Paris-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 oversize 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 ISIS. At least a third of them — about 2 million souls — are younger than 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 not only to the ravages of war but also to countless acts of unspeakable cruelty, from public floggings and amputations to executions — the crucifixions and beheadings that have contributed to the terrorist organization’s global notoriety.
The Washington Post interviewed five boys whose families escaped from ISIS 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 ISIS ideology and gory videos. Isolated from their families, they were taught to shoot rifles and throw grenades, and were 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 ISIS’ 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 ISIS. 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. “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 ISIS’ 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 ISIS 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 ISIS 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 ISIS, 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 militants 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 ISIS.
“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.”
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, ISIS 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 ISIS as humanity’s crowning achievement.
Jacob Olidort, an expert on extremist 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 militants.
“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, ISIS’ 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 ISIS.
“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 terrorist group’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 grisly 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 ISIS 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 ISIS’ 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 ISIS.
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.
“ISIS 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 ISIS, 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.”