Time Magazine reported last year that the Islamic State, also known as "ISIS" and "ISIL," acquires as many as 1,000 new fighters each month. Recently leaked documents have revealed that ISIS is making a concerted effort to brainwash and groom young recruits to become their next generation of soldiers.
The terrorist group's so-called "Cubs of the Caliphate" trainees may number in the thousands, and have been prominently featured in their propaganda videos over the past year. The youths, who range from small children to teenagers, hold rocket launchers, AK-47s and other heavy weaponry while posing for photos with ISIS banners. As members of the caliphate, these youths' duties are not much different from that of their adult counterparts--they are "educated" daily in the faction's religious mission, trained to use weapons and close-quarters combat techniques, and occasionally carry out suicide bombings and even executions.
A portion of ISIS's junior faction are victims of mass abduction campaigns during which ISIS takes hundreds of children over the course of a few weeks. The organization's agents use fear and deception to lure, pressure, and sometimes trick young targets into joining their ranks. But not all of their child prospects assimilate well to the ISIS way of life--young recruits who cannot be molded into ruthless fighters are sold off as sex slaves or killed, sometimes by cruel methods such as crucifixion or live burial.
I made a trip to the Middle East last year to do investigative reporting on ISIS's recruiting methods, and discussed their techniques with Lebanese social worker Maya Yamout. She, together with her sister Nancy, conducted interviews with thirty-five suspected terrorists being jailed in Lebanon. Yamout is also involved in "Rescue Me," a Lebanon-based NGO founded by her sister that works with vulnerable youth to prevent them from being recruited into ISIS and other terrorist organizations. She told me that based on the cases she interviewed in Roumieh prison in Lebanon, she believes that the Islamic State's ruthless recruiters convert desperate targets by preying on their weaknesses.
"Terrorists I interviewed confirmed that there is an ISIS recruiting agent in every corner in the world today. They prey on the vulnerable ones," Yamout said. "Those who are poor, they persuade them with money. Those with psychological troubles, they provide them with drugs."
"They gave us drugs: hallucinogenic pills that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die." 19-year-old former ISIS member Kareem Mufleh told CNN's Ivan Watson in November. "If they give you a suicide belt and tell you to blow yourself up, you'll do it."
In an interview with B.M., a 19-year-old ISIS member jailed for beheading a Lebanese soldier, B.M. told Yamout that ISIS forced [him] to use opium regularly until he developed a severe addiction. He said he was high and hadn't slept for days when he carried out the beheading.
Following ISIS's release of a chilling video depicting a young boy beheading a Syrian army officer last year, terrorism expert Will Geddes said it was obvious the child was on drugs as he carried out the gruesome act.
"It's probably cocaine or an amphetamine," said Geddes, the threat management firm International Corporate Protection. "His pupils are completely dilated and he has a thousand-yard stare. He looks like he's been wound up to do what he's about to do."
After the infamous ISIS attack that killed 130 people in Paris last year, survivors described their assailants' demeanor as 'peaceful' and 'zombie-like' while pouring bullets from their assault rifles into anything that moved. French media has since reported that evidence has surfaced indicating the gunmen may have been high on a drug called Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine-based pill ISIS uses to make their soldiers ignore pain and hunger while fighting for days on end.
Yamout told me during our interview that not all of ISIS's recruits are converted by coercion. She explained that children or young men who have lost their parents are often targeted by ISIS recruiters, who persuade them to join the ISIS 'family.'
"For those who have lost their father figure [due to abandonment, death or otherwise], they send someone to them to replace that missing element in their life," Yamout said.
"In fact, many of those I interviewed had the absent-father syndrome. They missed their father figure, so ISIS and other terrorist organizations send someone like a Sheikh to pretend they're there for them. Next thing you know, they are in Syria or Iraq fighting."
ISIS has focused an alarming amount of effort on developing their future force of terror, and sources report they are recruiting more children than adults. By forcing these 'cubs' to perform horrific acts of violence, ISIS aims to create a brutalized generation of fighters that will kill with reckless abandon.
Near the end of my interview with Yamout, I asked her how the world can thwart ISIS' plans to transform their child army into cold-blooded killing machines.
"The more we learn about ISIS, the more we know how to prevent terrorism," she told me. "The solution to halt their recruitment begins first with awareness, and then prevention."
Yamout and her sister are currently seeking full scholarship for a clinical social work doctoral program to continue studying about terrorists and extremism. Her will to expand her work is partially driven by interactions she had with one former prisoner in particular, who she says was a student of Usama Bin Laden.
"He was released a year ago because of 'lack of evidence'." Yamout was disappointed that Lebanese authorities had released him despite her warnings about his extremist views. "I last heard from him 9 months ago when we chatted via Skype. He told me that he was on the Turkish-Syrian border and wanted to go for Jihad to become a Shaheed (Martyr). Two years ago when I interviewed him in prison, he told me that ISIS will spread in Europe, and attacks will happen in many places like France," Yamout said. "He also said that ISIS has plans to create chaos all over the world, especially strong countries like USA, Canada, the UK, and Russia."