ISIS's Indoctrinated Kids: A Future of Violent Jihad?

Inside efforts to rehabilitate children exposed to the militant group's extreme ideology of violence against non-believers.

Swiftly and methodically, ISIS forced its curriculum on schools and lured children to its training camps with gifts and propaganda videos.

The blue-eyed boy with the chubby cheeks still talks about the after-school movies he used to love so much. This was three years ago, when he was just 9 and living on the outskirts of Raqqa, in northern Syria. Sometimes, his father would take him and his little brother to an outdoor makeshift theater downtown, or he’d go with his teacher and classmates. They’d sit on plastic chairs and munch on cookies in front of a big-screen TV shielded from the sun by an umbrella. The films varied, but the plot was always the same: Black-clad members of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) “liberated” cities from kuffar, or non-believers, chopping off their heads in bloody, righteous celebration. There was no acting involved. The films showed real events. “I thought,” the boy recalls, “it would be fun to go to jihad.”

Today, the boy—who asked to be identified only as Mohammed—lives with his uncle in the Turkish town of Reyhanli. When we meet on a cool evening in May in his uncle’s tidy but crowded home, I am surprised to hear that the violence in those videos never frightened him. “They are kuffar, and it is OK to kill them,” he explains. Instead, he recalls feeling “excited” as he watched the action on screen or when he spotted ISIS fighters patrolling the streets of Raqqa, enforcing the exacting dress codes and mosque attendance mandated by their radical interpretation of Islamic law.

The drift of Mohammed and his two brothers toward ISIS worried his uncle, who asked to be identified only as Ra’ed. Last year, he convinced the boys’ father to move with his family out of Raqqa, the militant group’s main stronghold in Syria, and into Turkey. Today, Ra’ed and his own family share their home with the three boys—Mohammed, who is now 12, 10-year-old Ibrahim and 16-year-old Salim—and their parents. The boys are studying in a UNICEF-backed school for Syrian refugees. Hoping to shift their allegiance away from violent jihad, Ra’ed bought them iPads, has them pitch in at his second-hand clothing shop and tries to gently challenge their beliefs about what it means to be a good Muslim. But even after nine months away from the jihadi group, the boys still idolize the soldiers of the self-styled caliphate. “They are always yelling at me, ‘Why did you bring us here?’” Ra’ed says. “It’s going to take time. A brain is not like a computer. Once it downloads information, it cannot easily be erased.”

RELATED: What has ISIS destroyed?

ISIS devoted extensive resources to the indoctrination of children in its territory, which at its peak, from mid-2014 through 2015, spanned roughly a third of Syria and Iraq and was home to between 6 million and 12 million civilians. Swiftly and

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