How is ISIS recruiting the next generation of fighters?

PBS Newshour/July 19, 2015

HARI SREENIVASAN:  While the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, captures cities in Syria and Iraq and carries out suicide bombings, it is also building a new generation of jihadist fighters.

In a story published today, Associated Press reporter Zeina Karam describes how ISIS is indoctrinating young boys in schools and mosques and training them with weapons.

She joins me now from Beirut via Skype.

So, tell me, that — your report, one of the most disturbing facts is that little kids are beheading dolls for practice.  What’s happening there?

ZEINA KARAM: That’s right.

As we were reporting this story, we heard really horrific stories from people who fled the ISIS areas and residents who still live in them.  And one of them was a 14-year-old teenager, who told us about his time in a training camp in Raqqa in Northern Syria.

The boy is a member of Iraq’s Yazidi religious community. He was picked up along with his family and hundreds of others from his faith when ISIS overran parts of Northern Iraq last summer.  And he ended up in this training camp in Raqqa and spent the next five months learning how to use weapons, training on explosives.

They changed his faith to Sunni Muslim.  He was forced to memorize the Qur’an. And most disturbingly of all, he was — among other kids, he was forced to watch beheading videos. And he told us about how — how the kids were handed swords and guns and asked to chop off the head of the dolls as practice on beheadings.

And he told us, you know, that, at first, he couldn’t do it. And then the Islamic State militants told them how to hold the swords and how to do it right. And they told them, this — these are the heads of the infidels.

So — but that’s what kids are subjected to in Islamic State group training camps across Syria and Iraq.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, why is ISIS targeting children? I mean, do they feel that the parents are almost a lost cause, it’s harder to convert them or to get them to believe, but a kid, you can almost train and mold?

ZEINA KARAM: Well, yes.

Quite simply, the Islamic State group is trying to build a new generation of militants. They are trying to mold a new generation of loyalists. And the group has so many enemies, and they know that they are not popular, you know, particularly in Syria. And most of the places that they control, they know they are not popular.  They know that people — most — or many people actually hate them.

And so, you know, one resident of Raqqa told us that they concentrate on the children because they believe that the adults are a long — a lost cause. And so they focus on training and brainwashing kids, almost to the point of obsession.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how many children are we talking about? Or how do you estimate that? Or how are also — how are they ingratiating themselves or winning the favor of these kids?

ZEINA KARAM: They use lots of ways.  Any way at their disposal, they will use.

They try — it starts on the streets.  They try to entice children off the streets and mosques. They use cash, gifts, intimidation. They give children toys on the streets. They have special events for children to try to entice them.

And bit by bit, they subject them to their propaganda, and they turn them — eventually, they turn them against their parents.  We talked to one resident of Raqqa who told us about this teenager who left home because they turned him against — against his parents. He accused his parents of being nonbelievers and bad Muslims because they didn’t pray. And, eventually, he joined ISIS and disappeared.

So that’s — that’s what they do.  And, unfortunately, parents are unable to do anything about this sad reality. Short of locking their children at home, there’s nothing they can do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also point out that this is happening in some refugee camps.

ZEINA KARAM: That’s right.

I was — I was in Turkey as part of my work on this story, and we were told by many people there, people who — former residents of refugee camps, that the Islamic State group uses the camps to try and find new recruits as well under — sometimes, it’s done under the guise of — of humanitarian work.

They go in, and they start talking to people.  You know, they find — maybe, sometimes, it’s orphans.  Sometimes, it’s children who are in desperate need of money.  And, sometimes, they give them cash, and they try to — to gain their sympathy that way.  And that’s — that’s how it starts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Zeina Karam of the Associated Press, joining us via Skype from Beirut, thanks so much.

ZEINA KARAM: Thank you.

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