ISTANBUL — Mohammed, 14, uses a wheelchair to move around the tiny apartment where he lives in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa with his brother and a friend of the family who acts as his nurse.
The apartment is on the third floor of a dilapidated walk-up building. It has no air conditioning. The doorways in the apartment are narrow. His wheelchair doesn’t fit through all of them, so Mohammed, originally from eastern Syria, often pushes himself out of the chair and hops around the apartment on one foot.
ISIS chopped off Mohammed’s right hand and left foot two weeks ago. ISIS tried to turn Mohammed into a child soldier. The group disfigured him because he refused to cooperate.
Ahmed is another boy from the same part of Syria as Mohammed, but is two and a half years older than him. Ahmed says ISIS coerced him into fighting for the group with a combination of threats and false promises.
Interviews by NBC News with Mohammed, Ahmed, their guardians, Syrian activists and a former ISIS commander who defected, reveal a disturbing ISIS strategy to recruit and deploy an army of child soldiers, brainwashing them until they are ready to blow themselves up or carry out terrorist attacks in the Middle East and abroad, and brutalizing those who refuse to cooperate.
Much has been written about ISIS’s monstrous treatment of girls, forcing them to become child brides or sex slaves, passed from fighter to fighter. This is a story about what ISIS is doing to the boys in areas under its control.
Although Ahmed and Mohammed both look like typical young teenagers, pimples and all, the boys were both part of rebel groups fighting against the Syrian regime and ISIS. Mohammed worked as a spotter, using binoculars to help the rebels locate their targets.
“First we were going to (anti-government) demonstrations. Later on we got armed with the Free (Syrian) Army, and we fought the (Bashar) al-Assad regime for three years,” Mohammed says with obvious pride in his voice.
Ahmed started out as a helper, serving the rebels meals and running errands, until he eventually earned enough respect to be given a gun.
The balance of power shifted in in eastern Syria in 2014. After ISIS took over the Iraqi city of Mosul, the group had renewed enthusiasm and new American-made weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army when it broke ranks and collapsed in cowardice. ISIS quickly took over eastern Syria and began its reign of terror. Mohammed, Ahmed and other boys who worked with the rebels went into hiding.
“I stayed at home for seven months,” Mohammed said. “Later on, ISIS started arresting members of the Free (Syrian) Army. One of the detainees told them that I was also member.”
Mohammed didn’t know he’d been informed on until a group of ISIS fighters showed up at his door to seize him.