Before war convulsed his hometown in Syria, Usaid Barho played soccer, loved Jackie Chan movies and adored the beautiful Lebanese pop singer Nancy Ajram. He dreamed of attending college and becoming a doctor.
His life, to say the least, took a detour.
On a recent evening in Baghdad, Usaid, who is 14, approached the gate of a Shiite mosque, unzipped his jacket to show a vest of explosives, and surrendered himself to the guards.
“They seduced us to join the caliphate,” he said several days later in an interview with The New York Times at a secret Iraqi intelligence site where he is being held.
Usaid described how he had been recruited by the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from a mosque in his hometown, Manbij, near Aleppo. He said he joined the group willingly because “I believed in Islam.”
“They planted the idea in me that Shiites are infidels and we had to kill them,” he said in the interview, which took place in the presence of an Iraqi intelligence official.
If he did not fight, he was told, Shiites would come and rape his mother.
He soon found himself in Iraq, but he quickly had misgivings and wanted to escape. His best chance, he decided, was a risky deception: volunteer to be a suicide bomber so he could surrender to security forces.
The wars in Syria and Iraq have set grim new standards for the exploitation and abuse of children. Thousands of them have been killed or maimed through indiscriminate bombings, in crossfire and, in some cases, executions. Young girls from minority groups, especially Yazidis in Iraq, have been captured as sex slaves by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Young boys have been given rifles and told to staff checkpoints or patrol neighborhoods – or have been recruited, as Usaid was, to become suicide bombers.
In the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has established centers for the military and religious training of children, in an effort to indoctrinate them and build a new generation of warriors.
One of the group’s videos, depicting a camp near Mosul, in northern Iraq, calls the children the “cubs of the caliphate.” At the camp – named for the brutal leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by an American airstrike in 2006 – children are shown doing physical fitness exercises and reciting the Quran, while an instructor explains that they are being trained to fight “hate-filled Shiites.”
The United Nations wrote in a report last month, “ISIS prioritizes children as a vehicle for ensuring long-term loyalty, adherence to their ideology and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life.”
The United Nations has released a catalog of horrors inflicted on children by the Islamic State. In Raqqa, Syria, the militants’ de facto capital, the group has gathered children for screenings of execution videos. It has forced children to participate in public stonings. And in many of the group’s grisly execution videos, children are seen among the audience. (Usaid said that his parents did not allow him to attend the public executions in his town, typically held after Friday Prayer.)
In the aftermath of one videotaped beheading in Deir al-Zour, Syria, children are seen playing with the victim’s head and mocking the corpse, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors the communications of extremist groups.
Referring to past wars and the role of children, Laurent Chapuis, the regional child protection adviser for the Middle East and North Africa for the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said: “When it comes to recruitment, in the past, kids were predominantly supporters – messengers or spies. It seems now they are pushed to take a more active role.”
Chapuis said that all parties in the wars, including pro-government militias in both countries, were guilty of abuses of children. What sets the Islamic State apart, he said, is how “public and aggressive” they are in their exploitation.
Usaid’s account of how he went from a Syrian childhood that he said was not particularly religious to become a jihadist held in an Iraqi cell is one of the few firsthand accounts from an Islamic State child soldier-turned-defector.
First, after the Islamic State took control of his town, Usaid was drawn to the local mosque. “We started being taught that Shiites were raping Sunni women, and that Shiites were killing Sunni men,” he said.
He now says he was brainwashed. But he admits that he willingly ran away from home one morning on his way to school and joined a training camp in the desert. For about a month, he was put through military training, and he was taught how to shoot an assault rifle and how to storm a building. He had two meals a day, mostly cheese and eggs.
Soon, though, he said, “I noticed things I saw that were different from Islam.”
Back home he saw the group inflict severe punishments on men who were caught smoking cigarettes, yet in the camp, he said, he saw fighters smoking. He said he saw men having sex with other men behind the tents in the desert night. And, he said, he was increasingly put off by “the way they are killing innocent people.”
At the end of the training, he was told his trainers wanted him to go fight in Iraq. He was driven, with other new fighters, in a minibus to Mosul.
There, the recruits were given a choice: be a fighter or a suicide bomber.
“I raised my hand to be a suicide bomber,” he said. That, he figured, would give him the best chance at defecting.
“If I were a fighter and tried to surrender to security forces they might kill me, with my gun in my hand,” he said.
Within a few days, he was taken, along with a German volunteer, on a circuitous journey to Baghdad. He said he was passed from one Islamic State operative to another and stayed at various safe houses along the way – including a photo studio and a house covered by reeds. He spent a week in Fallujah, waiting. Finally, he arrived in the early morning at an apartment in Baghdad, where he had tea and kebabs for breakfast.
He was shuttled to another apartment, where he took a nap. Two hours later, he was shaken awake.
“Wake up, wake up, it is time to put your vest on,” he was told.
He was given his target: a Shiite mosque in the neighborhood of Bayaa.
A few hours later, at dusk, he walked up to the mosque gate.
“I opened up my jacket and said, ‘I have a suicide vest, but I don’t want to blow myself up.'”
The chaotic scene that unfolded, as a plainclothes officer snipped off the vest, was captured on cellphone video by a bystander and distributed over social media. “Keep the people away!” one officer yelled.
What happens now to Usaid is unclear. He said he wanted to be reunited with his family in Syria, but the Iraqi authorities have not tried to reach them. The intelligence officer who has been interrogating him said he needed more time to investigate the case.
During the interview, the officer playfully tapped Usaid on the knee and the top of his head, and urged him to eat baklava. “Eat more sweets, they are good for you,” he said.
Usaid said he still planned to become a doctor, and hoped to study in Turkey. He said that he missed his mother, and that the Iraqis had promised to return him to his parents one day.
Before the war, he said: “We were a normal family. It was just a normal life.”
Whether he has a chance at a normal life again depends, in part, on how the Iraqis treat him: as a terrorist or as an exploited child.
During the interview, Usaid was dressed in a gray sweatshirt and cargo pants, and he was not handcuffed. A few days later, though, he appeared on state television in handcuffs and a yellow prison jumpsuit. The television host labeled him a terrorist, and he was made to re-enact his surrender.
Yet Saad Maan, the spokesman for both the Interior Ministry and the Baghdad Operations Command, appeared Tuesday on state television and described Usaid as a victim of the Islamic State.
And the intelligence officer who has been interrogating Usaid, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of his work, said he and other intelligence agents would oppose any efforts to prosecute Usaid.
“Even if he was brought to court, we would be on his side, because he saved lives,” he said.