Children born to wives and fighters of the crumpled ISIS caliphate who are now left to fend for themselves in wretched refugee camps throughout Syria are being radicalized at increasingly younger ages, an ominous trend that's emerged as the newest front in the ongoing battle to stop terror from taking root in new generations.
At the al-Hol camp in Syria's northeast Rojava region, the problem is on full display.
“We will stand on the heads of the apostates and crush them one by one. By the will of Allah, Islamic State caliphate remains,” five young boys and one little girl chant confidently with fingers waving, an ISIS signature, from inside a tent purportedly at al-Hol.
The disturbing new video, obtained this week by jihadist monitoring service Jihadoscope after being circulated on pro-ISIS Telegram channels, comes on the heels of two other videos which surfaced last week from al-Hol, featuring a group of black burqa-clad women beside an ISIS flag.
“The sun arose on the Islamic State; believers have come from all corners of the world in order to join the glory of jihad. However, the non-believers did not stand down and gathered their forces under the banner of the malicious coalition to kill the Mujahedeen,” the women say, referencing ISIS militants as freedom fighters. “The mujahedeen proved courageous and legendary… We are living in terrible conditions. We see them walking around freely in their (infidel) ways… We are longing to return to the land of (the Caliphate).”
The women also offer a shout-out to their “brothers in the prisons,” insisting they remain both “faithful” and “pure” and are now “more fierce than the lioness when she feels a threat coming.” They also speak to ISIS' mysterious sought-after leader.
“Our last message is to our dear, our crown, Abu Bakr the Khalifa, we say to you: stay on this righteous path,” they say. “There is no life here with these pigs and apes, and living under their bombs and machine guns… We’d rather die than live among them. And to you enemies of God, do you really think you will get away with what you did in Baghouz? We are like a ticking bomb. You wait and see what will happen to you.”
Most of the wives and children – many of whom are of Syrian and Iraqi origin – arrived at the camp in open-cattle trucks before and after the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces took over the final ISIS stronghold of Baghouz in late March.
“During the height of the ISIS caliphate, there were literally thousands of children being radicalized by ISIS. Dubbed ‘cubs of the caliphate,’ many of these boys and young teen would often appear in segments focusing on training camps where children were readied for combat,” Raphael Gluck, founding partner of Jihadoscope, told Fox News. “And now there is severe infighting in the camp, with a very vocal element loyal to ISIS. The women also made note of the fact that they are raising the ‘cubs,’ the next generation of ISIS fighters.”
Indeed, many of the children in al-Hol are still in the care of their mothers, who also may be radicalized, and there is little in the way of professional help or programs designed to de-radicalize.
“Though relief agencies are trying to get children into educational environments and get them other necessary care, they remain surrounded by ISIS members – both widows and fighters who have embedded themselves among the refugees,” said David Ibsen, Director of the Counter Extremism Project. “They still believe the ideology and are dedicated to promulgating it, which means they are going to do whatever they can to reinforce the ideology in the children.”
According to a May report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 11,000 children at the camp between the ages of 6 and 18 have not been to school at all in the past five years, thus as Ibsen underscored, “these children haven’t known much else other than life under ISIS.”
Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Research Institute underscored that continued use of children in ISIS propaganda. Last week, the terrorist outfit released a video titled “Victory is to the Most Pious” featuring armed boys sitting and studying the Quran, and weeks earlier disseminated a poster of a boy in fatigues with the text “London, stay tuned for the invasion of the Caliphate Cubs!”
That same week, boys at the al-Hol camp could be seen in footage raising their own homemade ISIS flag, Stalinsky said.
Since the final fall of Baghouz this year, more than 150 children are alleged to have died from war wounds and illnesses according to the World Health Organization. All the while, most foreign governments hesitate to bring the families of fighters’ home citing myriad reasons including legal and safety pitfalls and a lack of adequate psychological resources. Similarly, there is next to no political desire from Baghdad or Damascus to assimilate the languishing ISIS families.
The squalid al-Hol camp has swelled to more than 70,000 displaced persons – some 30,000 over capacity with more than half being under the age of 12. It is filled with both those belonging to ISIS families and those who were victims of the terror group’s brutality.
The guards put in place by the Kurdish Syrian leadership that governs Rojava have long expressed concerns the extremist women and children also present an inherent danger to their own safety and the safety of the broader civilian population. In early March, a female ISIS militant stabbed a guard and, a couple of weeks later, camp guards were forced to shoot as a mob of ISIS-aligned women launched attacks.
“ISIS women are sometimes painted as innocent victims, but many of these women played a crucial role in indoctrinating their children through formal education and indoctrination in the home,” observed Thomas McClure, a researcher for the Rojava Information Center. “This indoctrination is ongoing, as ISIS women organize ideological training for their children in tents, out of sight of the camp authorities.”
He pointed out the salaries of SDF fighters have been cut just to meet the exorbitant daily costs of running the camp, and that only covers the basic supplies and barely the security that is needed. All the while, the radicalization is manifesting itself through hostility to outsiders, to education and to camp authorities.
In May, UNICEF called on UN member states to assist the displaced children, stressing that they must be repatriated to their homeland as soon as possible and that they are “among the world’s most vulnerable.”
“Children are basically blank slates and ISIS took advantage of their innocence to indoctrinate the next generation of fighters,” Ibsen added. “But the threat is that these children will continue to grow up clinging to ISIS’s ideology and one day will put it into action. Until the children are properly de-programmed, they remain threats to everyone which is why it is so important to ensure that they are removed from ISIS’s influence.”