Mustafa’s gaze seemed lost, frightened and his eyes were erratic. His childish looks appeared strange among the harsh military faces surrounding him. His 13 years of existence did not fit the cruelty of the place, which houses suspects, hardened criminals and Daesh leaders.
The child wore a yellow prisoners’ suit, which was slightly bigger than his size. His hands were tied behind his back as he stood in the yard of the Counter-Crime Department in Anbar, 83 km west of the capital Baghdad.
He was waiting for his turn to appear before senior investigators from Baghdad to interrogate him and dozens of Daesh fighters who were detained over the course of the past few months.
“They (Iraqi security forces) arrested me when I was with my family in a camp for the displaced in Ammoriyat Al Fallujah,” Mustafa Hameed tells the Newsweek Middle East.
“We are innocent. We did not do anything. My uncle [is the one] who did everything [sic],” he whispers in an agitated voice while keeping an eye on the officers standing two meters away from us, fearing their reaction.
On June 17, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops aided by the U.S.-led international military coalition regained Fallujah in a huge military offensive that was launched in May. The town was Daesh’s most prominent stronghold in Iraq and the first city to fall into the hands of the militants back in December 2013.
More than 85,000 people had fled Fallujah just before the troops got in and a fierce battle spread inside the city.
Iraqi security forces have since been screening males from Daesh-held towns, separating all males aged 13 to 50 years from their families and taking them to temporary detention facilities outside the liberated areas.
Mustafa is one of around 20,000 males who were detained by the Iraqi security forces after they fled Fallujah just before the government troops recaptured it.
He was detained alongside 20 other teenagers after their neighbors informed investigators about their previous activities during the 29 months when Fallujah was under Daesh’s control. Mustafa, like many others, had taken advantage of their age to guise themselves as displaced persons while running away.
“I thought no one will recognize me and I will just forget all what happened. I did not want to be with them (Daesh). I ran away but my uncle brought me back and handed me to them,” Mustafa later says while sobbing.
Both him and his 15-year-old cousin were held in the same detention facility. The two of them claim their uncle was a senior Daesh fighter who forced them “to join the Cubs of the Caliphate Troops to show his loyalty.”
Once they joined Daesh, Mustafa and his cousin received intensive military training courses in camps located in the desert stretching near the Iraqi–Syrian borders.
Each course lasted three weeks and included 30 male fighters aged anywhere between 10 to 17 years.
A “cub” would receive a regular monthly salary ranging from 63,000 Daesh dinars – 85,000 ($50 to $70) in addition to getting an automatic gun.
“We trained to kill Rawafidh (a radical term used to describe Shiites) and the apostates from the police and army,” Abdulsalam Mohammed, another 13 year-old fighter detained in Anbar tells Newsweek Middle East.
Abdulsalam was wounded in his leg prior to his capture.
Around 2 percent of those detained in Fallujah and Ramadi are underage detainees charged with Daesh-ties, one intelligence officer tells Newsweek Middle East.
Most of the detainees who were captured “on charges linked to Daesh” including senior Daesh leaders whom Newsweek Middle East spoke with in private were unable to explain basic Islamic principles.
In fact, some of them expressed openness to discuss issues such as love, music and songs, aspects which radicals usually abhor and criminalize.
Some even admitted that they planned to abandon Daesh shortly after joining the terrorist organization and finding out that most of the teachings and rules it follows were unIslamic.
“My mission was securing the execution teams. I saw them slaughter so many soldiers, police officers and even regular people [sic],” former Daesh fighter, Ziyad Jihad, 17, tells Newsweek Middle East.
“They said those were apostates so it was normal to execute them,” the young fighter, who spent nearly a year with Daesh, says.
He adds that he did not question the decisions of the group until a relative of his informed the chief of the area that a young man was in love with a girl and he saw them while they were talking.
Based on the man’s testimony, the chief decided to stone the young man to death.
“I saw them when they stoned him. They ordered everyone to stone him. I know he did not deserve that,” says Jihad.
“I kept seeing him in my dreams for several nights. I was wondering how they killed him while he was not guilty.”
And it appears that most of the young fighters approached by Newsweek Middle East came from families that suffer from neglect and were looked down at by the upper social classes.
“Before I joined [Daesh], I was working as a shepherd and no one was paying attention to me,” says Rajab Mahmmoud, 17.
The former Daesh jailor adds: “After I joined them [Daesh], all people were keen to show me their respect including my family’s members.”
The intelligence officers who screened the suspects told Newsweek Middle East that most of the teenage fighters and their families sought the power provided by joining Daesh’s ranks.
“What do you think would happen when you put a gun and authority in the hands of a 10-year-old child?” Major Tariq Emad, the commander of the Counter-Crime Squad in Anbar, tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Daesh is looking to guarantee that its ideology will be active and valid for another two or three generations, and the best way to do this, is by tempting children and teenagers looking for power,” he adds.