Toronto Star

Volunteeri­ng for suicide saved Syrian boy from Islamic State

14-year-old recruit tells of his harrowing escape from the extremist group in Iraq


BAGHDAD— Before war convulsed his hometown in Syria, Usaid Barho played soccer, loved Jackie Chan movies and adored the beautiful Lebanese pop singer Nancy Ajram. He dreamed of attending college and becoming a doctor.

His life took a detour. On a recent evening in Baghdad, Usaid, who is 14, approached the gate of a Shiite mosque, unzipped his jacket to show a vest of explosives and surrendere­d himself to the guards.

“They seduced us to join the caliphate,” he said several days later in an interview with the New York Times at a secret Iraqi intelligen­ce site where he is being held.

Usaid described how he had been recruited by the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group from a mosque in his hometown, Manbij, near Aleppo.

“They planted the idea in me that Shiites are infidels and we had to kill them,” he said.

He soon found himself in Iraq, but he quickly had misgivings and wanted to escape.

Usaid’s account of how he went from a Syrian childhood to become a jihadist is one of the few first-hand accounts from an Islamic State child soldier-turned-defector.

First, after the Islamic State took control of his town, Usaid was drawn to the local mosque. He admits that he willingly ran away from home one morning on his way to school and joined a training camp in the desert.

At the end of the training, he was told his trainers wanted him to go fight in Iraq. He was driven to Mosul. The recruits were given a choice: Be a fighter or a suicide bomber.

“I raised my hand to be a suicide bomber,” he said. That, he figured, would give him the best chance at defecting.

Within a few days, he was takenon a circuitous journey to Baghdad. He was given his target: A Shiite mosque in the neighbourh­ood of Bayaa. A few hours later, at dusk, he walked up to the mosque gate.

“I opened up my jacket and said, ‘I have a suicide vest, but I don’t want to blow myself up.’ ”

The chaotic scene that unfolded, as a plaincloth­es officer snipped off the vest, was captured on cellphone video and distribute­d over social media.

What happens now to Usaid is unclear. He said he wanted to be reunited with his family in Syria, but the Iraqi authoritie­s have not tried to reach them. The intelligen­ce officer who has been interrogat­ing him said he needed more time to investigat­e.

Whether he has a chance at a normal life depends, in part, on how the Iraqis treat him: As a terrorist or as an exploited child.

During the interview, Usaid was in a grey sweatshirt and cargo pants, and he was not handcuffed. A few days later, though, he appeared on state television in handcuffs and a yellow prison jumpsuit. The television host labelled him a terrorist and he was made to re-enact his surrender.

Yet Saad Maan, the spokesman for both the Interior Ministry and the Baghdad Operations Command, appeared on state television and described Usaid as a victim.

 ??  ?? Militants from a Shiite group fire a mortar round targeting Islamic State fighters near Baghdad in September.
Militants from a Shiite group fire a mortar round targeting Islamic State fighters near Baghdad in September.

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