Forced viewings of beheadings and torture, training with weapons almost as big as they are and daily lessons in extremist theology: if you’re a boy growing up in Isis-controlled territory across Syria and Iraq, the word education means something very different to the rest of the world.
Official Isis media outlets are circulating videos and images which they claim show life in the “School of Jihad”, where children under the age of 10 are encouraged to fire AK47 rifles and acclimatised to the horrors of war.
As part of a series of propaganda releases created by Muassissat al-Furqan for the group’s media wing, young children appear in videos that experts say are an attempt to show the “utopia” of the world under Isis.
Yet what they actually portray has been described by a UN Human Rights Council report as “a war crime” – the recruitment and military use of children under the age of 15.
One video has been titled on YouTube “Cubs of the Islamic State” - the name by which Isis now refers to itself. A voice-over in Arabic boasts that these “cubs” are sure in their faith and in the auspices of Isis.
Children sat before a teacher, who remains unidentified, are asked about the principles and tenets of Islam, in what appears to be a lesson in religion.
The video then cuts to interviews and clips of children from the “school” singing and speaking – alongside them the barrels of AK47s can just be seen in shot.
Another clip posted as part of the “Messages from the Land of the Final Battles” series appears to be a graduation video.
It shows the new “School of Jihad” graduates lined up before a stage, listening to a speaker, while rows of adults who are thought to be their parents can be seen watching on.
The video has been produced by Al-I'tisaam Media, another official media wing of Isis, which focusses on publicising the kind of society created in the controlled territories. As with the former video, it has been interspersed with bloody and violent footage from the militants’ operations in the field – the sorts of videos escaped children have said they are made to watch.
They come after the UN's Human Rights Council found that Isis “has established training camps to recruit children into armed roles under the guise of education”.
“At the camps, the children recruited received weapons training and religious education,” the report reads. “The existence of such camps seems to indicate that ISIS systematically provides weapons training for children. Subsequently, they were deployed in active combat during military operations, including suicide-bombing missions.”
Human rights activists condemned the videos as “deeply disturbing”, showing Isis’s tendency to “imitate traditional institutions with their own ‘courts’ and ‘schools’”.
Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s campaign manager for Syria, said: “The sight of armed and masked men on stage ‘educating’ young boys is obviously a distressing one.
“These supposedly ‘inspirational’ videos are actually fresh evidence that Isis is cruelly robbing an untold number of young people of their childhood, brainwashing them and almost certainly exposing them to terrible dangers.
“Children should never be involved in the fighting in Syria and Iraq - or anywhere else for that matter - even if they volunteer, and even if they’re acting in an auxiliary capacity such as delivering messages or other non-combat tasks.
“International law clearly prohibits the deployment of child soldiers and where Isis have used under-age fighters it’s just one more crime to add to the charge-sheet against them.”
Charlie Winter, a spokesperson for the anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, said: “It is unsurprising that [Isis] has included footage of children - be it of them firing rifles or learning theology - in the lands that it occupies.
“It is just another part of [Isis] trying to portray itself as a utopian manifestation of the salafi-jihadist ideology.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies