VICE’s “Cubs of the Caliphate” airs on HBO tonight at 11pm ET/PT and is the Season 5 finale of the Emmy-winning newsmagazine series.
Slouched over a dusty tent floor in northern Iraq, 15 year-old Ali shuffled dirt back and forth between his hands as he recounted the horrors of his life. It was the first time he’d confided his story in anyone. His mother, who had suffered the heartbreak of losing both her husband and her two eldest sons, refused to acknowledge any mention of the last three years, hoping to forget.
“I saw someone get beaten and slaughtered for talking to the army. And whenever someone commits adultery they’re thrown from a building,” Ali said. “If it’s a woman, they stone her. Sometimes they bring them to the middle of the street and kill them.”
Ali was 12 when ISIS arrived in his hometown of Mosul in 2014. It wasn’t long after that his father and brothers were killed in an airstrike that destroyed most of his home. He had no choice but to step up as the man of the household, providing for his mother and younger siblings by selling water tanks directly to ISIS fighters.
Each day, the fighters he sold water to would try to recruit him. They promised money, cars, nice clothes, weapons to play with and a fast track to paradise in the ecstatic form of martyrdom. Ali was tempted, he told us, if it weren’t for the fear that his mother would disown him.
For many of Ali’s friends, however, fear of the world’s most brutal terrorist organization far outweighed losing the love of their mother. They signed up in droves, like thousands of other young boys throughout northern Iraq, Syria and elsewhere had. Some were kidnapped, many were coerced and others went willingly in search of adventure, power, and security. Collectively, they comprised the ‘Cubs Of The Caliphate’: an army of fresh-eyed young males meticulously nurtured by the Islamic State to comprise the next generation of jihadists.
“If it’s a woman, they stone her. Sometimes they bring them to the middle of the street and kill them.”
Over the span of several weeks spent in northern Iraq this summer, my crew and I met with many of these so-called “cubs” who spent their formative years training and working with ISIS. They shared with us the process of being stripped of their childhood by radical thought, and entering manhood trapped between terror, family, state and ideology.
A handful of boys explained how they were plucked from impoverished neighborhoods between the ages of eight and 18, and taken to ISIS training camps, where their days initially revolved around memorizing the Quran. There was no source of news from the outside world and limited entertainment besides chants that glorify the caliphate and films that climax with the beheadings of ‘kafirs’.
Later, they were put through rigorous bodybuilding and target practice, familiarizing themselves with an array of assault weapons — some still too heavy to carry. They sat through classes on how to build IEDs and how to master the art of blowing yourself up. One teenager we met with told us how every morning he and his friends were instructed to strap explosive vests to their waists and picture themselves walking into busy streets or sprinting through enemy territory to clear the route for a frontline offensive. From there they would rise straight from the battlefield up into paradise, they were told, where concubine-virgins, wine and glory would greet them.
“They taught us for 2 years and 45 days. So we would become like them, so they would change us.”
“They taught us for 2 years and 45 days. So we would become like them, so they would change us. We used to believe,” said Saif, a 15 year-old Yazidi who was captured by ISIS along with his brother Sari in 2014. After graduating from military camp a few months later they were sent to the frontlines of Raqqa, where they remained for the following year and a half. They fired away at the “infidels” on their 12.5 calibers and AK47s, sometimes hurling over hand grenades too. “I just shot at [the infidels]. They were men and women. I was a good shot,” said Sari. “My friends who were with me also fought, and so I got excited with them and I became braver… Everyone, everyone who was in their religion felt excitement.”
These young children do not shed their violent pasts easily. During the course of our filming, we stopped interviews multiple times for kids who had outbursts of uncontrollable rage, floods of tears and even fits of giggles as they spoke about the atrocities of their pasts.
Read more: Watch our Emmy-winning Mosul coverage
“[These children] are not mentally healthy,” says Dr Anne Speckhard, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. “When you look at the kids that were in ISIS that carried out crimes, it’s difficult to look at them because they’re hardened criminals, they’ve been turned into perpetrators, they’ve been turned into monsters… The best thing would be to put [them] through rehabilitation programs and work with the community before they’re released.”
Yet such programs face severe challenges, namely: a dearth of financial resources and a general lack of will to help the perpetrators or accomplices of ISIS. Psychiatric support simply doesn’t exist on any tangible scale, and government programs have yet to be rolled out.
Instead, the children of ISIS are relegated to circumstances that portend a bleak future. Some of the cubs that we met were crammed inside poorly equipped prisons, awaiting their trials, which had been delayed for months due to the backlog in Iraqi courts. Boys as young as 10 sat hugging their knees in 120-degree heat, shoulder-to-shoulder alongside hundreds of large bearded men also suspected of working for ISIS.
“You have to work with the community to lift that stigma, to find a way to integrate [them] and to forgive.”
Those who escaped detention or were released without charge were either placed in specific areas of refugee camps, or have been forced into hiding for fear of retribution. We met one teenager after he was released from prison for allegedly spending just one month at a training camp back when ISIS first came to his town. He spoke to us behind closed curtains as he packed his belongings and planned for an escape from his hometown, too afraid to tell his closest friends where he was heading.
In a country that has suffered three long years of annihilation at the hands of ISIS, the desire for revenge on perpetrators is overwhelming. Countless Iraqis have had their family members kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed using the most barbaric of tactics. For them, there is no forgiveness for anyone even vaguely associated with the group.
In the village of Houd in Qayyarah district, we visited a number of houses that had been bulldozed down by villagers eager for payback. Recrimination attacks have also spread, with reports of civilians and Iraqi security forces carrying out extrajudicial killings.
“We have to remember this is a tribal society and this is a society that’s lost faith in the judicial system. And they have lots of guns. So they take justice into their own hands,” says Speckhard. “You have to work with the community to lift that stigma, to find a way to integrate [them] and to forgive.”
Isobel Yeung is a correspondent and producer for the Emmy-winning newsmagazine series VICE on HBO.