Islamic State crisis: The 13-year-old on 'righteous path'
- 6 November 2014
- From the section Middle East
In a cramped living room in southern Turkey, a 13-year-old boy is training to join Islamic State.
As he welcomes us in, he appears a regular, happy-looking child: his hair is ruffled, his smile beaming, he wears a grey, hooded sweater.
But as we sit down to talk, he heads next door to change, returning in a black balaclava and military-style camouflage top.
He wants to be known as "Abu Hattab".
Born in Syria, he was first radicalised last year, joining the jihadist group Sham al-Islam.
He had Sharia lessons and learned how to use weapons, proudly showing us pictures in which he takes aim with machine guns.
Now he spends his days online, watching jihadist videos and chatting on Facebook to IS fighters.
Within weeks, he says, he'll go to the IS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria to become a young jihadi soldier.
"I like Islamic State because they pursue Sharia and kill infidels, non-Sunnis and those who converted from Islam," he says.
"The people killed by Islamic State are American agents. We must behead them as Allah said in the Koran."
I ask whether he has disclosed his age to those to whom he talks online.
"At the start, I didn't," he says.
"But recently I told them - and now they contact me even more, sending me photos and news."
But why not simply enjoy his childhood, I ask?
"I don't want to go out with friends or have fun. Allah ordered us to work and fight for the next life - for paradise. Before, I went to the park or the seaside.
"But then I realised I was wrong - and I've taken the righteous path."
His family now lives in Turkey - so would he launch an attack here, or in Britain for example?
"Britain should be attacked because it's in Nato and is against Islamic State," he says, "but we would kill only those who deserve it. If they ask me to attack Turkey and give me a holy order, I would do it. Soon the West will be finished."
At home, he and his mother, who wants to be known as Fatima, lead a devout life.
She spends much of her time studying the Koran and admits strong sympathies for the militants.
Last year, she sent her son for training with Sham al-Islam - but denies brainwashing him.
"I never encouraged him to join Islamic State," she insists.
"I support some of their beliefs but not others. But I think they came to help the Syrian people - unlike the evil powers around the world."
If she's not encouraging him, I ask, what is she doing to stop her son losing his childhood to extreme violence?
"I can't stop him if he wants to fight," she says.
"War makes children grow up fast. I want him to become a future leader - an emir."
Steadily her voice grows in intensity, her eyes narrowing in anger above the scarf she uses to cover her face.
"I would not be sad if he killed Westerners. I'm ashamed that my other sons are working peacefully for civil society groups - they must take up arms."
How would she feel, I ask, if he dies fighting for Islamic State?
She pauses. "I would be so happy," she replies, before bowing her head to cry.
$100 per month
Islamic State is recruiting widely among children, according to a United Nations report released last month - and often forcibly.
One video posted online, called "cubs of the Islamic State", appears to show a battalion of children dressed in full military garb, holding weapons and standing next to an IS black flag.
Other jihadist groups are also using child soldiers, Human Rights Watch reporting recently that they're deployed as suicide bombers and snipers.
In the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, we met a Syrian civil society activist who has seen his two younger brothers - 13 and 15 years old - fall victim to a recruitment drive by Jabat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria.
Mohamed, 21, shows me a video of his youngest brother firing heavy artillery with a group of fighters.
In other pictures, he poses for the camera gripping a machine gun.
"I tried to stop my brothers from joining al-Nusra but they didn't care what I felt," he says.
"They should be at school. Al-Nusra offers children $100 per month to fight with them. And they give them weapons-training in a camp. Their childhood has been taken."
Both brothers have recently been captured by Islamic State. Mohamed fears they'll soon defect from al-Nusra to fight with IS.
"I used to have fun with my youngest brother at home. But then he changed. When I told him al-Nusra would destroy our country, he said 'shut up, or I'll kill you'.
"I said goodbye to both of them when they went to join al-Nusra and I thought: I'll never see them again. I'm sure I'll get news that they've been killed."
Syria's war is blackening the formative years of a generation.
And militants are preying upon children as tools of that war, their innocence stolen too early.
As I left the house of "Abu Hattab", I asked his mother what her 13-year-old wanted to become when he was even younger.
She smiled: "A pilot."