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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 14th July 2017 > AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM

AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM

ISIS’s caliphate may be crumbling, but the thousands of children it has brainwashed could terrorize us for years. Can they be rehabilitated?
AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS; PREVIOUS SPREAD: OBTAINED BY NEWSWEEK (7)

The blue-eyed boy with the chubby cheeks still talks about the after-school movies he used to love so much. This was three years ago, when he was just 9 and living on the outskirts of Raqqa, in northern Syria. Sometimes, his father would take him and his little brother to an outdoor makeshift theater downtown, or he’d go with his teacher and classmates.

They’d sit on plastic chairs and munch on cookies in front of a big-screen TV shielded from the sun by an umbrella. The films varied, but the plot was always the same: Black-clad members of the Islamic State group (ISIS) “liberated” cities from kuffar, or non-believers, chopping offtheir heads in bloody, righteous celebration. There was no acting involved. The films showed real events. “I thought,” the boy recalls, “it would be fun to go to jihad.”

Today, the boy—who asked to be identified only as Mohammed for safety reasons—lives with his uncle in the Turkish town of Reyhanli. When we meet on a cool evening in May in his uncle’s tidy but crowded home, I am surprised to hear that the violence in those videos never frightened him. “They are kuffar, and it is OK to kill them,” he explains. Instead, he recalls feeling “excited” as he watched the action on screen or when he spotted ISIS fighters patrolling the streets of Raqqa, enforcing the exacting dress codes and mosque attendance mandated by their radical interpretation of Islamic law.

The drift of Mohammed and his two brothers toward ISIS worried his uncle, who asked to be identified only as Ra’ed. Last year, he convinced the boys’ father to move with his family out of Raqqa, the militant group’s main stronghold in Syria, and into Turkey. Today, Ra’ed and his own family share their home with the three boys—Mohammed, who is now 12, 10-year-old Ibrahim and 16-year-old Salim—and their parents. The boys are studying in a UNICEF-backed school for Syrian refugees. Hoping to shift their allegiance away from violent jihad, Ra’ed bought them iPads, has them pitch in at his second-hand clothing shop and tries to gently challenge their beliefs about what it means to be a good Muslim. But even after nine months away from the jihadi group, the boys still idolize the soldiers of the self-styled caliphate. “They are always yelling at me, ‘Why did you bring us here?’” Ra’ed says. “It’s going to take time. A brain is not like a computer. Once it downloads information, it cannot easily be erased.”

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BABY KILLERS Isis’s caliphate may be crumbling, but the thousands of children it has brainwashed could terrorize us for years. This week, we ask, can they be rehabilitated?
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