Skip to main content

CNN Exclusive: A 13-year-old witness to ISIS' beheadings, crucifixion in Syria

By Raja Razek, Nick Paton Walsh, and Nick Thompson, CNN
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN interviews 13-year-old boy who went to ISIS camp for children in northern Syria
  • The children at the camp witnessed lashings, stonings and crufixion, the boy says
  • The boy's father was told he would be beheaded if he didn't allow his son to attend the camp`

(CNN) -- The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.

He should be toddling around a playground with his friends. But instead, he wears a black balaclava, crouched down in a desolate street with his tiny hands clenched around an AK-47.

He pulls the trigger and the recoil of the shot knocks him back, his limbs unable to control the rifle. An adult takes the weapon from the boy's hands as he stands up and steps away, casting a blank glance into the camera.

It's just one of the many videos that ISIS -- the Sunni terror group that has declared an independent Islamic state stretching from northern Syria to central Iraq -- has produced to boast of its youngest "recruits."

ISIS infiltrating Kirkuk
Takeaways from ISIS Q&A with Jim Sciutto
Who are the Americans fighting for ISIS?
CNN speaks to British jihadi fighter

And as the radical Islamist group strengthens its hold on this huge swath of land in the heart of the Middle East, it is cramming its warped ideas into minds that are often too young to understand.

Mohammed, whose name has been changed out of fears for his safety, was one of them. He has now fled to safety in Turkey, but was just 13 when ISIS said he should attend one of their children's camps in northern Syria.

"My friends and I were studying at the mosque, and they taught us that we should enrol in jihad with the [Islamic State]," Mohammed told CNN. "I wanted to go, but my father did not allow me to."

When ISIS found out that Mohammed's father had prevented him from attending, the militants sent a patrol to their house.

"[They told me] 'if you prevent Mohammed from coming to the camp, we will cut off your head,'" his father, who declined to be named for this story, told CNN.

So off Mohammed went to the camp.

"For 30 days we woke up and jogged, had breakfast, then learned the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet," Mohammed says. "Then we took courses on weapons, Kalashnikovs and other light military stuff."

Some of the militants at the camp were kind, joking and laughing with the younger recruits. Others made the boys watch hideous things.

"They used to bring young [kids] to the camp to lash them," Mohammed says. "When we go to the mosque, they order us to come the next day at a specific time and place to [watch] heads cut off, lashings or stonings."

"We saw a young man who did not fast for Ramadan, so they crucified him for three days, and we saw a woman being stoned [to death] because she committed adultery."

Mohammed says he understood some of the lessons taught at the camp -- like the importance of prayer and fasting -- but didn't understand words like "infidels," and why he should fight them.

The boys would take oaths of allegiance to ISIS' leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and were considered ready to fight once they completed the religious and military courses taught at the camp.

Mohammed's father, terrified for his son, tried to visit him several times, but was turned back by guards who told him that the boy wasn't there, or on patrol somewhere else.

"He is only a child, they might make him a suicide bomber and [convince him] that will be in paradise and stuff like that," he said. Despite his fears, Mohammed's father expressed doubt that the militants' lessons would truly stick in his son's mind.

"How can a child like that be convinced? Where is the conviction in that? He is a child, it's not possible," he said. "He just saw his friends and kids his age went to the camp, so he wanted to go with them for entertainment. They thought war and guns were entertainment."

Mohammed's father was eventually able to pull him out of the camp, and the family fled to Turkey.

Now Mohammed doesn't know what to do. He doesn't want to go back to school -- he thinks he's too old for that now -- and thinks he might like to learn the trade his father practiced before they were forced to flee their home, fearful of what ISIS militants would make him do.

Mohammed says one of his friends at the camp has been killed on the front lines of ISIS' war with more moderate rebel groups fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"He was martyred in Deir Ezzor when he fought the Free Syrian Army with ISIS," Mohammed says. "He was my age, 13 or 14 years old."

ISIS may preach absolute fealty to Islam, but Mohammed doesn't recognize the militants' message in his own understanding of his religion.

"I love my religion because I am a Muslim," he said. "And I used to go with my father for the prayers before ISIS came. But my father has taught me that religion is not about fighting, but it is about love and forgiveness."

Mohammed and his family are safe now. But as ISIS spreads its tentacles across the region, an increasing number of Syrians have nowhere to hide -- and the group's murderous drive to convert everyone they encounter knows no age limits.

READ MORE: Does Britain have a jihadi problem?
OPINION: Why ISIS is immune to "naming and shaming"
READ MORE: Mom's plea to ISIS militants holding her son

Part of complete coverage on
ISIS
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1847 GMT (0247 HKT)
Former Kremlin adviser says Obama may be ready to deal with Putin on ISIS.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 2318 GMT (0718 HKT)
The owner of an upstate New York food store funded ISIS, tried to send jihadists to Syria and plotted to do some killing himself.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
By producing the magazine, ISIS is taking a cue from al Qaeda, which has advocated terrorist attacks in its glossy publication, Inspire.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0647 GMT (1447 HKT)
After the beheading of another Western captive by ISIS, an international conference convened in Paris to talk about how to tackle the threat of ISIS.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
The beheading of British aid worker David Haines by ISIS has intensified fears for other Western hostages being held by the jihadist group.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
The atrocious murder of David Haines puts the United Kingdom and in particular PM David Cameron front and center in the evolving battle against ISIS.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0919 GMT (1719 HKT)
CNN's Anna Coren is on the front lines with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they fight ISIS in Northern Iraq.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1008 GMT (1808 HKT)
Deb Feyerick explores the lives & dossiers of ISIS & Al-Qaeda's top leaders.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0241 GMT (1041 HKT)
The family of aid worker David Haines is speaking out about his brutal murder by ISIS militants. Nic Robertson reports.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1758 GMT (0158 HKT)
These are the nations involved and what's known about their contributions.
September 14, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
Three brutal executions. Three horrifyingly similar scripts.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
ISIS has captured the minds of a new generation of global jihadists. What does it mean for al Qaeda?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
Is it ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Daiish?
Here's a look at some of the major instances in which the U.S. military took action against Islamist groups or international terrorism.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
Tom Foreman examines what we don¹t yet know about ISIS.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
To the outside world, they're a force of ruthless yet mysterious insurgents bent on terrorizing civilians and expanding Islamic rule.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2021 GMT (0421 HKT)
ISIS has become the new face of international terrorism in the eyes of the United States and its Western allies.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
As its adversaries regroup, ISIS -- which now calls itself the Islamic State -- may begin to suffer setbacks on the battlefield.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0325 GMT (1125 HKT)
Will ISIS be the first terror group to build an Islamic state?
A CNN interactive showing the presence of ISIS in the Middle East.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Jim Sciutto explains the similarities and differences between these Islamist jihadis.
ADVERTISEMENT