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In Photos: Inside the Al Nusra Academy Training the Next Generation of Jihadis

VICE News filmmaker Medyan Dairieh gained exclusive access to the al Qaeda affiliate this year, spending time with the current leadership and the young generation being groomed to replace them.
November 11, 2015, 2:25pm
Foto di Medyan Dairieh/VICE News

In a classroom in northern Syria's Aleppo province a teacher begins a lesson by saying: "Today we will learn about faith and beliefs."

Abu Baser questions the assembled boys — all in khaki green — on the meaning of the word "faith," before having them repeat: "The war gains belong to God and the messenger."

This is the Lion Cubs Religious Academy, one of several schools run by al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the al Nusra Front. VICE News filmmaker Medyan Dairieh gained exclusive access to the group earlier this year, spending time with the militia's current leadership and the younger generation being groomed to replace them.


His footage shows children singing songs with lyrics like: "Oh mother, don't be sad, I've chosen the land of jihad. Wipe your tears, I only went to defeat the Jews," and "Our leader [Osama] bin Laden who scares America with the power of his faith and his PK gun."

In unison, they later chorus together: "All the crusaders and a message to America, your grave is in Syria, our Front is victorious."

Boy from Idlib. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

Not all of the children in the 'Lion Cubs Religious Academy' come from families affiliated with al Qaeda, but the majority do. Trained to believe dying in jihad will make them a martyr, they could join the tens of thousands of child soldiers being used and abused in conflicts around the world.

Abu Anas — a student recently arrived from Uzbekistan — is still learning Arabic. He told VICE News that he misses his relatives in his home country, but doesn't miss Uzbekistan itself because "they don't approve of jihad and they call us terrorists. They're frightened by us. They don't want jihad. They don't want Allah's laws." Questioned again later, he says his father "died as a martyr," but won't disclose where.

Another classmate said he had been forced to attend the school because his family wanted him to train to be a mujahideen fighter.

The students of the 'Lion Cubs Religious Academy' go on a school trip. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

Al Nusra now control territories in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. The group is currently fighting on three fronts: against the Syrian regime, Kurdish forces, and the Islamic State.

"Youths will establish a caliphate, following the prophet's traditions, and they will carry the message of jihad," the children's teacher tells VICE News.


Growing up surrounded by war, the young boys still experience many of the fixtures of a regular childhood. They play sports. They go on a school trip to an old amusement park where they push bumper cars rendered static without electricity. The children swim in a pool, some diving confidently, some clinging to rubber rings.

Many of the children have seen horrific acts. A boy from Idlib said: "I witnessed the Nusayris (Alawites) kill the men and slaughter the women and children."

"There are many without any religious knowledge," he continued. "I'll teach them and invite them, but if they don't listen, then I'll use the sword."

Abu Omayer from Homs at the Lion Cubs Religious Academy in Syria. He told VICE News he wants to be a suicide bomber. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

Abu Khatab al Maqdisi, the al Nusra Front member assigned to show VICE News around, spoke about the students with pride. "God willing we hope that these cubs will lead the nation and end the oppression," he said. "Hopefully they'll be a powerful generation… The guys in charge of education are doing their best and working with the available resources to raise this generation that will be leading the jihad in the future."

While driving to the frontline at the Abu al-Duhur airbase in Idlib, al Maqdisi said: "When one sees children like these who grow up obeying God… raised correctly, who in the near future will reach an age in which they can go into training camps and hold weapons. They will be the next generation to carry the burden of jihad and lead the nation, jihad in Syria and outside, God willing. One wishes to be a child again and be with them, see?"

A map shows the current division of territory in Syria. (Photo by VICE News)

Back in the school, Abu Ashak said that his father and brother were fighting for the al Nusra Front in Qalamoun, where they were under siege by the Islamic State and the Lebanese army. The boy said he hadn't seen or spoken to them in two years.

"My father reminds me of Osama bin Laden who terrorized and fought the Americans and one day my father will be like him," he contined. "And I want to be like Osama's son. He spends his time preaching to people and from a young age he started learning the Quran so he became a Sheikh at a young age. That's why it's important to think about my future now."


Abu Ashak said attending the academy was vital because "it helps me prepare myself for judgment day, but also it's important to go to school to secure your future. You must plan for your future."

The Al Nusra students push bumper cars rendered static without electricity. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

Meanwhile, Abu Ashak's younger brother Abu Omayer said his parents sent him to the academy. "I want to be a suicide bomber for Allah's sake," he said, smiling bashfully.

Sheikh Abdu Salam, a high leader of the al Nusra Front who has never before appeared on camera, spoke to VICE News in an exclusive interview. "The difference between the first generation of al Qaeda and the second one is that the first one had to operate secretly in areas under tyrants' control, like Syria and other countries," he said. "Then it changed to direct fighting as a group."

"The new generation, praise be to God, they saw the real face of al Qaeda. God made it easy for them… This new generation of al Qaeda is more aware so we know that this battle, God willing, has a settled outcome which is victory against the regime and establishing our own Islamic state."

The students of the Lion Cubs Religious Academy take part in a sports class. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

The students of one of al Nusra's schools in northern Syria. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

Inside a classroom in one of al Nusra's schools in northern Syria. (Photo by Medyan Dairieh)

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Follow Medyan Dairieh on Twitter: @MedyanDairieh

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd