A former child soldier for ISIS has told Al Arabiya how he was kidnapped and recruited into the terrorist organization, revealing he was forced to convert to Islam and watch videos of brutal murders to train him how to kill on the battlefield.
Speaking to journalist Rola al-Khatib in the latest episode of the ‘Face-to-Face’ series, Ashrawi Qasem Abdullah recalled his memories from being taken from his Yazidi family and enlisted in the ISIS “Lion Cubs” – also known as “Ashabl” or Cubs of the Caliphate. The program sees kidnapped or recruited child soldiers sent to military and religious training camps where they are indoctrinated with the religious views of ISIS and its extreme vision of Islam.
Speaking from the Chamechco camp in Zakho district near the Iraqi-Turkish border in Dohuk Governorate in Kurdistan, home to hundreds of Yazidi families who fled away from ISIS, Abdullah explained how he has finally returned to his family, after being trained and turned by the terror group and used as a weapon of war.
Recalling his first memories with the terror group, Abdullah said he was sent to a military camp run by ISIS.
“They sent us to school to study Quran, and at night we would watch videos of ISIS slaughtering people. ISIS videos with killing, fighting, training,” he said.
“Sometimes in the afternoon they would make us recite Quran, and they would teach us how to pray. But we weren’t Muslims yet.”
Abdullah also recalled how ISIS leaders one day took 48 child soldiers and transferred them to Mosul, in northern Iraq. At a camp, the children began religious studies and were converted into Islam.
The children were taught anyone who was not with ISIS was against them – calling them “infidels” – and Abdullah said he and his young comrades came to believe the rhetoric that came with his training.
“All the guys believed it. Whoever got hold of an infidel, would kill them,” he told Al Arabiya.
Abdullah said he participated in battles with ISIS but cannot say with certainty if he has killed anyone, saying: “I don’t think I did. The battles I was in weren’t big ones.”
Recalling his experience on the frontline, Abdullah said he was not afraid.
“(We) went into battle either to die or to win. It was either martyrdom or victory.”
A promised after-life
Amid their horrors, the child soldiers were offered a grandiose imagery of after-life; with the boys being told they’re infidels and that they and their own families were destined for hell, they were the righteous ones who would be rewarded richly in heaven.
Martyrs were not afraid of death as they would go to heaven and “get 72 virgins,” said Abdullah.
“ISIS fighters were fearless. They were never scared.”
Life changed for Abdullah after he married a fellow Yazidi - Dalia - who had also been abducted and held prisoner by ISIS.
ISIS’ wartime loss of territory and its waning days as leaders of a would-be-state saw the group’s leaders themselves lose faith, said Abdullah.
“Syrian Democratic Forces invaded al-Deshisha. And I went to Hajin in Syria. After that, I saw that ISIS wasn’t the same as before.”
“ISIS... How do you say it? The leaders didn’t stay. They would leave at the first opportunity. So, I thought: what am I doing here? Honestly, I didn’t think of coming back at all.”
Abdullah frankly admits, at the time, he had no thoughts of returning home to his family, saying he was happy with ISIS. He had become more comfortable with the regime than with his own family and the Yazidi community.
He had become so convinced by their ideology, Abdullah believed he would die by blowing himself up with explosives – and would get his due reward in heaven.
“Honestly, firstly, we believed in their religion. We believed in those battles. We didn’t think about anything else.”
“I remember that one day I was in Iraq and the ISIS leader who oversaw us asked me how I wanted to fight, and said I wanted to blow myself up, but he didn’t approve. We believed in their religion and there were others before us who blew themselves up. Other Yazidi guys. Not just one or two.”
Abdullah said had ISIS not changed and remained powerful, he wouldn’t have left the regime.
“Had ISIS not changed, nobody would’ve thought of leaving. Dalia didn’t want to come back. We lived with an ISIS fighter who had been with the ISIS security force for four years,” he told Al Arabyia.
The Iraqi, Arshad, was good to them and protected them, explained Abdullah.
Life after ISIS
Today Abdullah and Dalia have a baby boy. Dalia, who converted to Islam during her time of capture, recalled how she was living with her captor, a man.
“Then he gave me my freedom and asked me if I wanted to marry Ashrawi and I accepted,” she told Al Arabiya.
While she says she was unhappy during her time with ISIS, Dalia admits she was afraid of coming back to her Yazidi roots.
“They said if we went back, we would be killed. They taught me to pray and taught me about religion and I became a Muslim.”
Dalia says many Yazidi’s bought into ISIS’s ideology.
“There are people who are still with them and they won’t come back. Some Yazidi women had children with ISIS fighters. Some of them decided to leave their children and come back, while others decided to stay with their children. But they are still not happy. They want to go back to their children,” she said.
Rola al-Khatib’s full interview with Abdullah is featured in episode seven of Al Arabiya’s eleven-part “Face to Face with ISIS” series.