Despite stinging military defeats and enormous financial strains, Islamic State (IS) is working to imprint a lasting legacy on children through increasing in-classroom training in areas it controls and an aggressive social media campaign.
In its self-proclaimed caliphate, IS is schooling thousands of children in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other places in radical, anti-Western thought and ways of terror, VOA has found in interviews with activists, local officials and analysts.
IS bombards the internet and social media with propaganda aimed at children and uses dozens of languages and a vast array of social media tools to spread its message.
This goes to the heart of the IS mission, analysts say: to ensure IS’s radical message endures beyond the group itself.
In the long run, the IS indoctrination of children will likely have a chilling reverberation for years to come, experts say, way after IS has been removed from the cities it now controls.
“The next generation will be more radicalized regardless of continued (IS) presence in Syria and Iraq,” said Wajiha, a female teacher who used to teach elementary school students in the city of Deir Ezzor, Syria, which is currently controlled by IS.
The Syrian teacher who works at a school in a refugee camp in southern Turkey told VOA that IS aims to “invest in children for a long-lasting influence, because this is about its ideology and not just about recruiting them.” She asked that her last name not be published.
Day after day and with little break, IS oversees crowded classrooms in its de facto capitals of Raqqa, Syria; Mosul, Iraq, and Nangarhar province in Afghanistan – as well as IS pockets that stretch as far as Indonesia. It operates camps for children known as “Caliphate Cubs.”
“The Islamic State is mobilizing children and youth at an increasing and unprecedented rate,” researchers at Georgia State University wrote in a report earlier this year on how IS negatively influences children.
IS runs at least eight schools and religious seminaries where children and teenagers are taught extreme ideology in Nangarhar.
According to local residents and officials who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, IS operates two high schools and a religious seminary in the Kot district of Nangarhar.
Local sources told VOA that IS teaches a self-styled curriculum based on radical Islam. Girls are allowed to attend school but at different times from boys. Most of the teachers at the IS-run schools are on the payroll of both the Afghan Ministry of Education and IS, sources said.
Afghan education officials told VOA that they are aware of the IS schools but would not comment on reports that the teachers continue to be paid by the Afghan government while teaching at IS schools.
In Achin district of Afghanistan, where IS runs five religious seminaries, children are forced to attend IS-run classes. IS has imposed fines on parents who decide against sending their children to its schools, locals told VOA.
IS education model
The IS education model is followed wherever IS has control.
In Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that has been held by IS for more than two years, IS abolished the education system on the first day fighters entered the city and changed it to emphasize their radical ideology.
“They put children into classes where they learn how to use weapons,” said Ismat Rajab, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s headquarters in Mosul. “Teachers who protest the IS education system will be arrested or even killed if they insist on refusing the system.”
The IS educational system has taught young men how to become suicide bombers,” Rajab said.
“In the past, most of IS suicide bombers were foreign fighters. Now, the majority are teenagers of Mosul,” he said.
Rajab worries about how young people will be rehabilitated once IS leaves Mosul.
“I think we haven’t witnessed the real danger yet,” he said. “We will see it after IS is gone in Mosul and we are left in a big city where children are completely brainwashed.”
IS has moved some children from Iraq to Syria for stricter education.
Hundreds of young children from Yazidi religious minority in Iraq were taken by IS as slaves into Syria.
Trained suicide bombers
In Raqqa, the IS de facto Syrian capital, Yazidi children were forced to convert to Islam and were given lessons on how to use weapons and suicide belts.
“We had to wake up at 4 in the morning to pray and go back to sleep until 8,” a 12-year-old Yazidi boy told VOA last year.
“From 8 to 9 we had breakfast and then we were given lessons on the Koran until 12 when we were given lunch,” he said. “After lunch we were trained on weapons until 5. … We were wearing a black piece of cloth which had a white piece underneath that could be pulled to detonate the bombs.”
The boy eventually escaped to an area near the Turkish border where he was rescued by Kurdish forces. He was resettled as a refugee in Germany this year and is in a recovery program funded by the German government, aid workers told VOA.
In Raqqa, IS opened at least 12 schools for males and 12 other schools for females in 2015, according to activists monitoring IS operations. Since its takeover of the city in 2014, the group has imposed a new curriculum based on its extremist ideology.
Targeting youth of all ages, IS is particularly focused on children ages 6 through 10, according to Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group that reports on IS abuses in Syria.
“They have created an army of kids who know nothing but IS doctrines,” a member of the activist group who requested anonymity told VOA.
IS imposes a fine that ranges from $50 to $500 on parents who refuse to send their children to IS schools. Those who cannot afford to pay the fine are forced to let their children join IS camps for military training, he said.
Social media force
Meanwhile, IS has been relentless in teaching children in the medium they know best – social media.
IS recently launched a mobile application for children to teach them the Arabic language and strict Islamic teachings. The application has games for memorizing enticing Islamic songs. Their lyrics infuse Jihad against infidels.
An IS digital team, known as Library of Zeal, released the application that is now available on Android devices.
Mobile users can access the application only if they have a direct link from the owners of the product. IS supporters have posted the link on the social media platform Telegram, but it could also be downloaded directly from many mirroring websites.
Major social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter have continuously carried crackdown campaigns against IS supporters, shuttering their accounts and banning them from using the platforms to spread their hate messages.
But analysts say IS messaging online continues to grow.
"They have a team of very sophisticated experts that run an entire campaign online,” said Dlshad Othman, a cybersecurity expert with the ISC Project, a group that provides information security assistance to civil society activists.
The aim is to ultimately ensure IS’s radical message lives on beyond the group itself and stays long into the future.
IS social media this week distributed photos in several languages of children holding placards in IS territories offering "congratulations" on the deaths of Americans, apparently in reference to the Orlando massacre.
“As they train and indoctrinate (kids) at a young age, they are preparing the children to form their opinions and thoughts in a particular way so that they will become the fighters of tomorrow,” Othman said.
VOA’s Mehdi Jedinia contributed to this report.