Educated in terror: Deprogramming the children ISIS taught to kill

HAMMAM AL-ALIL, Iraq — The UN refugee camp near this small town just south of Mosul is a sun-baked sea of white tents. In one tent, 15-year-old Atallah Saleh swats at flies and looks at the ground shyly. His sweet smile disappears as he describes the three years he spent under ISIS rule.

"When Daesh came, they taught us how to be suicide bombers and make IEDs," he says, his eyes glistening with tears. "They distributed books about their propaganda. The teachers at school taught us how to hold a Kalashnikov, how to shoot and kill, how to become a suicide bomber and fight the jihad."

From a military standpoint, ISIS, or Daesh as it is known here, looks like it might be on its way out of Iraq. Some in the media are already calling the fall of Mosul the end of the terror group in the country.

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Children return to school in former ISIS prison
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Children return to school in former ISIS prison
Students are seen leaving, after class, the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Schoolchildren sit on mats as they attend a class in 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Students salvage books and items inside a classroom in 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A student poses as she holds a Unicef-donated school bag in 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Islamic State militants covered the UNICEF logo featured on the bag with the slogan "Flower of the Caliphate" when they were in control of al-Rai town. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A teacher writes on a broken whiteboard during a class at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Students attend a class at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A student carries belongings in a plastic bag as he arrives to attend a class at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A student writes on a broken whiteboard during a class at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Students sit on damaged desks at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Students gesture as they stand in line at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A student carries a Unicef-donated school bag in 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Islamic State militants covered the UNICEF logo featured on the bags with the slogan "Cubs of the Caliphate" when they were in control of al-Rai town. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Students play at the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Students stand amid damaged desks and books in 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A damaged laboratory model of a human head is seen inside the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A classroom used as a prison by Islamic State militants is pictured inside the 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from them, Syria January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Students' shoes are seen on a broken window in 'Aisha Mother of the Believers�school which was recently reopened after rebels took control of al-Rai town from Islamic State militants, Syria January 16, 2017. Picture taken January 16, 2017. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-SCHOOL. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
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But ISIS came to Iraq not just to conquer, but to settle. In every territory under its control, the group took over schools and mosques, installing radical imams and teachers to inject its ideology into a new generation. As ISIS loses ground militarily, the civilians it spent years indoctrinating are now scattered across the country in refugee camps.

Some camps are reported to have inhumane living conditions. Others are plagued by retaliatory violence against their Sunni Muslim residents. All provide a potential incubator for terror, as youths like Atallah who have already absorbed the radical Islamist mentality of ISIS begin to nurture resentment against their liberators.

Related: ISIS Militants Live Among Liberated Civilians in Mosul

ISIS was born from the DNA of a group that was once thought to be defeated, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Local leaders like Qassem Maslah, a brigade commander in a militia that has been fighting ISIS in Iraq, the Hashd al-Shaabi, worry that that ISIS could experience a similar resurgence in a few years via the thousands of youths it has indoctrinated.

"When a chicken lays eggs, and then the chicken dies, the eggs stay and turn into new chickens," says Maslah. "These groups have different names, but they are all the same."

"[W]hen Daesh came to this area, to these villages — these are poor people. They herd animals; they are not educated. So Daesh built the Salafist, takfiriideology into them. They were training children from six, seven years old, to hold weapons and kill people. What we need is to reeducate them in schools, and teachers should show them how to get rid of these ideas, because they are children and these things stay in their minds."

Related: ISIS Revenue Falls 80 Percent as Militants Lose Ground

Zaid Adil Sultan, the Hammam al-Alil camp manager, says the ISIS school curriculum was intended to keep the jihadi ideology alive among the young even if the group was defeated.

"They gave them 'courses' that encouraged violence and taught them the concept and ideology of jihad," he says. "In math, instead of teaching them that one plus one equals two, they taught them that one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets. They opened workshops to prepare [boys] to fight, show them how to build muscle, things like that... they put young boys in mosques and gave them lectures on Islam and how to be a true jihadi."

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ISIS jails hidden in plain sight in Mosul
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ISIS jails hidden in plain sight in Mosul
Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division stand outside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division stands inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A coffee mug is seen on a table at a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A steel gate leads to a section of a compound used as prison for men inside a building abandoned by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division searches through a desk inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Clothing left behind by Islamic State militants is seen on the floor in a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Rotten food is seen on a kitchen table inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The photo of an unidentified girl is seen on a desk inside a compound used as prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mattresses of prisoners are seen inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Documents and envelopes are scattered inside an office, at a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Damaged surveillance monitors are seen in the control room in a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Materials for making self-made bombs are seen on the floor inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen in a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division holds a self-made bomb found inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division inspect the cables of the surveillance system inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division inspects a room used as a cell for women inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen as he opens a steel gate to a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
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Sultan works at the camp's school, at the center of the sea of bleached tents, where teachers try to undo the influence of ISIS. Sultan says those kids who were forced to attend ISIS schools were deeply traumatized by the experience.

"After we opened [the] camp and children started to come in, we saw that their psychological situation was a disaster," Sultan explains. "They were afraid of noises, planes — you cannot describe how bad their state of mind was. But we've opened workshops to help them repair their psychological problems. We have a psychologist and psychiatrist who specialize in this kind of trauma treatment. We try to teach them that Daesh is gone and they shouldn't be afraid...we opened courses on true Islam and how they should live as Muslims."

Related: ISIS Leader Who Approved Sex Slaves Killed By U.S. Airstrike

But according to Sultan, these attempts at reprogramming don't always stick. "The hardest age to treat is boys from 14 years old to 17," he says. "People have told me that before their sons went to those schools, they were okay, but after they went, they were coming home, hitting their siblings and threatening to kill them."

The "mentality," said Sultan, is "very difficult to eradicate. We are working hard, but the circumstances are not good for making sure Daesh doesn't come back as a different group."

Atallah's father, Saleh Saleh, a regal, elderly sheikh with three wives and many children, holds court in the family tent, which simmers in the midday heat. He was troubled by how his kids behaved after absorbing the ISIS brand of education.

"When the children came home, I would tell them not to listen to anything they heard from Daesh, that what they were telling the kids was all lies," says Saleh. "But they are children, and they sometimes would repeat things without understanding them. That is what they were seeing and hearing every day."

Saleh says he knows many boys around Atallah's age who were unable to let go of the ISIS mentality, even after they were liberated and moved to camps.

"I saw many kids who followed ISIS after they went to these schools and eventually became Daesh," he says. "Since the NGOs came to work in the camp and reeducate the children, it's gotten better. But before they came, when the camps were first established, there were many children like that."

One of Saleh's wives, a young Bedouin, beckons and points to a tent just across the street. "That woman's husband was just arrested for being Daesh two days ago," she says quietly. "They took him away and put him in prison. She has a son Atallah's age."

Young Atallah Saleh says the brutal ideology of ISIS doesn't hold any appeal for him. But it's clear he won't be recovering from the group's education anytime soon.

"I see the men who taught us in school in my dreams," he says. "I can see their beards and their eyes. Everything about them was frightening."

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