This August, VICE News filmmaker Medyan Dairieh gained exclusive access to the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, al Nusra, a jihadist group fighting against President Bashar al Assad's forces and the Islamic State.
Spending more than a month with al Nusra and exploring their expanding territory, Dairieh met the highest-ranking members of the organization, who revealed their identity onscreen for the first time and discussed their military doctrine.
Al Nusra, which swore allegiance to al Qaeda two years ago and is now emerging as a powerful force to rival the Islamic State in Syria, has seized several strategic towns in the northwestern province of Idlib. While it supplies water, electricity, and food to the local population, al Nusra is also running a school, the Lion Cubs Religious Academy, in Aleppo, where it grooms young boys to become the next generation of al Qaeda and prepares them for jihad.
Not all of the children in the Lion Cubs Religious Academy come from families affiliated with al Qaeda, but the majority do. Taught that dying in jihad will make them martyrs, they will likely join the tens of thousands of child soldiers being used and abused in conflicts around the world.
Abu Anas (left) a student who recently arrived from Uzbekistan, is still learning Arabic. He told VICE 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 said his father "died as a martyr" but wouldn't disclose where.
The children sing 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."
Al Nusra now controls territories in Aleppo and Idlib. The group is currently fighting on three fronts: against the Syrian regime, Kurdish forces, and the Islamic State.
"The young will establish a caliphate, following the prophet's traditions, and they will carry the message of jihad," Abu Baser, the children's teacher, told VICE.
Even growing up surrounded by war, the young boys still experience many of the fixtures of a regular childhood. They play sports. They go on school trips to an old amusement park where they push bumper cars left immobile without electricity. They 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 Khatab al Maqdisi, the al Nusra Front member assigned to show VICE around, spoke of the students with pride. "God willing, we hope that these cubs will lead the nation and end 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, which will be leading the jihad in the future."
While driving to the front line at the Abu al Duhur airbase in Idlib, al Maqdisi said the Lion Cubs Religious Academy was a reason for hope. He rejoices "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."
Back in the school, Abu Ashak (not pictured), a young student who looks to be about ten years old, said that his father and brother were fighting for al Nusra 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 continued. "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 Qur'an, 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."
Meanwhile, Abu Ashak's younger brother, Abu Omayer (right), who appears to be about the age of a kindergartener, said his parents sent him to the academy. "I want to be an inghamasi [suicide fighter] for Allah's sake," he said, smiling bashfully.
Sheikh Abdu Salam, a leader of al Nusra who had never before appeared on camera, spoke to VICE 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."