They brainwashed our boys and made them watch beheading videos

Published by The Mail on Sunday (11th October, 2014)

Hamid’s son had been missing for a week, seized by Islamic State gunmen along with 148 other schoolchildren, when a friend discovered the fanatics had posted a contact number for distraught parents on the internet.

He called the number and a militant put the terrified 13-year-old on the line. ‘He was really scared and crying so much,’ said Hamid. ‘I tried to calm him down and say it would be all right, but then I started crying too. I couldn’t help it.’

Seconds later, a jihadi leader took the phone and told the Kurdish car dealer that the seized pupils would only be let go if a group of captured IS fighters was freed.

Hamid pleaded they were poor people without influence, begging him to spare their sons. ‘If they are not released within one week we will start killing your children, one by one,’ replied the callous terrorist leader.

The teenage boys were not killed, however. Instead they were brainwashed, forced to watch horrific videos of beheadings and torture, then viciously beaten with cables if they failed to memorise Koranic verses or even if they drank water without permission.

Their captors included many foreign extremists – among them a white British doctor in his late 30s who treated the boys after the most savage beatings.

Many of the boys were finally freed last week after almost five months in captivity. But delight turned to dismay for their families when the boys started telling their fathers they would soon be slaughtered by jihadis and ordered ‘indecent’ mothers and sisters to cover their faces.

‘It was like they had been infected with a mental disease,’ said Hamid. ‘They were praying all the time, not talking to us and behaving so strangely.’

The saga of the 149 seized pupils, subjected to intensive mind control to convert them into militants, gives chilling new insight into the cruelties of the terror group that has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria.

The children were from Kobane, the key Syrian border town being besieged by IS. Their astonishing story emerged as I spoke to some of the 200,000 Kurds forced to flee their homes in the region.

I stood by these refugees as they cheered from over the Turkish border while watching bombs dropped by US-led coalition aircraft flatten buildings flying the black flag of the jihadis.

The thump of mortar shells and sounds of gunfire were clearly audible from street fighting in the town lying just across fields, as IS launched a fresh assault on the key Kurdish stronghold yesterday. Cars abandoned by fleeing families could be seen parked in panic on the border, while there are fears hundreds of trapped civilians face massacre.

Local and international fury is growing over the inaction of Turkey, a Nato ally seeking to join the European Union. Some 16 tanks and armoured personnel carriers were on a hill nearby me; several had guns trained on their own towns, not Syria.

Turkey led calls for action against Syrian President Bashar Assad – but its rulers fear Kurdish separatists more than the Islamist fanatics of IS. The country, home to 15 million Kurds, fought a secessionist insurgency for three decades until a ceasefire two years ago.

Kurdish leaders accuse Turkey of supplying jihadis with weapons. ‘We have hundreds of youngsters who want to go and fight these people but Turkey will not let them cross the border,’ said Bakr Hadj Issa, a political activist from Kobane.

More stories of murder and mayhem emerged yesterday. One man told me how IS thugs beheaded a well-known character with learning difficulties called Rashid, then drove around the streets dragging his body behind a car. ‘They do things like this to scare the population,’ said Farid Hinadi, a mechanic who witnessed the atrocity before escaping Kobane last week.

Even amid such horrors, the brainwashing of schoolboys marks a terrible new twist in Syria’s nightmare. The story was confirmed by six families, most of whom asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

The children were captured at a checkpoint on May 29, as they were happily returning home in buses after 17 days of exams in Aleppo. Masked gunmen separated boys from girls, then took 149 Kurdish teenagers to a mosque in Minbij, an hour’s drive from Kobane.

‘They were very scary,’ said one 13-year-old. ‘There were many foreigners among them.’

The frightened boys were groomed with hours of lectures in radical Islam. They were told women should be covered up, that alcohol and music were forbidden, that earthly life was meaningless and killing disbelievers was the surest path to paradise.

‘They instructed us that jihad was an obligation and we would all be bought to justice before God on the day of judgment,’ said one 15-year-old.

Every couple of days the boys were shown videos which became steadily more barbaric, with footage of beheadings, suicide operations and slaughtering of enemies. ‘They played emotional games to brainwash our boys to their cause, putting such heavy pressure on them,’ said one father, a market trader. ‘I have no doubt they wanted them to join their jihad.’

Slowly but surely, this intense indoctrination began to influence the boys. ‘I did not believe in it,’ a farmer’s son told me. ‘But after watching these videos, some of my friends said that when they left the prison they would return to join Daesh [the Arabic name for IS].’

The slightest infraction led to vicious beatings with cables on the boys’ backs or legs.One was left so badly wounded he could barely walk for ten days; another group was singled out for specially brutal violence lasting hours after other boys informed on escape plans.

These teenagers were treated afterwards by a brown-haired European identified as ‘the British doctor’ by other militants. There were also several other guards from Europe.

For the parents, the boys’ release ended an awful ordeal. ‘I was so sad, so scared and lost all hope,’ said Abu Azad, 54, whose 13 year-old son was badly beaten twice while held captive. But any joy was short-lived for many of the families, however, as they discovered how their lost children had been indoctrinated.

‘My son was praying all the time and talking about slaughtering people, which was very frightening,’ said one middle-class father. ‘He kept asking why we were not praying and was saying Daesh were coming to slaughter us. He was telling his mother and sisters to cover themselves up since they were indecent.’

After a week with his secular family, this studious 15-year-old had returned to his old self and he looked embarrassed when we discussed his brief burst of zealotry.

Yet clearly some of the Kurdish teenagers remain militantly religious – with at least one intent on returning to join the fanatics. ‘Some of these children still pray regularly and remain influenced by their experiences and the religious teaching,’ a local teacher said. He speculated the aim was also to sow disunity among besieged Kurds in Kobane.

But for 29 of these families, the hell continues as their sons, seized five months ago by the world’s most lethal terror group, remain captive.

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