How Iraq is creating a new generation of ISIS
Curled into a ball in the corner of a basement in Mosul’s Old City, Ahmad Shaker was trapped. When Iraqi forces began advancing on the historic district on the west side of the Tigris River in June of 2017, the remaining ISIS fighters took hundreds of civilians and locked them in basements and cellars, using them as human shields while fighting from the rooftops. Try to leave and we will shoot you directly, they said. In Ahmad’s case, they locked the doors. As an international coalition of forces rained down mortars, the ceilings cracked and bits of roof fell in. As the 12-year-old sat next to his mother and father in the darkness, his shoulders shook, and the walls of the house swayed. The next thing he knew, he was beneath the rubble, covered in dust. An ISIS fighter pulled him out, and promptly ran away. Alone and wounded, Ahmad saw other families fleeing, and with his parents nowhere to be seen, he followed these neighbors past Iraqi military checkpoints to a mustering point outside the Old City.
“I went out of the Old City and the military took me to another checkpoint, then from there to a camp,” Ahmad says, speaking in a flat tone beneath the fluorescent lights of the orphanage office where we’re sitting, making the process sound straightforward. It was anything but.
At the height of Iraq’s summer in 2017, temperatures reached over 125 degrees Fahrenheit, families fled through narrow alleyways, Iraqi soldiers ordered men to strip to their underwear to ensure they weren’t wearing suicide belts, and ISIS wives routinely detonated well-hidden belts at checkpoints in a last-ditch effort to kill Iraqi soldiers. Unaccompanied youth like Ahmad, most of whom had been living on a diet of raw wheat for weeks, were passed around in chaos: from mustering point to front-line field hospitals to child protection officers who attempted to sort out their situation, and sent them to camps for the displaced. He waited there for four months.
Wearing a gray hoodie and camouflage pants, Ahmad looks and behaves no differently than most 12-year-old Iraqi boys, save for the scars that remain on his skull, right wrist, and leg. Yet he is one of a minority of children for whom case workers haven’t been able to trace any family members. Playing in the halls of the orphanage with the few friends his age at the home for boys, he tells me of his desire to be a doctor, and of the need for Iraq to rebuild Mosul because “life is very hard here.”
Mosul was liberated in July of 2017, but the scars and abuse that the rule of ISIS exacted on young people will not soon fade. Boys and young men tend to internalize their ordeals, and the particularly vulnerable are often overlooked: orphans, the wounded, the kidnapped and returned, and those who fought for ISIS, whether by force or by choice. It is nearly a year since Mosul was liberated, and a lack of opportunities, a dearth of psychosocial services, and the disintegration of community ties have all contributed to a dire situation for Iraq’s boys—especially those most at risk for future violence and recruitment to extremist groups.
“We have two types of children who were affected by ISIS,” says General Watheq al Hamdan, the head of Nineveh police and a lifetime resident of a Mosul neighborhood long known for its relative calm. “We have those who were damaged by ISIS, and we have the children of ISIS. That second group is a problem.”
Hamdan and other security officials are confident that ISIS won’t return any time soon, but they are worried about the next generation, particularly of boys, who lived for years under ISIS rule. Even if their families were not associated with the extremist group, behavior for young people is often learned simply by exposure: If radical acts are treated as normal, young people accept the behavior and can learn to emulate those norms of violence.
“We have a saying in Iraq,” the general continues between sips of tea and drags off his cigarette. “‘What you learn when you are young is written in stone.’ The problem with kids these days is all they think about is guns and killing. I can’t solve it.”
It’s true that I see violence among the boys, but I’m not sure it looks that different from the behavior of other boys worldwide. In the Qayyara Jaddah camp for the displaced, children play with sticks sharpened to points, poking each other whenever possible, wrestle on the dusty streets, and slap each other after insults. Over 16,000 people are crowded into the tents—over half of them juveniles, only 2,250 of whom are registered to attend the under-supplied school. Kids grow up fast here, according to the camp manager Laith al Jiboury, all while carrying the trauma of their past.
“Children here deal with a lot: One day they’re born, the next they’re walking, the next their mother has them carrying things through the camp,” Jibouri says.
Many families here come from West Mosul, Ba’aj, and Qairawan, near Sinjar mountain. As in most well-organized camps, children have access to a child-friendly learning space–a series of curved-top white tents where those showing signs of trauma can show up for talk and play therapy–but they receive little else in the way of psychosocial support. Case worker Mohammad Hameed, who’s affiliated with an international non-governmental organization in the camp, works with a number of children to help them regain a sense of normalcy.
“Our goal is to give them a safe space, where they feel like they can play, where someone is listening to them,” Hameed says. “Maybe they were forced to do something by ISIS, maybe they saw something disturbing that is leading to [post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)]: nightmares, acting out.”
Saqer has rarely known a stable life. From a Sunni family near Sinjar mountain, ISIS took over his hometown when he was barely a toddler. The seven-year-old is thin and barely hip-high to his four sisters; his baby teeth are rotten to the roots, and he smiles when approached but rarely speaks. His mother, Hayat, holds him in her lap, while his uncle, Aiyad, does most of the talking.
“We saw so many things under ISIS, they killed people, they made us come watch! We were so afraid they would burst into our house at any time. We couldn’t leave. We’re from Al Jazeera [a rural desert area] but eventually we fled and came here,” Aiyad says.
Saqer suffers from nightmares, wets his bed, and calls out at night. He jumps at loud noises and wakes up shouting The men are coming! His condition has improved as he spends more time at the child-friendly space, but because of his family’s tenuous living situation, Saqer has no clear path to a normal life.
“We can’t return home,” his mother says. “We’re Sunni and the Yazidis are our neighbors.” She says she’s heard rumors of Yazidis setting fire to Sunni families and homes. “Because of what ISIS did, and because we’re Sunni, they hate us now.”
While such stories of retribution are difficult to substantiate, the fear and loathing between neighboring villages remains a barrier to a stable future, one where young boys don’t learn to hate neighbors of a different sect or ethnic background.
Saqer never says more than a simple yes or no during the visit (and then only when encouraged by his parents). He smiles but pokes at the stubs of his teeth, likely the result of a sugar-heavy diet from when his family could afford little else.
“They’re like that because he’s afraid,” Saqer’s mother says, referring to his teeth.
“Do you know what he tells people about them? Maybe he believes it,” she continued.
“He says a mouse ate them.”
His father rubs his forehead, looking worried.
From the quiet of a nearly empty cafe in Dohuk, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, Dilshad slouches in his chair, looking sullen. His fingers circle his chin, stroking an imaginary beard that still won’t grow for several years, and he speaks brusquely.
“I want to leave here. I want to work. To free my sisters. Do you know what they did to us?”
The 11-year-old Yazidi was kidnapped by ISIS during their push on Sinjar Mountain. Members of the minority religion were viewed as devil worshipers by ISIS, and thousands were trafficked throughout the Caliphate; while tragic stories abound about the girls and women who were taken as sex slaves, and of men who were executed and thrown into mass graves, less is known about what happened to boys Dilshad’s age.
With his father and uncle listening apprehensively, Dilshad speaks frankly of his treatment at the hands of ISIS. He was seven when he was taken to Syria, too young to fight, but not too young for a forced conversion or slave labor. After being taken from Sinjar to Mosul to Tel Afar, he was sold to a wealthy Emir in Raqqa. They fed him little, forced him to cook and clean, beat him regularly, and dressed him in religious clothing, making videos of him praying as a muslim to use in their propaganda.
“They told me, ‘You must go back to Sinjar and kill your father.’ I refused, so they beat me. If I was older, they would have started training me to fight right away. If I refused to say I was Muslim, they would have told me to kneel, directly,” Dilshad says, making the shape of a pistol with his fingers and thumb.
“We have no future here—it is destroyed,” the father says. “He has outbursts of anger, he gets mad so quickly. I don’t know what to do with him. There are few social services, only if there is a very special case.”
Dilshad describes the times ISIS made him watch them stone women to death, and how they once brought in a Kurdish man, supposedly a Kurdish fighter, and dropped him in a vat of boiling oil.
“They boiled him, just like food,” Dilshad says, and then bursts out laughing. Inappropriate affect is common in traumatized children.
For youth who have severe PTSD, even outside the camps, there is little available in the way of therapy. Carl Gaede, a counselor and executive director of Tutapona, a small non-governmental organization working with Yazidi survivors of trauma, says that life under ISIS will have negative effects on future generations, and organizations like his are working to change that. Tutapona mainly provides group counseling for youth over 13.
“The psychological trauma that people have endured is on a scale that has been unlike anything we have seen before. Typically when we talk of PTSD, we often think of soldiers,” Gaede says. “Now, we have an almost unprecedented situation where entire communities … are exposed to the most horrific, gruesome warfare…. That will cause problems that future generations will inherit.”
Gaede offers a point that feels particularly poignant in Dilshad’s case: “Boys and men often feel guilty about the things they were forced to do, or about being unable to protect the female members of their family.”
The first thing Dilshad tells me before starting the interview is about his family.
“Can you help me go to America? I want to work, to do anything to free my sisters.”
Shahama camp, known by locals as “ISIS camp,” is a different world from the rainy green vistas of Kurdish northern Iraq. The enclosure for the displaced sits on a flat dusty plain just outside Tikrit, two hours north of Baghdad. While other camps are adorned with signs touting the support of humanitarian organizations who have poured money into programs, such signs are absent in Shahama camp. There is no school and no clinic, and no one is allowed to leave. Most residents have family members in prison, and there are few adult males. Children play with dice in the dirt, babies learn to crawl and balance on cinder blocks. Dust covers nearly everything.
While families are usually relegated to IDP camps based on which geographical area they fled, the families here were pushed into Shahama camp after relatives were arrested for ties to ISIS—whether they joined by choice or by force. In the eyes of Iraqi officials, when one person is criminal, the whole family can often be treated as guilty.
Um Aziz, a slight woman with a hoarse voice from the village of Tel al Dhahab, admits freely that her husband joined ISIS, describing their ordeal to me while her 11-year-old son Mohammad slouches in the corner, staring with wide, deep-brown eyes.
“Yes, he joined them, but he was just working as a bulldozer driver. We have 10 children, and there was no work. What else could he do? But I thank God, now he’s dead. He died three years ago. We wanted to escape, but they hung women upside down from poles in the town, so I knew we couldn’t leave,” she says. Gesturing to her son, who remains quiet, she describes how the children here were treated.
“Kids here still want revenge, even though he won’t say it in front of you. They [security officials] yell at us from behind the fence: ‘Your children will be terrorists!’ Well, the way they treat us, they are making it true.”
Mohammad doesn’t comment on what his mother is saying. He blinks and stares at her, waiting for silent permission to leave, and after she nods, he returns to play dice with his friends outside a nearby tent.
Um Abdullah, another woman in the camp, cries in her tent as she describes her children’s situation: They’re now among the unknown number sent to juvenile detention for connections to ISIS.
“My son became a leader in ISIS, though we told him not to. When we fled from Mosul, security took our whole family, even though we were not involved. Now just one week ago I got news from a guard here that my sons are in prison, that they’re torturing them,” she says. “I went crazy for three days.”
Um Abdullah says a security guard at the camp showed her photos from his phone of her three sons, 17, 19, and 20, being tortured, supposedly in a Tikrit prison. She claims they requested $4,000 for their release. She says she’s never seen an American dollar in her life.
“The government is constructing a new generation of ISIS. Even though the oldest brother was [involved], his brothers weren’t, and now all the guards curse us from the gate, calling my children ‘sons of ISIS.’ Each side has made mistakes, but the government is doing nothing to rectify it. No one trusts each other.”
‘YOU HELPED DESTROY OUR CITY’
Trust, once broken, is difficult to rebuild. As Iraq has swung from conflict to war to insurgency and back again, there are rarely attempts at wide-scale reconciliation.
Over a year after its liberation from ISIS, East Mosul seems almost back to normal. Schools are in session, bullet holes have been patched up, infuriating bumper-to-bumper traffic once more clogs the streets. The west side of the city is different. Its old, narrow streets were heavily damaged in the fighting, and most of its houses are uninhabitable. Bodies of civilians still lie beneath the rubble of neighborhoods that explosive ordinance teams say will take years to clear of IEDs, and bodies of ISIS fighters remain for residents to remove at their own peril.
It is such neglect that leaves Iraqis with very little trust—in the government, or in each other. Some politicians are opening public forums to let citizens voice their concerns, ostensibly to gain back the trust of the public, though others say it’s just to gain votes. On a Sunday in February in East Mosul, Nofal Hammadi, the governor of Nineveh Governorate, has arranged such a forum in a decorated hall next to his office. Hundreds of citizens from around the region have filed complaints or requests, some for social services, others to solve legal disputes, others for medical cases that can’t be helped in Mosul. For six hours, the governor and his deputies sit atop a stage as they are filmed by a local television station. Hammadi says, “It is done” for cases he wishes to help (nearly all of them). Many of the cases involve children who have been injured: a girl who picked up an IED, another who was injured and has a severe infection, another whose back was destroyed in the bombardment.
A construction company owner from Hamdaniya, who wishes to remain anonymous, doesn’t believe a word of it.
“I’ve been waiting since early this morning to meet with him. This is a bid to gain political votes—he doesn’t really want to help the children. He wants to stay in office,” he huffs, before shuffling out of the hall, defeated and out of time.
During the meeting, one woman stands up, seeking to advocate for her children. One of her sons has joined ISIS, and her husband has been killed. She wanted to go home to raise her remaining children in peace, she says, her eyes watering under her niqab. The governor looks at the mother and says: “You [ISIS] helped destroy our city, now you want to go back? We will not accept you. I don’t want to even see you in this meeting. Kick her out from the hall.”
The woman leaves the hall, crying to the sound of cheers from the crowd.
‘WE LIVE IN FEAR FOR OUR GRANDCHILDREN’
Ostracization of ISIS relatives throughout Iraq is common. In Mosul, security forces are monitoring families whose distant relatives joined, even though authorities have no evidence that those back in Mosul ever said the bayyah, the ISIS profession of loyalty. Farah H., from a small village in the Al Shora District of Hamam al Alil, has three sons, all of whom joined ISIS and rose to the level of emir. She agrees to meet me in a car, parked in front of a mosque and market in an East Mosul neighborhood, and arrives with her sister and youngest daughter in tow.
Both are dressed in long black robes with fading traditional tattoos on their hands and faces. Farah describes the hardship her grandsons were facing.
“We live in fear for our grandchildren. They haven’t committed any crimes. It’s not their fault what their fathers did. But we know that once they turn 15 or 16, the security forces will haul them off to jail, even if they’ve committed no crime.”
The grandson she’s brought with her, a 12-year-old with scruffy hair with a too-short fringe, lounges outside with a friend, his hood pulled over his head despite the heat of the afternoon sun. Children like Farah’s grandson are often beaten and abused by the remaining security forces, unable to defend themselves against the allegations directed toward their fathers because, more often than not, they are true.
Farah pulls out her cell phone and, through a cracked screen, scrolls through photos of her sons before the battle: all with long silky hair and headscarves, fingers pointing to the sky. She claims that life was better under ISIS and says that over 60 members of her extended family were killed in the bombardment, including her pregnant daughter, who was married to a foreign fighter from Morocco. Gesturing to her grandson outside, she nearly shouts:
“Before, we were all treated equally. Now, they [the Popular Mobilization forces, also known as Hashid al Shaaby, a network of over 40 mostly Shia militias] beat them…. There is nothing in the their future; all they think about is revenge. Of course, when they are insulted, it makes them angry. You’ll never see it on his face now. In the streets, they’re silent because they’re afraid. But when they go home, they say the takbir and talk about how they’ll avenge their fathers.”
Farah sits back in the seat of the car, looking at the last photo of her son, sent to her by security forces after he was caught. He is emaciated, his legs broken, lying in the dust and rubble with wild eyes and unkempt hair, a shadow of the man he’d been before. Farah has been told that he is in prison somewhere, though she doubts whether he is still alive. She and her family trust no one, keeping the children at home when possible, rarely allowing them out to play, much less to go to school.
“Without ID cards, they can’t go to school, they can’t learn anything, so they are destined to a life in the streets,” she sighs, looking out at her grandson kicking stones around the curb. “You see all the kids on the street corners? They are children of ISIS. They’ll be recruited someday.”
‘WE’RE TRYING TO CLEANSE THEIR THOUGHTS OF THIS ABUSE’
In the Rifa’i neighborhood of West Mosul, the Iraqi Institute for Development runs a child-friendly space and extracurricular classes in rooms full of color and sparkle, a contrast to the dusty street outside. Marwan Abdullah, one of the teachers, speaks frankly about the ISIS effect on children, and the future of Mosul.
“We don’t want [ISIS] back here. We will expel them. Our children’s future is ruined. We went back 100 years.”
For the children who remain, much of the therapy is being done by local humanitarian organizations, or at least via local partners who rely on international funding.
Nashwa Mayouf, the resident psychologist and researcher at IID, lays out children’s drawings with scenes of bombs, men with weapons, and terrified families.
“Children here still have black thoughts. Many are without hope. They have painful thoughts. Maybe they dealt with enforced behavior, they dealt with the hisba [ISIS social police]. Some had parents killed in front of them. Through therapy [art, group talk, and one on one], we’re just trying to help change their way of thinking through art and education, to cleanse their thoughts from this abuse.”
An estimated one million people fled from Mosul, many of whom are children. They would all benefit from therapeutic care and attention.
Back at the orphanage on the east side, an officer from the Nineveh police comes knocking. It’s late afternoon, and with most of the boys still at school, the building is nearly empty, save for Sukhaina Yunis, a tiny and energetic Turkman woman in charge of orphans for the Nineveh Governorate. Two boys, no more than six years old, hide behind the policeman. They have underdeveloped heads, too small for their bodies, prominent overbites, and wandering eyes; they stumble when they walk and they don’t speak, only making mouse-like squeaks as the adults in the room attempt to get a better look at them.
“We found them wandering alone around Playground City,” the policeman says, referring to a woodland neighborhood near the Tigris River.
The boys’ parents are nowhere to be found. Perhaps they were killed in the battle, but it seems unlikely the boys could have survived on their own for over six months. The orphanage thinks it’s more likely that they were abandoned because of their disability, by a family struggling to provide for its own.
The alleyways of Mosul’s old city are narrow, some just wide enough for a small flatbed truck, others with space for two people to pass side by side. The ancient district is divided into quarters by two main roads, and further divided into neighborhoods, where residents know the nickname of every alleyway. Aid organizations rarely press further into the city than the main intersections, missing cases of need and scenes of hope that play out in the nooks and crannies of places like Khazraj, whose streets aren’t noted, even on the most detailed maps.
On a recent Saturday, Ali Hussein Abed plays with his friends, kicking a faded soccer ball between doorways. School is out, and anyway, Ali doesn’t want to return after what happened nearly a year ago. Unless you were looking closely, you wouldn’t notice that the 12-year-old’s right sleeve is empty.
“I would rather have died than lost my arm. I feel like my friends are much better than me. They can do so many things that I can’t,” he says.
Ali and his family were displaced by ISIS as the beginning of the Western offensive, when leaders said they needed to use the strategic Old City. The family moved to Hawy al Kanisa, a neighborhood near the river but still under ISIS control and within mortar range of the Old City. One day while out getting water with his cousin, Ali felt a blast and suddenly found himself on the ground, amid a pile of rubble, his blood pooling in the dusty streets, the remains of his right arm a pile of tissue and gristle. His uncle put him on a motorcycle and sent him to Jumhuri Hospital, also under ISIS control, where surgeons saved his life.
Ali is lucky: His mother, father, and extended family are alive and there to care for and encourage him, but he feels lost.
“I’m not who I used to be. I can’t write with my right hand, so why should I go back to school?”
Despite his parents’ and friends’ insistence, he doesn’t plan to register for school, even though the term starts the next day. After showing off his scars, including a deep pit in his right shoulder that didn’t even spare the joint, he returns to playing with his friends. In the alleyways, he is comfortable, accepted, and safe.
‘MY FATHER TOLD ME THAT ISIS WAS NOT RIGHT’
The last group of children affected by ISIS are those who joined them to fight. Journalists are not allowed to visit these adolescent detainees, nor attend their trials: they are inaccessible even to most aid workers.
Ahmad H. claims he is different from other boys who joined ISIS. A calm and apparently mild-mannered boy from a Kurdish village, he speaks with me in a juvenile prison in Erbil in early January. As we talk, he clasps his hands in the lap of his gray sweatpants, and when he doesn’t know what to say, he touches his nascent mustache while biting his lower lip. Sometimes he punctuates his sentences by brushing his uneven bangs from his forehead. The 17-year-old dropped out of school in sixth grade.
“My father is an old man. We have such a large family that he couldn’t provide for us. Since I was young, I’ve worked selling tissues and other things on the street. When ISIS came, they said: ‘We’ll do everything for you so you can take care of your family. Come with us,'” Ahmad explains.
He describes the 15 days of training he did with the terrorist group that he admired at first, then came to hate: hand-to-hand combat and sports to toughen the pre-teens in preliminary training, after which they were expected to go back to their families to ask permission to continue. Ahmad’s father did not give his blessing.
“My father told me that ISIS was not right, that going to fight is not a good way,” he says.
He didn’t return to the trainers who had promised him power, status, and money for his family. Instead, he went back to to selling tissues. His family escaped during the liberation of Qayyara, a town nearly two hours south of Mosul, and when forces were near his village, they fled to Makhmour, the southernmost town of the Kurdistan Regional Governorate on the eastern side of the Tigris river. There they fell into the hands of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces. Intelligence officers came calling, and whether out of guilt or else fear of retribution against his family, Ahmad admitted that he had gone to train with ISIS. A court sentenced him to serve 11 months, after he had already spent nearly nine months in the juvenile prison in Erbil.
“We see these young people as victims,” says Ahmad Ahmad, the director of the Office of Reform and Social Welfare in Erbil. “Young people like this who didn’t commit any crimes will be free: We are doing seminars to undo the brainwashing: they speak with local sheikhs and religious leaders. For those who killed, the law will decide where they go.”
At the time of writing, Ahmad is still not free; I left his parents waiting in Dibaga camp, having received no news from the lawyers and no set date for when he would rejoin his family.
No matter their situation, children who lived under ISIS rule seem to run into dead ends. Those who returned home with their families are left with no prospects for jobs, those in camps likely won’t return for months or years, those with ISIS family members will be ostracized from the community, and juveniles who fought for ISIS are stuck in a justice system that is unprepared to deal with the complications of children persuaded to fight for a terrorist organization, whose guardians are sometimes nowhere to be found.
Around every corner in Mosul, children beg and hustle. On the eastern side of the city, outside a restaurant near Mosul University, a gang of three coaxes spare Iraqi dinar from the hands of passers-by. In the Old City, boys rustle up pieces of wire and metal to be repurposed and sold. At every security checkpoint and intersection, throngs of boys crowd around waiting cars, pushing each other out of the way to sell tissues, gum, stale biscuits.
When asked, Why aren’t you in school?, some say there is no point: They’ll never get a job.
When asked, Why are you working?, many say it’s their family, they need the income.
When asked, Where is your father?, most are silent. They don’t have an answer.