It’s mid-May in Syria, and a 13-year-old boy has gone missing from his home in Raqqa. Disappearances aren’t rare in Syria’s civil war, but this boy is not an average Syrian: He lives in the de facto headquarters of the Islamic State group. His parents eventually find him in a militant-run training camp, and pay the “emir” a “sizable amount of money as a bribe” for his release. He then reveals that he joined the ISIS camp voluntarily when his friends from the mosque told him how much money he could make just by learning how to shoot, behead and crucify his enemies. He pledged allegiance to the militant group, and joined its youth training program.
That boy’s experience, told by Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a spokesman from Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, isn't unique. The Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) estimated in August that there were at least 800 children under the age of 18 who had been recruited to ISIS. That number is likely to be higher, as it is estimated that ISIS recruits between 200 and 300 children every month and has stepped up its junior jihadi training to cope with losses from recent clashes.
“It’s a case of desperation,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a professor at Israel's Hertzliya University and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. “It’s possible ISIS will say, ‘We’ll give you money if you let us raise your kids.’”
More than 30 “kids” have already been killed fighting with ISIS in the month-long battle against Kurdish forces in Kobani, according to al-Raqqawi, who spoke to International Business Times via Skype. Perhaps the most tragic part of the children's fate is that training camps are often the best option (in terms of food and shelter) for youth living under ISIS rule in poverty-stricken Raqqa.
In Raqqa, schoolkids can turn into future suicide bombers in as little as 45 days. Children end up in training camps through kidnappings, voluntary recruitment at ISIS-run schools, and sometimes after the militants have paid parents for their children, in a twisted jihadi version of adoption.
“Daash organization follows a policy of starvation in the city,” al-Raqqawi said, using an Arabic name for the group also known as ISIS. “Because of this, the needy people of the city send their children to camps for money.” He could not confirm how much ISIS pays per child.
In the training camps, ISIS provides children with clothing, housing and meals in exchange for their allegiance on the battlefield. Photos obtained by IBTimes show dozens of children, some not even tall enough to hold their Kalashnikov, dressed in militant clothing emblazoned with the ISIS logo. In one photo, a group of children barely old enough to be in kindergarten sits in two straight rows on the floor, eating with their commander.
ISIS seized the northern Syrian province of Raqqa in January and now “provides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic, and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques,” according to the Independent.
ISIS claimed that it opened several schools in the region, but those may be a way for the militant group to ensure a continued flow of recruits.
“ISIS plays with the minds of these kids and gives them private lessons in the ISIS law, and they then persuade the kids to [let ISIS] take them to the camps,” al-Raqqawi said.
There are at least five known ISIS youth training camps across Raqqa. When camp commanders, known as “emirs,” are not needed in battle elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, they lead child recruits through a preliminary 45-day “legitimacy training” followed by three months of intense “war courses,” al-Raqqawi said.
International Business Times obtained a new video Wednesday that purported to show children and adults undergoing military training at a camp in Raqqa. Recruits are made to crawl under barbed wire while a fire burns next to them and an ISIS commander points his weapon at their heads.
By the end of the program, militants hope to “brainwash the minors and promote extremism among the young generations in order to create an army of loyal followers that would subsequently be appointed as checkpoint guards, whose main objective is to prevent potential attacks conducted by anti-ISIS battalions,” al-Raqqawi said.
As ISIS attempts to expand its territory, it has become involved in several simultaneous clashes in Iraq and Syria, with high casualty rates demanding quick fighter replacements. Consequently, during times of heavy battles, youth recruits go through a fast-tracked, 45-day program. Many are then sent to the front lines, despite their young age.
Al-Raqqawi is not sure what happened to the missing Raqqa boy. Perhaps his parents saved him in time by paying ISIS a bribe. However, many of the other recently graduated youth recruits, like 18-year-old Basel Homira, who reportedly carried out a suicide attack in Kobani, paid for their allegiance to ISIS with their lives. The United Nations recently reported that nearly 9,000 children have died since the start of the Syrian civil war, and as ISIS sends increasingly younger recruits to battle, that number will rise.