The interview had gone on for nearly an hour when Taim, a slim, dark-eyed boy, started to fidget. The 8-year-old asked for paper and settled back in an oversized hotel chair to draw a memory.
His picture, in a child’s bold scrawl, was a scene from the small park near his house, a place where he used to play in the days before the bearded men with guns took over the city. A crowd in the park had gathered around two figures, and Taim remembered them vividly: A man with one eye, and a bald man who seemed upset about something.
“He was looking very angry,” Taim said, narrating his drawing of the bald man. “He is holding the other man and he is also holding something in his right hand.
“The other man has no eye – they had already taken his eye, you see?” he said, pointing to the second figure. “And then the other men stood behind him, and the head of the man with one eye just fell.”
The boy’s slender finger touched the page to show the severed head he had drawn.
“His head just fell,” Taim repeated.
The boy closed his eyes, as if to make the image go away.
“No,” he said finally. “I don’t want to remember it.”
During the two years since the founding of the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, an estimated 6 million people have lived under the rule of the Islamic State. At least a third of these – about 2 million souls – are under age 15.
These are, in a real sense, children of the caliphate. Collectively, say experts who have studied them, they are a profoundly traumatized population: impressionable young brains exposed to not only the ravages of war but also countless acts of unspeakable cruelty, from public floggings and amputations to executions – the crucifixions and beheadings that have contributed to the Islamic State’s global notoriety.
The Washington Post interviewed five boys whose families escaped from Islamic State territory, including Taim, a Syrian refugee interviewed near his temporary home in Europe. The location of the refugee facility is being withheld by The Post at the family’s request. The newspaper also reviewed videos, reports and transcripts containing the stories of dozens of other boys and girls whose experiences are broadly similar to those interviewed.
Some, such as Taim, also ended up in the terrorist group’s schools and training camps, where they were force-fed a diet of Islamic State ideology and gory videos. Isolated from their families, they were taught to shoot rifles and throw grenades, and also encouraged to volunteer as suicide bombers, a role extolled by their instructors as the highest calling for any pious Muslim youth. Several described being made to witness – and even participate in – the executions of prisoners.
Aid workers who interact regularly with such youths describe deep psychological wounds that may be among the Islamic State’s most enduring legacies, setting the stage for new cycles of violence and extremism many years after the caliphate itself is wiped away. But relief organizations are straining to offer even limited counseling to children in the region’s overflowing refugee camps, and officials said even fewer resources are available for those living in shattered Iraqi and Syrian towns that were recently liberated from terrorist rule.
“Everyone has been traumatized,” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, a charity that works with families fleeing the Islamic State. In counseling sessions set up by his organization in northern Iraq, he said, “you can watch how these kids try to begin working through this stuff,” sometimes with words but often in drawings that seem to conjure up the same recurring nightmare.
“We see kids drawing pictures of watching ISIS chopping off heads,” said Seiple, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “What do you do with that, besides weep?”
Taim was 6 when the militants with their black flags rolled into Raqqa, a city in north-central Syria. The streets of the Islamic State’s future capital had already witnessed sporadic battles between rival factions since the start of country’s civil war in late 2011. Now, with the terrorists in charge, the fighting would ease, but the bloodshed would grow steadily worse.
Taim, among the youths interviewed, was exposed to an unusually wide range of experiences during the nearly two years his family lived in the caliphate, from attending a school supervised by Islamic State instructors to undergoing military training in a camp intended to turn young boys into warriors and suicide bombers. In other respects, his story is strikingly similar to that of the four other boys, all of whom described harsh conditions and the brutal treatment of ordinary citizens, including family members. The Post agreed not to identify the boys, or photograph them, to protect their privacy and prevent possible retaliation by Islamic State supporters. Taim’s family name was withheld at his parents’ request.
Bright and alert with a shy smile, Taim turns wistful when asked about his memories of the early weeks after the jihadists took control. Before the Islamic State, daily life revolved around family, play time and his local school, which he adored. “I loved school,” he said with a grin, listing math, art and sports as favorite subjects. Initially, the town’s new occupiers closed his school, turning the building into a military base, Taim’s family members said. When students were finally allowed to return months later, the fighters were still there, a physical presence in the classroom. They gave out trinkets and prizes and personally oversaw the introduction of a new curriculum, developed and approved by the Islamic State.
“They would give us toys at the beginning,” he said, “but when the lessons began, they were very serious. They would mainly teach us about Islam.”
Taim remembered how his new teachers gave special emphasis to a particular story from the life of the prophet Muhammad. In it, Islam’s founder punishes a group of camel thieves by plucking out their eyes and chopping off their limbs. For Raqqa youths, the lesson about harsh justice appeared to serve as both a warning and a justification for the cruel punishments the militants were beginning to inflict on the city’s residents for violations ranging from suspecting spying to smoking cigarettes.
Over time, the Islamic State replaced traditional classroom textbooks with new ones, written and published by the terrorists themselves. Many of the books have been collected and studied over the past two years by Western analysts, who describe the group’s educational literature as thinly disguised propaganda.
For very young children, lessons on arithmetic and handwriting are illustrated with pictures of guns, grenades and tanks. For older pupils, books on science and history glorify martyrdom and portray the creation of the Islamic State as humanity’s crowning achievement.
Jacob Olidort, an expert on Islamic militant literature who has analyzed dozens of such texts, said the literature is a serious and systematic attempt at shaping young minds, with the aim of producing not just believers but fighters.
“What we learn is that education is not only part of their arsenal, but an entire theater of conflict,” said Olidort, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re trying to create a jihadi generation. It’s not just believing the right creed, but being able to fight. It’s about convincing young people that only their perspective on the world is right and everyone else’s is wrong.”
For Taim, some of the most memorable lessons were not contained in books. Often, he recalled, the Islamic State’s teachers admonished the children to act as informants, promptly reporting any behavior by their parents that violated religious laws or suggested opposition to the group’s rule.
One day, he said, the teachers marched the class into a nearby park and made the children stand around an open pit – a future grave, one of the instructors said, for any child who failed to speak up if his parents were resisting or hiding from the Islamic State.
“If we did not tell them,” he said, “they would throw us into the hole.”Even under the rule of terrorists, Taim’s parents sought to preserve a few fragments of a normal life for the young family. His mother donned the heavy abaya robe and double veil whenever she ventured outside to shop, and the family’s daily rhythm adjusted to accommodate the Islamic State’s strictures on participation in daily prayers.
But privately, the parents worried that life under the regime was profoundly affecting their oldest son. A walk to the nearby al-Rasheed Park – a favorite playground before the civil war – entailed a risk of encountering decapitated corpses, part of a garish display that followed the near-daily executions in Raqqa’s main square. The boy personally witnessed several beheadings, and years later he could describe vividly how the bearded executioner would hold the victim’s head with one hand while using the other to slice and hack.
“There was a lot of blood. A loooootttt of blood,” Taim said, drawing out the word.
But a bigger jolt came on the day that Taim burst into the house and began packing his belongings, announcing that he had been selected for a special training camp for boys. The parents had heard about the place, a kind of boot camp for preteens where children received intensive instruction in weaponry, combat skills and Islamic State ideology.
Taim insisted that “it was his will” to leave home to enroll in the camp, and he accused his parents of neglecting his religious education, his mother said. She knew the futility of opposing the Islamic State’s wish for her son, yet she tried to talk him out of going. Stay, she told her son, and the family would go to mosque more frequently.
“I said, ‘Come home and pray! You can pray at home!’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘May Allah deprive you, as you deprived me.”
The camp in which Taim eventually enrolled was one of dozens established throughout the caliphate to train boys as young as 6. Some are named after the organization’s leaders and heroes, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who founded the Iraqi terrorist group that would later call itself the Islamic State.
All are prominently featured in the jihadists’ online propaganda, which includes video footage of young boys in camouflage uniforms firing weapons, assisting in executions and training for suicide missions.
“The Islamic State seduces young boys into their training camps and puts so many resources into training them for absolute loyalty and obedience,” said Anne Speckhard, an expert in violent extremism and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. For the Islamic State, she said, the camps are most effective as a production line for suicide bombers, “because children are the easiest of any of their cadres to totally manipulate.”
Speckhard interviewed graduates of such camps as part of a project for the Washington-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, which collected the stories of Islamic State veterans in video archives and in a published volume called “ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.” In one of the videotaped interviews, a 15-year-old Syrian describes how boys at his camp would compete for a chance to become a “button” – a suicide bomber. “They teach him about the car, how it’s rigged up, and you go near it to see that you push the button and it will explode,” said Ibn Omar, who was 13 when he joined an Islamic State youth camp in Syria. “They tell them to blow themselves up among the unbelievers – the infidels. The guy who taught us religion taught this. He taught us, ‘When you get to that car and push the button you will go to Paradise.’ ”
Taim, just 6 at the time of his induction as a “cub of the caliphate,” was too young, even for such a simple-minded mission. For him, camp was a mix of fun activities – sports, contests and target practice – with a heavy dollop of religious indoctrination. Many of his school friends trained alongside him, together with foreigners: teens and boys from faraway places such as Egypt, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
“They said only special boys would get there: the best ones. And they would strengthen our belief,” he said. “They wanted to teach us more about religious rules, sports and how to become a mujahid,” or holy warrior.
Between lessons, he said, the instructors showed videos: hour after hour of violent images, all of them starring Daesh – a common Arabic acronym for the Islamic State – and all striking precisely the same theme.
“They would show how Daesh was fighting and beheading all those who were against the caliphate,” Taim said.
Back in Raqqa, the pressure to flee the caliphate grew stronger. The city’s new leaders began harassing Taim’s father, suspicious that he might have once fought for a rival militia group. The parents began to worry that Taim would be taken from them permanently.
The family gathered what money they had. One day, when Taim was home, they slipped out of Raqqa, paying bribes at checkpoints and border crossings and then joining the torrent of refugees heading from Turkey to Northern Europe. Eventually, they landed in a refugee camp, where they would begin to seek a new life for Taim far outside the reach of the Islamic State.
In the caliphate, the boundaries of the self-declared Islamic State are contracting against the steady advance of a U.S.-led military coalition, which has overrun key cities and killed many of the group’s most prominent leaders. Yet, the youth camps still remain – a testament to their enormous value at a time when the terrorist group is fighting for its survival. An Islamic State operative, who agreed to be interviewed by The Post over the Internet, described the camps and their young graduates as vital to the organization’s future.
“They are our fighters and leaders of tomorrow, and they will be strong and not fearing to die,” said the operative who would only speak on condition of anonymity. “In the future you will not only fear our men. You must fear our children, too.”
The Syrian boy who escaped the caliphate’s fearsome embrace appears for now to be adjusting. Taim beams when he talks about his new school, and his quick grasp of the local language betrays both an intelligence and a yearning for acceptance in his family’s adopted homeland. He is a charmer, playfully asking a visiting journalist about her age after she asks about his.
“Don’t worry, I know women like to make themselves younger than they seem,” he said. Giggling, he elaborated on the source of his knowledge: “This one guy from Daesh said I should learn this lesson about women so I won’t get in trouble with my future wife.”
Yet, even in peaceful, prosperous Northern Europe, the Islamic State at times seems terrifyingly close. Taim’s mother described occasional fits of hysteria in which the boy screams uncontrollably. He chatters at length about his experiences in the training camp, only to abruptly shut down. “I don’t like to remember what happened there,” he said.
Taim’s mother said that she is seeking counseling for her son while trying to keep his mind occupied on school and sports. But there are times, she said, when Taim is overcome with dread, convinced that the Islamic State will never relinquish its hold on him.
During such spells, the mother said, the 8-year-old becomes quietly forlorn, as though resigning himself to a dreary fate that he cannot escape.
“I belong to the Daesh people now,” he said.