Yasir, 15, trained with ISIS in Syria
He had military training and religious indoctrination
His father helped him escape into Turkey
But now Yasir is torn between school and returning to ISIS
Just two weeks ago, Yasir was regularly strapped into an explosive vest and handed a pistol, an AK-47 and a radio to stand guard at an ISIS base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor.
Yasir – not his real name – is just 15 and an ISIS child soldier. When we first met, he was clearly nervous, his hands slightly quivering as he picked up his cup of tea.
Understandable, given all he has been through and the twisted mental maze he is trying to navigate.
Yasir had followed his father to be with the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. When ISIS took over their area, father and son swore allegiance to ISIS.
“I spent a month without seeing my family or anyone that I knew,” Yasir recalls. “It was forbidden to see or speak to anyone.”
He says there were about 100 children and for a month they were kept isolated from all that they knew and loved, and not allowed even to see or speak to their families.
Rather, they were entrenched in intense religious indoctrination. There were daily lessons on the violent and radical version of Islam practiced by ISIS.
Rigorous military training was also a daily feature of their lives. He says: “We used to crawl under webbing. There was fire above it, and we would be firing our weapons. We would jump through large metal rings and the trainers would be firing at our feet and telling us if we stop we will be shot.”
He says the trainers would have them run for 2 kilometers. “I was very careful not to stop running, I didn’t stop, even if I was exhausted, out of breath, I didn’t stop.”
ISIS posts videos and pictures on the Internet bragging about its so-called “cubs of the Islamic State.”
While there are no firm numbers on how many children are part of ISIS, the United Nations says there are confirmed reports of children as young as 12 undergoing military training.
Yasir admits he missed his parents. It was the first time he had stayed away from them, but he says he and the other boys would laugh, joke and talk about their training.
After a month he was sent home and began to regularly report for duty.
“When we arrived they gave us guns and the explosive belt and the radio,” he says. “We would get calls from the checkpoints alerting us [when] the ISIS VIPs were coming. Anyone who wasn’t a VIP, we would pick up our guns and stop them.”
But his mother would beg him to leave.
Yasir says: “She would say that I am too young. ‘Please leave, you have nothing to do with this.’ I would tell her that this is the jihad that we all must do.”
He says the first time he saw a beheading he didn’t eat for two days, repulsed by the scene but not the actual act.
He admits he was afraid the explosive belt he wore would accidentally detonate if he was hit by shrapnel.
He also felt proud, strong and filled with a sense of purpose.
But his father realized he had to save his son and himself. He decided to defect and tricked Yasir into leaving with him for Turkey.
Yasir says: “I was asking him ‘why are you doing this? What happened?’ My father turned to me and said they are not on the right religious track.”
The Yasir we met appears to have a gentle demeanor, but he’s clearly confused, struggling to define what is right and wrong, and wrest himself from the psychological damage ISIS has done.
He initially says he wants to go back to ISIS because his friends are there, and he defends some of the strict interpretations of Islam, but he also says: “I am discovering over time they have no religion.”
Toward the end of our interview, he tells us he regrets having joined them.
Yasir has a chance to emerge from the hold of ISIS, to return to the Arabic and math-loving schoolboy he was before the war.
But that is not the case for the other children firmly in the grasp of ISIS, living under their rule, easily manipulated and lured toward the terrorist organization.