The cruel techniques used by ISIS to recruit children in Tabqa

As the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) finalise their liberation of Tabqa City and the adjacent dam, citizens are sharing stories of their experiences under ISIS’ brutal rule, highlighting life in a city that has been under the group’s rule for more than three years.

Accounts of ISIS’ punishments for minor infractions such as lashings and beatings are relatively well known. However, the liberation of the city where the the militants ruled for such a long time have also highlighted more details about the group’s education system.

SDF fighters clearing an ISIS school in Tabqa have come across items such as explosive chairs, military barriers and gun assemblies. The items, in conjunction with the accounts of children who were forced to attend these schools, paint a stark picture of how the militants sought to train and indoctrinate children into becoming “Cubs of the Caliphate”, ISIS’ division of child soldiers.

Children who attended these schools say that they were trained in an ISIS-approved religious curriculum, maintaining and firing guns, using explosive suicide belts, martial arts and other matters of warfare. Those who failed or tried to escape were punished severely with beatings and threatened with worse.

These accounts line up with what is known about the wider methods of the “Cubs of the Caliphate“. Since 2014, many children in ISIS-controlled areas were enticed to join the Cubs with promises of riches and “epic battles”. In other instances, particularly with Christian and Yazidi minorities, the group simply murdered the parents and abducted the children. In all instances, the children were rigorously trained in ISIS’ ideology as well as combat tactics, with specific emphasis placed on breaking their aversion to violence, culminating in the Cubs performing executions on prisoners and other atrocities. Accounts of crucifixion, beatings, starvation or breaking of limbs towards those who did not perform well were widely reported.

ISIS doctrine has always placed great importance on training children, believing them to be more easily impressionable and viewing them as future citizens of their Caliphate whereas adults were viewed with suspicion due to their lifelong exposure to what the group views as un-Islamic ideas.

Although the children interviewed in Tabqa seem to have recognised the group’s inhumane ways and refused to adhere to them, there are reports elsewhere that Cubs from minority backgrounds have rejected their families and their original backgrounds, firmly accepting the identities that ISIS forced upon them.

Preventing the continued survival of ISIS’ ideology and a relapse towards violence among these children will be vital in the post-war environment and will rely on effective de-programming and de-radicalisation initiatives. Although both Syria and Iraq are cash strapped and lack the infrastructure to implement expansive psychiatric programmes, they can learn from initiatives in countries with similar experiences such as Sierra Leone and Liberia.