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Aiming for Paradise with the Cubs of the Caliphate

Aiming for Paradise with the Cubs of the Caliphate features 18-year-old Abu Yousef, a Syrian ISIS defector who served in the ISIS Cubs of the Caliphate at the age of 16. Abu Yousef was interviewed in 2016 by Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. The  video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team. It highlights the indoctrination experiences and abuse of youth in the ISIS Cubs of the Caliphate.

Prior to the Syrian uprising, Abu Yousef was an orphan living with his uncle, as his parents had been killed in a car accident. At first, Abu Yousef joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with his uncles, but after being displaced by the conflicts—and against the advice of his uncles—he joined ISIS. As a sixteen-year-old, he was taken away to join the Cubs of the Caliphate, without anyone asking permission of his family. He recalls being taken under the wing of a Chechen ISIS cadre.

Abu Yousef was worried about his survival. At first, he was  thrilled to receive money, as well as religious and weapons training from ISIS. Overtime, however, he became deeply disillusioned with the terrorist group. The Cubs of the Caliphate training camp housed hundreds of youth, with the majority being nine and ten-year olds. Abu Yousef recalls the ISIS trainers being harsh with them, and even training the youth to attack other Muslims.

Abu Yousef tells how ISIS was so successful at indoctrinating youth, that when asked if they wanted to see their parents, ISIS Cubs would answer no, that they only wanted to attain Paradise. And ISIS was happy to comply—sending many of them on suicide missions.

Eventually, afraid and disgusted by ISIS, Abu Yousef decided to risk his life by escaping to Turkey, where ICSVE researchers interviewed him. Abu Yousef finishes his account by telling viewers that “ISIS is not righteous. They are murtadeen [apostates]. They know nothing about religion.”

While ISIS has lost territory in Iraq and much of Syria, with much of its leadership either being decapitated or remaining on the run,  the group is still managing to lure recruits from all over the globe to travel to the conflict zones in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Perhaps more worrisome is the fact that ISIS continues to inspire, order, and orchestrate homegrown attacks. Abu Yousef’s words of warning are important for youth all around the world who might be consuming ISIS propaganda: “Don’t come. Don’t join ISIS. Don’t be impressed by them, because they are not righteous.”

Timed transcript of Aiming for Paradise with the Cubs of the Caliphate video:

0:02    My father and my mother died in a car accident.

0:07    I didn’t have anyone but my uncles. I lived at my uncle’s.

0:14    I joined the Free Syrian Army at age 16.

0:21    ABU YOUSEF

Former ISIS Child Soldier

I didn’t go to school. My parents died and I didn’t get any education.

0:26    I just worked as a shepherd for a living.

0:29    I joined the Free Syrian Army. I stayed with them for six months.

0:35    When ISIS took over, we were displaced.

0:40   But I joined them when we came back.

0:43    At first, my uncle was against it.

0:48    When I went to the mosque, I called Abu Kaswara, a Chechen foreign fighter.

0:55    I told him that my uncle is against [ISIS].

1:04    He told me, ‘Get your stuff and come with me.’ I went with them.

1:12    They took me to their camp. I stayed there for about a month.

1:18    I wanted to be with [ISIS] because I had no one. I needed money to survive.

1:27    When I joined them, they first taught me about religion.

1:34    They gave me weapons training. I was thrilled.

1:39    In the end, I uncovered the truth about them. They weren’t righteous.

1:47    They taught me for two months at the mosque.

1:54    They took me to a camp in al-Jafra, in Deir ez-Zor. They started training us.

2:00    There were many of us. There were groups of 50 to 60 people.

2:06    It’s called the Cubs of the Caliphate [training camp].

2:13    We, the ansar [local fighters], were separated from the Tunisians and the Chechens.

2:20    They isolated the others and kept us.

2:23    Some of [the trainers] were treating us well, and others were treating us harshly.

2:30    They said, ‘Because you were with the Free Syrian Army, we will be rough on you.’

2:36    We would say, ‘But we are with you now. We believe in you. Why do you treat us that way?’

2:42    They got rough during the training.

2:45    They would put us in the frontlines, while they stayed behind.

2:54    As part of the training, they would [also] set us against each other.

2:59    They said, ‘You should pull your weapon against your brother in Islam.’

3:05    The ages [of the camp trainees] ranged from 10 to 21 years old.

3:14    You will mostly find 9 and 10-year-old [boys] mostly, in that camp.

3:26    They were very young boys.

3:30    When you hear them talk about religion, you can tell they have been brainwashed.

3:36    If you ask one of them, ‘Why don’t you go see your parents?’

3:42    he will reply, ‘I don’t want my parents. I just want to go to Paradise.’

3:49    They trained us on weapons. They give guns to the young boys.

3:56    People, like me, will get a BKC [Soviet machine gun].

3:58    The older ones get a [rocket] launcher.

4:01    They trained me to use guns – BKC, 12.5, M14 and the [rocket] launchers.

4:12    They didn’t teach us about the [explosive] cars, but they taught us about the explosive belts.

4:19    A Chechen blew himself up in al-Hasakah.

4:23    He was older than me by three years [18-years-old].

4:27    Especially, when there is a raid, the larger number of fatalities is on our side.

4:35    The families [of those killed in battle] will be thrilled,

4:37    no matter whether he is a Syrian or a Tunisian.

4:38    Those two are the most likely to die. I saw them [killed] with my own eyes.

4:44    Their families rejoice because he is a martyr.

4:50    I don’t know [if he went to Paradise].

4:53    Since I discovered their truth, [I fear] there will be no Paradise.

5:03    The Truth Behind the Islamic State

5:05    Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism

5:10    See more at

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=78) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website 

Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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