms. Having done that, mobiles were withdrawn from all volunteers and spotted military uniforms were distributed among them each according to his size.
Within the institute which occupies a new school building ” children are not called by their own names, but each and every one has a title related to his tribe or clan, or village or city or borough”. The prime language commonly used is Arabic, then Turkmen even in communicating with children of non-Arab nationalities. Everybody tries hard to use Arabic language even if broken in their dealings.
Military Training and Sharia Lessons
The day next to their arrival, Mahmoud and dozens of other lads began to get up early to perform Al Fajr (dawn) prayers, which is followed by a short break. Their schedule starts with a physical training session then breakfast, followed by exercises on fighting skills. At noon, cadets say their prayers together and then have a two-hour breather.
And in halls resembling the classrooms of public school, focus there is primarily made on Islamic law ‘Sharia’ lessons based on Salafi agnosticism doctrine, the most prominent of which is about Monotheism and Jihad jurisprudence, through publications especially prepared for ISIS camps by Research and Deliverance of Advisory Opinions ‘known as ‘Iftaa’ Corporation in the so-called Islamic State. Soon after the afternoon prayers training on light and medium-size weapons starts and after dinner more Islamic law lessons are given again.
During his stay, Mahmoud and his mates were obliged into memorizing at least one part of the holy Quran (20 pages) before the end of the course. Being intelligent, Mahmoud had no difficulty in doing so, and he could learn by heart an extra portion from the holy book during his spare time and before bedtime clock strikes ten, according to what is boastingly said by his brother.
And as the programme stages come to an end, volunteers are divided each according to his capabilities and skills into basic groups, namely; special forces, air defence, sniper battalion, and Caliphate army, whereas the physically weak lads are sent to something like a semi-reserve army, that can be used by the organization if necessary like what happens with regular reserve armies.
Mahmoud’s brother illustrates that the special forces perform specific tasks such as fighting in difficult places and under unfavorable circumstances. Children joining these forces undergo extra laborious training on rules of storming locations and engagement with the enemy. As for the caliphate army, it is ISIS regular power and it includes the battalion of suicidal bombers and other army ranks like infantry soldiers and armored corps.
Upon the completion of the training course period, children are allowed to go home and stay with their families for a whole week, after which they return to pledge the ‘death allegiance’. Having being obedient in doing so, they are distributed among the different battlefronts or sent to the state’s compartments and juridical corporations. There, they receive monthly salaries ranging between $ 50 and $120 plus an extra package of other privileges like obtaining war booties, oil products, in addition to being given priority in medical care for them and their families.
Having displayed an obvious physical skill, Mahmoud served in the ‘caliphate army’ and participated a score of times in attacks against Kurdish Beshmerga forces in Basheqa neighborhood, north of Ninnoy, but after he was seriously wounded in arm and right hand, he was transferred to the Islamic law court, where he could undertake administrative tasks and collect his salary.
In addition to that lad’s case, there are cases of cadets who had withdrawn after having pledged their allegiance to the organization. At the early stage of the organization’s domination over Mosul, IS seemed to be lenient towards such withdrawals, but after suffering heavy losses in lives, the organization imposed restrictions to make that issue more serious. So when Fatthi Al Hadiddi made up his mind to abandon them and went to return the pistol in his custody, his boss obliged him to return all the furniture he had previously obtained as war booty in addition to forcing him into working for a whole month in digging a trench near Talkif Province, north of Mosul.
Fatthi, 14 years, was graduated from ‘Al Ba’aag’ camps and met his end during a bombardment raid targeting digging machinery launched by the International Alliance in September 2015. His uncle comments on the circumstances under which he was killed by saying, ” The lad was gone as a result of a rash act when he chose to follow ISIS wave. He’s fatherless and his mother did her best to let him change his mind but in vain… We asked ISIS to give us any evidence proving his death, and we’re given only torn pieces of his shirt and some of the belongings that were with him.”.
Along with Abdullah Bin Omar Camp in Tel Afar, four other big training camps for children were monitored. Such camps did not settle in one place to avoid being targeted by the strikes of the alliance forces. They include Abe Messa’b Al Zarqawe Camp that was erected in September 2014 at the Ninnoy headquarters of the emergency police force in the forests area north of Mosul. And according to Abu Waleed, one of ISIS militant elements, the first batches of volunteers underwent their primary training there but the air raids launched by the International Alliance forced it to close in September 2015 and move elsewhere.
In the autumn of 2014, around 100 volunteers joined the camp of Sultan Abi Ahmad Al Gabbourri, which was the first camp to be opened in Al Shura neighborhood, south of Mosul. ” But in less than a week strong explosions were heard shaking houses, and columns of smoke were seen rising in the sky. The bombardment resulted in the killing of 70 people including children not exceeding 12 years of age.”, said Ali Salem Al Gabbourri, one of the inhabitants in that neighborhood, who adds saying, ” Since then physical training are organized in different places in the open air.”
To avoid bombardment, other training camps used not to settle in one fixed place, as in the case of ‘Kindy Camp’ in Al Hadbaa region, north of Mosul, which abandoned its headquarters in April 2015 in the wake of a violent air raid.
Meanwhile, other scattered locations were monitored by those who prepared this investigative report, who witnessed children being trained in the use of weaponry while wearing grey or black suits and black masks covering all their heads, the most prominent of which are the’ Ready- Made Clothing Workshop’ in Al Mansour region, south of the city, and ‘Al Imam Al Aadham’ College in the agricultural neighborhood, north of the city.
Some organization sources confirm that such camps have received roughly 4500 volunteering children in only 18 months, since the organization took control of Ninnoy and other large areas west of Iraq. There, children undergo practical training on the use of arms and take lessons based on the most extremist Salafi ideology, capable of turning children into professional killers, such as the lad who was seen shooting fire at the head of a youth named ‘Hakem Soaan Al Shammari’, who was killed after being charged with providing the International Alliance with information about the organization’s main locations and movements, according to a video tape circulated by the organization in early August, 2015.
The child executioner of capital punishment received training at ‘Al Ba’ag’ camp which moves its location within the same province from time to time, and which is concerned with the preparation of ‘caliphate cadets’.
The State’s Eyes
The training camps are not confined to graduating fighters, but many of those young children are trained to take intelligence tasks for the advantage of ISIS and are called ‘eyes’. This is confirmed by a former professor in Mosul University, whose brother was detained by the organization being charged with blasphemy. Two weeks later, his family found his corpse in the morgue fridges.
That university professor says that the family had recognized the identity of the informant, a 15-year old child, but they cannot hold him accountable for it. “Everything is postponed until Mosul is liberated”, he says.
‘Abu Obayda’ Mosque preacher adds to what the university professor told us by saying that dozens of victims were punished by the death penalty as a result of information given by children sources. “We count our words well before uttering them, since the children we teach are keeping close eyes on us.”, he said.
One of the prominent eyes in ‘Al Ressala’ neighborhood, south of Mosul, is a lad named Thamer, alias ‘Abu Sakhr’, who spends his daytime wandering in the city markets watching with his well-trained eyes the faces of the passers-by and overhears very attentively the dialogues running among them while their being in the roads or within commercial stores, or in cafes or mosques.
Abu Sakr, who has not yet completed 15 years of age, was recruited by the organization with three other lads from the very same alley in the summer of 2015. He is boasting about being known as an IS spying eye in the neighborhood. What is worse is that his widow mother and two sisters never feel any embarrassment about it, simply because the family believes in the so-called Islamic State for which his father had been killed by an artillery shell in Sinjar, west of Ninnoy, on the 10th of November,2014.
That lad won the admiration of his Tunisian trainer ‘Hajj Abu Zarr’, during the three months he had spent in training at ‘Al Ghazlany Camp’, east of Mosul. That was because of his memorizing and intellectual aptitudes which apparently made him the best among the 183 children undergoing training with him at the camp. That is why he was chosen to serve in the security apparatus be entrusted with intelligence tasks, that are done by weaponless soft-shaven children appearing in plain clothes. Other children joined the ‘Accountability Apparatus’ known as ‘Hesba’ that is entrusted with the application of the Islamic State’s commands.
Shift to Suicide bombers
“He wanted ‘Jihad’ but his mother prevented him. He sneaked out of the house at night to join the Caliphate army and today he’s on the frontlines fighting infidels.”
This is a tweet posted by a twitter account propagating for the Islamic State through telling the story of a 15-year old lad. That is the very same way Hajj Ahmad family lost their dear son, 16 years, in August 2015.They knew later on that he joined a religious course, and then moved to a training camp, all because his father scolded him for a private family problem.
Through two-day search efforts and with the help of some relatives and neighbors, the lad was found in the camp of ‘Abu Mosa’ab Al Zarqawe’, in the forests area, north of the city. And when the family managed to restore him through the influence of one of the organization elements, all family members agreed upon themselves to be careful while treating him in an attempt to persuade him not to go back to training again.
” I took much care of my bro and began to give him a monthly payment amounting to 50,000 Iraqi dinars. And to get better reassured I suggested the idea of his marriage and he was not only enthusiastic about it, but it turned out to be all his business.”, his elder brother Hussein says.
There are several stories documented by the investigative reporter about children joining the IS cadets’ training camps in Mosul, where folks used to repeat saying, “If you lose your son for more than a couple of hours, search for him in the nearest camp.”
Any lateness or delay in reaching children joining such camps makes it rather difficult to restore them, and consequently they are left to their fatal destiny: either being turned into the organization’s watching eyes within cities or shifted into suicide bombers on the battlefronts. This actually worries Mosul households, in view of the fact that most of the suicidal operations are regretfully perpetrated by adolescents.
” The Islamic State depends most often on cub children and youth in suicidal operations. since on one hand they lack fighting skills, and on the other they are more enthusiastic and better responsive; and if the operations are to be carried out within the enemy cities their infiltration is quite easier.”, says Abu Omar, a food stuff trader in good relations with the organization’s Emirs in Tel Afar.
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 monitored in a documented report covering the first half of 2015, 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, Saladin Governorate.
A new generation of extremists
” Their recruitment is not only concerned with compensating IS’s losses in lives on several battlefronts. That’s not exactly the case, simply because their announced plan is to create a new generation of extremists capable of carrying out the banner of the so-called caliphate state in the future” Khaled Habib, a journalist who covers the activities of the Jihad movements since 2004, says.
The Mosul journalist has a video clip showing the youth preacher of ‘Al Ghufran Mosque’ at midtown, while suddenly raising his voice, to the wonder of the worshippers crowded for the Friday prayers, saying,” Even if we lose here or there, we do still remain.”. Then he raises his right hand fist high, seemingly to point at one of the sitting children, who was not appearing on the record, and said, ” We’ll remain. The caliphate cadets will grow up and raise the banner of Islam high”.
The features of this new generation can be easily identified in the curriculums prepared by the ‘Education Bureau’ in October 2015.One of the school text books, for example, is entitled ‘Jihad Education’. It uses illustrative drawings showing boys dressed in ISIS attire and women wearing Niqab, besides displaying different weapons including pistols and machine guns and the same. And in the Mathematics book taught to the first grade primary students, there are many mathematical problems about the number of the Islamic state’s soldiers and its affiliating states, whereas the plus sign ‘+’ is cancelled altogether being replaced by the Arabic letter ‘و ‘ simply because it resembles the Christian cross.
Habib, however, assures that his town folks are resisting ISIS desire to brainwash their children, since dozens of mosques seemed reluctant to organize summer courses for children in 2015, giving different justifications, like power failures or lack of gasoline, whereas some teachers gave health problems.
And several primary schools closed doors after families stopped to send their kids to avoid the risks they might be exposed ‘to challenge the organization’s will’, according to Laila Al Shayeb, a blogger in Mosul writing under an alias. Meanwhile, secondary schools, where students’ ages range between 13 and 18, are integrated together, combining two or three in a single one, whereas study there is for two or three days every week at best.
Hamid Khdr stopped sending his kid to school in spite of his being a distinguished student, after he got to know about the visits paid by the ‘state’s’ delegations to classrooms to win more supportive followers.
“A delegation from ‘Missionary and Mosques Bureau’ entered my son’s classroom and after directing some questions to the teacher, they called the students to pledge allegiance to the caliph”, Khdr says.
” The children kept silent for a while, and then repeated the text of allegation in a stammering low voice… The delegation asked them to repeat what they said and the result was not different. The delegation put the blame on the teacher and they asked the boys to repeat the very same pledge in a much louder voice, but when they got no response from them, they left the classroom gnashing their teeth,” Khdr says.
” Since that day I prevented my son from going to school and he dropped out a year and it seems that he’s going to lose more years. But this is better than his being a cadet with Baghdadi.”, the man says.
Mothny Salman, a civilian activist, sees that the organization’s enlistment of children caused ‘ a double cultural and security problem’ that will be rather difficult to solve even years after the liberation of Ninnoy. Those who have been brainwashed by ISIS will pose a dangerous threat in the future. They form a fertile soil for instigating violence at the earliest opportunity available for them.”
Shaker Murad, a lawyer from Mosul, is of the same opinion, but he refers to another problem related to the legal proceedings followed in dealing with adults above 18 years of age. “They might be sentenced to death in compliance with Iraq’s criminal law, but the situation is different as regards those under 18, since the juvenile court judgments in their cases will be imprisonment for less than five years or jail for a longer period.”, he said.
” There is a great fear that a large number of the children implicated in committing first degree murder crimes will escape punishment. Some see that there is no hope in reintegrating them into the society and consequently they must be amputated by taking their lives or sending them to jail. However, those who will finish their prison terms, will come out more extremist in the absence of any rehabilitation there. This poses a big problem, which the Iraqi legalist remains silent about it.”, he says.
Dleer Ahmad, lawyer and activist says that everybody is talking about liberating Mosul militarily as if it will bring salvation to the city, but the problem is more serious than forcing the elements of the Islamic State out of the country and restoring Iraq’s law in public schools and government establishments.
“The organization enflamed a war among the different components of the society and perpetrated blood crimes in an unprecedented way, unknown even to the most extremist Islamic groups. They used such practices as a weapon of intimidation, expansion and continuation, while implicating tens of thousands of cooperators, including thousands of children.”, he says.
He warns saying, ” We have to expect hundreds of bloody revenge operations in the absence of the state’s strong establishments, and with weapons found almost everywhere. We don’t have to deceive ourselves. We won’t be able to achieve genuine stability after liberation unless it’s accompanied by well-integrated programs to be in a favorable condition to confront the cancerous complications deeply implanted by the organization everywhere even in the children’s brains.”
This investigation is achieved by NIRIG For Investigative Journalism under the supervision of Kammy Melhem.