IS fighters in Iraqi prisons
The next terror generation?

Numerous former IS junior fighters are now serving long prison sentences in Iraqi prisons. There they continue to radicalise themselves. The Dutch author and journalist Judit Neurink visited a juvenile detention centre in Erbil

"I don't know how many Hashd I have killed," says Khayralah Mezadivan, 18, about the battles he fought for the militant Islamic State group against the Iraqi Shia militias, the Hashd al-Shaabi. He jokes: "Nobody kept score."

He sits at a table in the library of the juvenile prison in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Irbil, where he is serving a nine-month sentence. Here, over a hundred Arab youngsters taken prisoner by Kurdish peshmerga troops are being held for their involvement with IS. Some deny having trained or been stationed on an IS base, others admit to it.

But Mezadivan – who wears his long hair under a black cloth tied like a tight cap around his head and his trousers above the ankles, as IS ordered men to do – freely admits not only to manning checkpoints, but also to working with the IS police and even fighting on the front line.

He was one of the lion cubs of the so-called Caliphate, the youths the Islamists looked upon as their future. Why did he answer the call as a 14-year-old in Mosul? "I liked the way they explained the Koran. And the situation was bad: there was no work, no water, no electricity. And they threatened punishments, too, if I didn't join." The prison staff consider him dangerous, as the paradise IS promised still entices him.

In Iraq's three-year war against IS, thousands of men and youngsters were arrested for ties to the terror group. They ended up in Kurdish and Iraqi prisons and their total number is thought to be around 20,000. How many are under 18 is unclear; statistics are lacking. Prison visits by researchers or reporters are rare and short and just as here in Irbil, all cameras, phones and other recording devices are prohibited.

"We were going to heaven"

Entrance to the youth prison in Erbil (photo: Judit Neurink)
Iraq's youth prisons as breeding grounds for radicalisation? In the Kurdish region of Iraq, more than a hundred minors are imprisoned. In March 2017, the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 150 detained under-eighteen-year-olds. This figure is now likely to be higher, as the war did not end until three months later. In many cases the prisons are overcrowded, making it inevitable that Islamist hardliners will come in contact with each other and become more radical

Hundreds of underage boys are imprisoned in Iraqi Kurdistan. In March 2017, the rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported 150 minors in Kurdish prisons, but that number has probably increased as the war did not end until late July of that year. Statistics on the number of underage inmates in Iraqi prisons do not exist. HRW recently reported that Iraqi judges had tried 400-500 underage prisoners, some of them foreigners. According to reports, some have been given long sentences.

While the fast-track procedures the Iraqi courts have used to try foreign IS fighters – and the death sentences doled out to them – have attracted considerable media attention, the fates of local youths who ended up in IS's nets have hardly been noted. Those who survived and were caught can be divided into three categories, says social worker Jwanro Majid. The prison's 101 terror-related inmates were either, one, involved with IS simply for the cars, weapons and money; two, they had basic training; or, three, they actually fought for the group.

More on this topic