1 Oct 2015

Syria: child soldiers of the caliphate

An exclusive film reveals how Isis in Syria and Iraq systematically recruits children as young as eight to become soldiers and suicide bombers, and exacts brutal punishment on those who defy them.

It’s the cruelty that haunts me, writes Evan Williams.

It’s the fact that grown men could disfigure a 14-year-old boy in the name of religion, and leave him in driving pain, poverty and despair for the rest of his life that I find the most upsetting.

Because he refused to join the Isis army, “Omar” was tied down and had his hand and foot hacked off, as a deliberate and clear warning to other children not to resist Isis, and to remind them that by age 16 they are all expected to join Isis; either as spies, fighters or suicide bombers.

Punishments like these have been carried out by the so-called Islamic State before of course, but evidence of the use and abuse of children as a systemic, widespread and integral part of the their military machine is new. And so is the extent of the brutality and violence to which children are subjected on a near daily basis.

Next generation

Isis is indoctrinating thousands of young children under its control and putting them through rigorous military and psychological training to become the next generation of Isis shock troops.

The testimonies gathered from young children – all of whom have witnessed at first hand different stages of this process – indicate a disturbing potential change in the future military map of the Middle East: thousands – potentially tens of thousands – of teenage boys are being enlisted, and sent out to fight.

And it’s not just boys. We also speak to ‘Emil’, until recently an Isis primary school teacher, who prepared girls as young as ten to seek death as their religious duty.

She describes how she and other teachers instructed the girls that they should rush to die for Isis, because they would all die as martyrs engaged in jihad if they did so, and go to straight to heaven as a result.

Children also describe how at school they are encouraged to become spies in their own households and told to inform on relatives and parents who do not support Isis.

Suicide missions

Perhaps most shockingly of all, we heard how children as young as eight have been used as suicide bombers for Isis – and how many more children between the ages of eight and twelve are rushing to volunteer for these missions after being subjected to relentless displays of Isis suicide mission videos.

The testimony of the children we filmed reveals an organized, structured military training process that aims to nurture what Isis deems a totally loyal, ideologically pure and unquestioning future cohort of warriors.

The potential long-term consequences for the region – and beyond – are clear.

Emil, the female primary school teacher, told us children are taught that their main target for now is the “infidel” government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But, she says, they have longer-term plans to attack the West when they can – a claim revealed in the virulently anti-American and anti-European propaganda films featuring child soldiers released by Isis themselves.

Of course, there are children that don’t believe the propaganda, or whose parents provide a vital counter-balance to Isis ideological indoctrination.

But as we saw in the punishment of 14 year-old “Omar”, the price for resisting can be far greater than most children and parents are prepared to bear, leaving many with little choice but to sign up as the future foot soldiers and suicide bombers of the so-called Islamic State.

Children of the Caliphate is an Evan Williams Productions Limited film for Channel 4 News
Researcher: Hannah Poulter
Field producer: Yilmaz Akinci
Shooting producer: Oliver Englehart
VT Editor: Steve Gibbs
Reported, produced and Directed by Evan Williams @evanwilliams_tv