Mike Giglio reports: For one 15-year-old Syrian boy who lives in a refugee camp near the Turkish border, the calls to become an extremist fighter came from all around. He heard one on an afternoon this summer, while he and his friends played soccer around the tents. Taking a break from the game, the boys were approached by a man they knew as a sheikh, a term Syrians use to describe a learned religious man.
The sheikh was a supporter of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a group of militants rampaging across the border as they try to establish a fanatical version of a modern-day caliphate. He told the boys they should cross over and help. “You are playing soccer at a time like this?” the sheikh scolded them. “It is better to go and fight for ISIS than to stay in the camp and play.”
The boy already had his heart set on joining ISIS, in fact. After three years of living with his family in the camp, he was enthralled by the idea of helping to create what ISIS billed as a new Islamic state. Some of his friends had already joined the group, and in chats via Facebook they urged him to follow suit. So did other ISIS supporters whom the boy knew only online. Like-minded boys and young men, meanwhile, were leaving the camp for ISIS regularly.
But the boy had a problem: His father was vehemently opposed to ISIS and would try to stop his only son from joining if he caught wind of the plan.
One day last month, the boy linked up with a friend in the camp even younger than himself, who had an older brother fighting with ISIS in Syria. At the older brother’s instruction, they snuck past the Turkish border guards and into the ISIS-controlled town of al-Bab. From there the boys joined a group of some 50 recruits for what they were told would be a three-week course on ISIS’s brand of religious law. Their military training would come next. The boys were told that during their instruction they should have no contact with the outside world.
More than 20 camps like the boy’s — whose location, like his name, is being withheld for his safety — sit in Turkey, mostly along its 565-mile border with Syria. They hold more than 200,000 refugees, many of them young men and boys approaching fighting age. The conditions in the camps are relatively good, but they’re still heavy with the bleakness of waiting out a war without end. Together with ISIS’s recent surge in publicity, this is fueling what some residents describe as a rising tide of young recruits. [Continue reading…]