TIME Iraq

Children Told to Behead Dolls at ISIS Training Camps

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014

"They told me it was the head of the infidels"

(SANLIURFA, Turkey) — The children had all been shown videos of beheadings and told by their trainers with the Islamic State group that they would perform one someday. First, they had to practice technique. The more than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.

A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.

“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his ISIS captors, told The Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the IS training camp.

When Islamic State extremists overran Yazidi towns in northern Iraq last year, they butchered older men and enslaved many of the women and girls. Dozens of young Yazidi boys like Yahya had a different fate: ISIS sought to re-educate them. They forced them to convert to Islam from their ancient faith and tried to turn them into jihadi fighters.

It is part of a concerted effort by the extremists to build a new generation of militants, according to AP interviews with residents who fled or still live under ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The group is recruiting teens and children using gifts, threats and brainwashing. Boys have been turned into killers and suicide bombers. An ISIS video issued last week showed a boy beheading a Syrian soldier under an adult militant’s supervision. Last month, a video showed 25 children unflinchingly shooting 25 captured Syrian soldiers in the head.

In schools and mosques, militants infuse children with extremist doctrine, often turning them against their own parents. Fighters in the street befriend children with toys. ISIS training camps churn out the Ashbal, Arabic for “lion cubs,” child fighters for the “caliphate” that ISIS declared across its territory. The caliphate is a historic form of Islamic rule that the group claims to be reviving with its own radical interpretation, though the vast majority of Muslims reject its claims.

“I am terribly worried about future generations,” said Abu Hafs Naqshabandi, a Syrian sheikh who runs religion classes for refugees in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa to counter ISIS ideology.

The indoctrination mainly targets Sunni Muslim children. In ISIS-held towns, militants show young people videos at street booths. They hold outdoor events for children, distributing soft drinks and candy — and propaganda.

They tell adults, “We have given up on you, we care about the new generation,” said an anti-ISIS activist who fled the Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital. He spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve the safety of relatives under ISIS rule.

With the Yazidis, whom ISIS considers heretics ripe for slaughter, the group sought to take another community’s youth, erase their past and replace it with radicalism.

Yahya, his little brother, their mother and hundreds of Yazidis were captured when ISIS seized the Iraqi town of Sulagh in August. They were taken to Raqqa, where the brothers and other Yazidi boys aged 8 to 15 were put in the Farouq training camp. They were given Muslim Arabic names to replace their Kurdish names. Yahya asked that AP not use his real name for his and his family’s safety.

He spent nearly five months there, training eight to 10 hours a day, including exercises, weapons drills and Quranic studies. They told him Yazidis are “dirty” and should be killed, he said. They showed him how to shoot someone from close range. The boys hit each other in some exercises. Yahya punched his 10-year-old brother, knocking out a tooth.

The trainer “said if I didn’t do it, he’d shoot me,” Yahya said. “They … told us it would make us tougher. They beat us everywhere.”

In an ISIS video of Farouq camp, boys in camouflage do calisthenics and shout slogans. An ISIS fighter says the boys have studied jihad so “in the coming days God Almighty can put them in the front lines to battle the infidels.”

Videos from other camps show boys crawling under barbed wire and practicing shooting. One kid lies on the ground and fires a machine gun; he’s so small the recoil bounces his whole body back a few inches. Boys undergoing endurance training stand unmoving as a trainer hits their heads with a pole.

ISIS claims to have hundreds of such camps. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented at least 1,100 Syrian children under 16 who joined IS this year. At least 52 were killed in fighting, including eight suicide bombers, it said.

Yahya escaped in early March. Fighters left the camp to carry out an attack, and as remaining guards slept he and his brother slipped away, he said. He urged a friend to come too, but he refused, saying he was a Muslim now and liked Islam.

Yahya’s mother was in a house nearby with other abducted Yazidis — he had occasionally been allowed to visit her. So he and his brother went there. They travelled to the Syrian city of Minbaj and stayed with a Russian ISIS fighter, Yahya said. He contacted an uncle in Iraq, who negotiated to pay the Russian for the two boys and their mother. A deal struck, they met the uncle in Turkey then went to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk.

Now in Dohuk, Yahya and his brother spend much of their time watching TV. They appear outgoing and social. But traces of their ordeal show. When his uncle handed Yahya a pistol, the boy deftly assembled and loaded it.

And he will never forget the videos of beheadings ISIS trainers showed the boys.

“I was scared when I saw that,” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to behead someone like that. Even as an adult.”

___

Jannsen reported from Dohuk, Iraq. Associated Press writers Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Vivian Salama in Eski Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report

TIME Iraq

ISIS Suicide Attack at Iraq Marketplace Kills 115

At least 170 people were injured

(BAGHDAD)—An attack by the Islamic State group on a crowded marketplace in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province has killed 115 people, including women and children, in one of the deadliest single attacks in the country in the past decade.

The mostly-Shiite victims were gathered to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ended Friday for Iraqi Shiites and a day earlier for Iraqi Sunni Muslims.

Police said a small truck detonated in a crowded marketplace in the town of Khan Beni Saad Friday night in what quickly turned celebrations into a scene of horror, with body parts scattered across the market. At least 170 people were injured in the attack, police officials said, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to brief the media.

Men quickly emptied boxes of tomatoes to use them for carrying the bodies of small children, witnesses said, while adult victims lay scattered around the attack scene waiting for medical assistance.

“Khan Beni Saad has become a disaster area because of this huge explosion,” Diyala resident Sayif Ali said. “This is the first day of Eid, hundreds of people got killed, many injured, and we are still searching for more bodies.”

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on Twitter accounts associated with the militant group.

Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, said Saturday that the attack has struck an “ugly sectarian chord,” and added that government is making “attempts to regulate Daesh’s terror from destabilizing Diyala security,” referring to the militant group by its Arabic acronym. But anger is rife in the volatile province, where a number of towns were captured by the Islamic State group last year. Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have since retaken those areas, but clashes between the militants and security forces continue.

“We went out to the market for shopping and preparations for the holiday Eid in order to receive holiday cheer,” said another resident, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution. “But this joy has turned to grief and we have lost family, friends and relatives, all because of this government’s failure to provide us with security.”

Security forces were out in full force across Diyala on Saturday, with dozens of new checkpoints and security protocols immediately implemented in the wake of Friday’s attack.

“This horrible carnage is truly outside all boundaries of civilized behavior,” Jan Kubis, the special representative of the United Nations mission in Iraq, said Saturday.”

The Sunni militant group has been behind several similar large-scale attacks on civilians or military checkpoints as it seeks to expand its territory. The group currently controls about a third of Iraq and Syria in a self-declared caliphate.

In August last year, at least 64 people were killed in an attack on a Sunni mosque in Diyala in what locals believed was a retaliatory attack against Diyala tribes that refused to proclaim loyalty to the Islamic State group.

The United States has spent billions arming and training the Iraqi military, but it performed poorly last year when Islamic State militants swept across western and northern Iraq, routing four divisions. The U.S. and a coalition of nations have been conducting airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria since last year, but it has not stopped the group from making advances. The militants recently captured the city of Ramadi, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.

Diyala, which borders Iran, is the only province in Iraq where Iranian jets are known to have conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State group earlier this year.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a roadside bomb on a commercial street in Baghdad’s Dora district Saturday killed four people and wounded seven. North of Baghdad, a roadside bomb on a commercial street in al-Rashidiya killed three people and wounded 11.

Meanwhile, reports emerged Saturday that the Islamic State group used projectile-delivered poison gas against Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria on several occasions last month.

Joint, on-site investigations by two U.K.-based organizations — Conflict Armament Research (CAR) and Sahan Research — concluded that IS forces used chemical agents to attack Iraqi peshmerga forces and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on June 21, 22 and 28.

In the Syria attacks, IS militants launched 17 artillery projectiles against YPG forces stationed to the south of the village of Tell Brak in Hassakeh province. The projectiles released a chemical agent which induced in some cases loss of consciousness and temporary, localized paralysis. Twelve YPG personnel were hospitalized. Another seven projectiles were also launched into civilian residential areas in Hassakeh.

In the Iraq attack, IS forces fired a projectile containing a liquid chemical agent at a peshmerga checkpoint near the Mosul Dam, triggering symptoms among the Iraqi forces that included headaches, nausea and light burns to the skin.

The findings on the attacks in Syria were confirmed by an YPG statement issued Saturday. The type of chemical used is not known. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported an apparent IS chemical attack on June 28.

There have been several allegations that the Islamic State group has used chlorine previously in both Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State group, which controls a third of Syria and Iraq in its self-declared caliphate, has not commented on the claims.

TIME Iraq

Iraq Begins Operation to Oust ISIS from Anbar

Iraq ISIS
Reuters Members of Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants in the outskirts of the city of Falluja, in the province of Anbar, Iraq on July 12, 2015.

It is not the first time the Iraqi government has announced an operation to retake the western province

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government began on Monday a long-awaited large-scale military operation to dislodge Islamic State militants from Iraq’s western Anbar province, a military spokesman announced.

The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said in a televised statement that the operation started at dawn Monday and that government forces are backed by Shiite and Sunni pro-government fighters. Rasool didn’t clarify whether the U.S.-led international coalition is taking part.

This is not the first time the Iraqi government has announced an operation to retake Anbar — where several key towns, including the provincial capital Ramadi, remain under IS control. In May, authorities announced an operation to retake Ramadi, but there has not been any major progress on the ground since then.

The Islamic State group, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi in May. Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists in recent months with the help of the air campaign, scored a major victory in recapturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit last month.

In a brief statement, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, vowed to “take revenge from Daesh criminals on the battlefield… and their cowardly crimes against unarmed civilians will only increase our determination to chase them and to expel them from the land of Iraq.”

During the past few weeks, the troops have been moving to cut the militants’ supply routes and to surround and isolate Ramadi and Fallujah.

Rasool didn’t provide any further details on the ongoing operations. By noon, the country’s state TV reported government forces recapturing villages and areas around Fallujah.

Meanwhile Monday, the IS group claimed responsibility for Sunday’s series of bombings in Shiite areas of the capital, Baghdad, that killed at least 29 people and wounded 81 others, according to the IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency.

Iraq is going through its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Islamic State group controls large swaths of the country’s north and west after capturing Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and the majority of Anbar province.

TIME Iraq

A Series of Bombings Has Claimed 35 Lives in the Iraqi Capital

More than 100 people were also wounded

A string of car bombs and suicide attacks tore through the Iraqi capital on Sunday, killing 35 people and wounding more than 100.

The bombings occurred in Baghdad’s mainly Shi‘ite Muslim neighborhoods of Shaab, Bunouk and Kadhumuya, reports Reuters. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is believed responsible. The Sunni extremist group often sends militants into the capital.

The northern neighborhood of Shaab was hit worst when two bombs were set off near a market. A suicide attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body shortly after crowds gathered to see the aftermath of a car bomb. The combined blasts killed 19 people.

Nine other people died in a car bombing in Bunouk. Shortly afterward, security personnel with sniffer dogs swept the capital’s northeastern district when they received information about two more bomb threats.

As the daily Ramadan fast drew to a close, just before dusk, another suicide bomb killed five people in Kadhimiya. The district is home to one of Shi‘ism’s holiest shrines, the al-Kadhimiya Mosque. A separate bomb in the Iskan district to the city’s west killed another two people.

TIME Military

U.S. Army Plans to Cut Troop Numbers to Pre–World War II Levels

The decision has prompted the ire of conservative lawmakers

The U.S. Army has announced plans to cut 40,000 troops and 17,000 civilian employees over the next two and a half years in accordance with Pentagon budget reductions.

The plan will decrease the size of the army to 450,000 troops — the lowest it has been since 1940, the year before the U.S. entered World War II. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, there were around 480,000 active-duty service members, USA Today reports.

Some of the cuts are the anticipated deflation of the troop surge witnessed in 2012, when the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their peaks. The remainder reflects an ongoing shrinking of the military budget in the wake of two expensive wars.

Conservative pundits and politicians have openly disparaged the plan, citing mounting tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“One person who’s going to be very pleased with this is Vladimir Putin,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama remarked that his administration has no current plans to escalate the military presence in areas of ongoing conflict. There are currently 3,500 stationed in Iraq, a point of frustration for those who view Washington’s response to militant Islamic group ISIS as lukewarm.

TIME Military

The Islamic State Celebrates Its First Birthday

ISIS flag Raqqa
Reuters A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa on June 29, 2014.

The durability of the terror proto-state proves daunting

Military commanders like to say that “quantity has a quality all its own.” It’s a shorthand way of saying that greater numbers of inferior weapons or troops often can beat smaller, superior forces. Given that Monday marks the first birthday of the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, it’s also worth noting that the passage of time, too, has a quality all its own.

The quantity of time counts, as days turn into weeks, and months have become a year. Time isn’t an inert presence, either on the physical battlefield or in the war of ideas. It’s a measure of will, a magnet to attract followers, and a manifestation of reality. Bottom line: persistence produces power.

This isn’t good. The Pentagon has adopted a go-slow approach, with its modest air campaign and turgid training schedule, in part to prod Iraq to do the fighting. That’s fine, so long as you believe ISIS is a slow-growing tumor, confined to Iraq and Syria. But as last Friday’s attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia that killed at least 60 make clear, it’s a malignancy that’s spreading.

“They’ve been able to hold ground for a year,” says retired Marine general James Mattis, who served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. “The longer they hold territory it become this radioactive thing, just spewing out this stuff as fighters go there and then come home again.”

“Listen to your caliph and obey him,” ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani said of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a recording released June 29, 2014. “Support your state, which grows every day.”

Chillingly, al-Adnani issued a call last Tuesday calling on Muslims to mark the holy month of Ramadan by making it “a month of disasters for the kuffar”—non-Muslims. He pledged those carrying out such attacks “tenfold” rewards in heaven in exchange for their martyrdom. Last week’s attacks followed. ISIS took responsibility for the beachfront attack in Tunisia that killed at least 38; an ISIS affiliate claimed credit for the blast at a Kuwait City mosque that took 27 lives; the suspect in the French attack reportedly told police of his ties to the Islamic State after decapitating his employer.

IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency CentreThis map shows where Islamic state and its affiliates are located. The black borders delineate where Islamic State has formally announced a wilaya (province) and the red shows attacks carried out in the name of Islamic State between the declaration of a caliphate on June 29, 2014, and June 22, 2015.

After a year in existence, ISIS continues to keep its grip on the huge swatch of land straddling what used to be the border between eastern Syria and western Iraq. “After awhile, possession is nine-tenths of legitimacy,” Anthony Cordesman, a military scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says of ISIS’s first anniversary. “Just being there, visible, over time gives you more and more influence and ability to create more extremists.”

This represents a new kind of threat. “The Islamic State is not an insurgency like the United States fought from 2003 until its departure from Iraq,” Rand Corp. analyst David Johnson notes in the latest issue of Parameters, the Army’s professional journal. “Rather, it is an aspiring proto-state bent on taking and holding territory.”

The U.S. actually has been fighting ISIS and its forebears for years. “Washington continues to fail to recognize the persistence of this organization going back to the declaration of what was then called the Islamic State of Iraq,” Brian Fishman of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center told the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday. “We don’t often recognize our long history of fighting ISIS, but we have effectively been fighting this organization for a decade already.”

As ISIS grew and began controlling greater swaths of Iraq and Syria, there was a sense its days were numbered. Following its seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just over a year ago, Pentagon officials repeatedly said that Iraqi forces, perhaps aided by small numbers of U.S. troops accompanying them to call in air strikes, would take back the city sometime in the first half of 2015. That hasn’t happened. And for every Tikrit that Iraqi forces, aided by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, have taken from ISIS by military force, ISIS has attacked and occupied a city like Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Despite President Obama’s pledge to “degrade and destroy” ISIS last summer, little has changed. “Very little consequential territory has been reclaimed,” says retired general Jack Keane, who served as the Army’s second-ranking officer from 1999 to 2003. “ISIS still enjoys freedom of maneuver to attack at will, whenever and wherever it pleases.”

While the U.S.-led air campaign has led pretty much to a stalemate on the ground, ISIS’s survival has attracted supporters to its ranks, and led others around the world to claim membership. “What we see very frequently in Afghanistan, with respect to [ISIS], is a rebranding of people who are already in the battlefield,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday in Belgium. They’re donning the ISIS label because “they regard as a better replacement for names they’ve had in the past.”

ISIS’s continuing existence is also generating American recruits, according to an alert last month from the Department of Homeland Security to U.S. law enforcement agencies shortly after police killed a pair planning to shoot up a “draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas. “We judge … that [ISIS’s] messaging is resonating with US-based violent extremists due to its championing of a multifaceted vision of a caliphate,” the agency warned. A key reason for its success in attracting followers, DHS added, is “the perceived legitimacy of its self-proclaimed re-establishment of the caliphate.”

Every day that the undefeated caliphate persists boosts the chances that its followers will strike targets in the U.S. “The most important way to discredit the appeal of their ideology is by military defeat,” Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told that armed services panel hearing last week. “If they’re not holding terrain, if there is no caliphate,” he said. “There is no Islamic utopia.”

TIME United Kingdom

Why Three British Sisters Took Their Children to Join Jihadists in Syria

Bradford sisters syria
Paul Ellis—AFP/Getty Images Akhtar Iqbal, husband of Sugra Dawood, left, and Mohammad Shoaib, husband of Khadija Dawood, react during a news conference to appeal for their return, in Bradford, northern England on June 16, 2015.

“Zohra told me this country was changing too much, and that she was going to take her daughters away because she didn’t see their future here anymore,” a neighbor of one sister tells TIME

The two-story sandstone house at the corner of Hope Avenue, a quiet cul-de-sac in the northern English city of Bradford has been empty for months. Last fall, Zohra Dawood, 32, left the house with her two daughters and moved into her father’s home a little over a mile away. Her husband stayed on for a few weeks before returning to his own father’s home, 4,000 miles away in Pakistan. Neighbors say Dawood changed the locks soon after, but never returned. What happened between members of the family in that house may provide clues for police and relatives who have spent more than a week trying to understand why Zohra Dawood and 11 other family members went missing and are believed to be in Syria.

Dawood, along with her two sisters, Khadija, 29, and Sugra, 34, and their nine children first left the U.K. at the end of May for a pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Medina. They reportedly boarded a flight to Istanbul, Turkey on June 9 instead of flying back to Bradford as planned on June 11. According to a smuggler working for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) quoted in BBC reports on Friday, the family of 12 has already crossed into Syria in two separate groups.

They are not the first Bradford locals to attempt to travel to Syria. The sisters’ younger brother, Ahmed Dawood, 21, has reportedly been fighting alongside extremists there for more than a year. And on Wednesday, a court heard the case of Bradford teenager Syed Choudhury, 19, who plotted to join ISIS and pled guilty to preparing acts of terrorism.

Situated 200 miles north of London amid Yorkshire’s rolling hills and wild moorland, Bradford is home to some of England’s most deprived neighborhoods, with high unemployment and lower levels of education than the national average. Its golden era as the center of the Victorian wool trade – which helped build the towering neo-Gothic buildings at the heart of the city – is long gone. In 1995, American travel writer Bill Bryson opined that Bradford’s sole purpose “is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison.”

Bradford Britain
Phil Noble—ReutersA woman walks along a terraced road in Bradford, Britain, June 18, 2015.

Back when Bradford’s textile industry was booming, the city drew waves of immigrants from South Asia. Now, more than a fifth of Bradford’s 526, 400 people are Pakistani by origin, the Dawood family among them. The streets of the Little Horton area of Bradford where they live are dotted with sari stores, mosques and bakeries selling naan bread and South Asian sweets. It’s not hard to see why the city has earned the nickname “Bradistan.”

The siblings’ parents – Mohammad Dawood and his wife Sara Begum – have at least eight children, all born and raised in Bradford. In a statement, the members of the family still in Bradford said they were devastated by the news and that they did not “support the actions of the sisters leaving their husbands and families in the U.K. and of taking their children into a war zone where life is not safe to join any group.”

Although there are numerous cases of foreign fighters taking children with them to ISIS-controlled territory, the sisters and their children constitute the largest family group known to have left the U.K. to join the extremist group in Syria. The three women seemingly defied the wishes of their parents and husbands in following their brother to Syria. Khadija, Zohra and Sugra apparently felt stronger ties to one another and their brother in Syria than to the family members they left behind in Bradford.

“An essential aspect of extremism is that it has to have social support,” says Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology and co-founder of the Center of Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “It’s very important that these women left as a group, as a network of sisters supporting their brother. Groups tend to polarize around values, and as a result, they tend to be much more extreme than individuals,” he says. Because families are very close-knit, it’s especially difficult for European security agencies – who are already facing a diverse array of threats – to penetrate these networks.

John Horgan, incoming professor of Global Studies and Psychology at Georgia State University, adds that there is relatively little security officials can do to prevent entire families from traveling together. The idea that the nine Dawood children could soon become “cubs of the caliphate”, as ISIS dubs its junior recruits in internal and external propaganda, is an unsettling prospect, but Horgan believes there will be more such cases in the future. “ISIS is preparing for the future and what they’re trying to do is groom the next generation of fighters,” he says.

One aspect of the radicalization process that experts know relatively little about is timing. “There has to be some kind of push factor,” says Horgan, who has been studying terrorism for twenty years. “A family dynamic, a trigger factor in a personal relationship, something ­­ to make someone leave the sidelines and actually consider going out there.”

Whether there was a series of triggers or if the disappearance of their younger brother was enough to motivate the women to leave their Bradford homes is not yet clear. During an emotional appeal to their wives at a press conference on Tuesday, Akhtar Iqbal appealed to his wife, Sugra, and five children aged between three and 15. “I miss you, I love you, I can’t live without you,” he wept. Khadija Dawood’s husband of 11 years, Mohammad Shoaib, also broke down as he begged his wife to bring their 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter home. “We had a perfect relationship, we had a lovely family. I don’t know what happened,” he sobbed.

Zohra Dawood’s husband, Zubair Ahmed, was absent; he was in Pakistan. If he had been present Ahmed would have been unlikely to speak of having a perfect relationship with his wife. His marriage to Zohra Dawood had broken down several months earlier. Reached by telephone on Wednesday, he told the BBC he had moved back to Pakistan after his wife “shunned” him and that he did not know of her plans to leave for Syria.

In conversations with TIME, Zohra Dawood’s neighbors paint a portrait of a private woman who likely turned to her siblings for support once her brother left the country and her marriage broke down.

Zoota Khan, 74, who lived next door to the couple since they moved onto the street in 2009, says the trouble all began once Ahmed Dawood left for Syria. “He was her most important brother and she was very upset,” says Khan, whose own family comes from a village in the same northern district of Pakistan as Zubair Ahmed. He tells TIME that Ahmed came over directly from Pakistan for his arranged marriage to Dawood, his first cousin.

Few Hope Avenue residents say they knew Zohra Dawood well but neighbors describe her husband warmly, saying he was a kind and caring father. “The wife kept indoors. It was the dad who was around, who’d give you the time of day,” says Sharon Wood, 43, who has lived on the street for 10 years.

Alex Firth, 37, says she only ever saw the couple together if they were getting in the car to go somewhere. “For a while, I thought Zubair was a single dad. He used to play outside with the girls, help them with their schoolwork, even do their hair. He really did everything. I never really saw any sign of affection from their mother.”

Another neighbor, a 31-year-old Pakistani woman who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from the community, says Dawood had confided in her last summer that she was unhappy in her marriage and that she and her husband no longer shared a bedroom. She says Dawood also mentioned that she was planning to move to Saudi Arabia. “Zohra told me this country was changing too much, and that she was going to take her daughters away because she didn’t see their future here anymore.”

It remains unclear what finally prompted Dawood to leave her husband last fall. Ahmed told his neighbor Khan it was a misunderstanding and he was praying she would come home. In November, a few weeks after his wife left, Ahmed returned to his hometown of Tajak, about 60 miles west of Islamabad, to take care of his elderly father, who suffered a stroke. “He calls from time to time to ask if I have seen the children, how they are doing,” says Khan.

The Pakistani neighbor who asked to remain anonymous, says her children regularly attended Quran classes in Dawood’s home and were upset to hear the news of Dawood’s disappearance. “Zohra had real Islamic knowledge. She knew much more than us,” she says. By all accounts, the couple were religious. But whereas Dawood usually wore a headscarf with Western clothes, once she moved back into her father’s home she was only ever spotted wearing a full veil and gloves.

Surprising as it may seem, Horgan says research on radicalization has shown that sibling bonds trump ideological bonds time and time again. Psychologists tell TIME that strained personal relationships can often strengthen sibling bonds. The fact that the Dawood sisters always lived within walking distance of one another – and both Zohra and Khadija even shared the same family house for the past seven months ­– make it more likely that they saw themselves less as part of nuclear family units with their husbands and children, but rather as part of an extended family network. Understanding these bonds may well be essential to making sense of what drew the sisters together as they made their decision to leave for Syria,

As this sprawling saga plays out, more and more questions will emerge. Many will likely never be answered. And for the husbands devastated by the disappearance of their wives and children, it’s all too clear that the ties that bind a family can quickly become the ties that destroy them.

TIME Military

The Other Body Count in the Battle Against ISIS

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter And Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey Testify On US Policy In Mideast
Mark Wilson / Getty Images Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and General Martin Dempsey testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

The number of Iraqis being trained by the U.S. is more important than the number of militants being killed

Body counts are notoriously inaccurate—and a poor yardstick for measuring progress on the battlefield. Nonetheless, a top U.S. official recently trumpeted the fact that the U.S.-led alliance has killed “more than 10,000” fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria over the past year. That’s despite the fact that the alliance has regained little territory from the wide swaths of Iraq and Syria ISIS has gobbled up since 2013.

But there is another body count when it comes to assessing the war on ISIS that is far more accurate—and far more telling: the Pentagon had expected to train about 24,000 Iraqis to fight ISIS by this fall, but will only manage to train 7,000, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. (He fattened up the bottom line by adding that the U.S. also had trained “2,000 counter-terrorism service personnel”.)

U.S. Military Trains Iraqi Army
John Moore / Getty ImagesU.S. Army soldiers train Iraqi troops in April.

Even under Carter’s plumped-up number, the U.S. military will have achieved only 38% of its training target by this fall. Such a limited goal, and the inability to achieve it, contrasts with the Iraqi security forces that existed when U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011. The U.S. military left behind a 350,000-strong Iraqi army and a 450,000-strong national police force that “was assessed as a relatively well-trained and disciplined force,” according to a recent U.S. report. But it didn’t last. “The soldiers that we helped to train, when [ISIS] came in, they basically took the uniforms off and ran,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., told Carter and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This good-guy-trained body count is more important than the bad-guy-killed body count, for several reasons:

— It highlights a strong Iraqi reluctance to get involved in the fight against the Islamic State. “Our training efforts in Iraq have thus far been slowed by a lack of trainees—we simply haven’t received enough recruits,” Carter said. “As I’ve told Iraqi leaders, while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government.”

— It suggests the U.S has had poor intelligence about just how willing the Iraqis are to fight. While Dempsey called the training effort the “centerpiece” of the U.S. strategy, only now is the U.S. getting serious about training Sunni fighters, largely located in western Anbar Province. “We determined that our training efforts could be enhanced and thus are now focusing on increasing participation in and throughput of our training efforts, working closely with the Iraqi government and stressing the focus on drawing in Sunni forces, which, as noted, are under-represented in the Iraqi security forces today,” Carter said.

—It calls into question the placement of the four U.S. training camps currently inside Iraq. The U.S. is dispatching 450 more trainers to Anbar to operate a fifth camp. “The numbers [of trainers] are not as significant as the location,” Carter said. “It’s in the heart of Sunni territory, and I think it will make a big difference in the performance of the train-and-equip program as regards recruiting Sunni fighters.” In fact, he predicted the new camp will be generating new Sunni fighters to battle ISIS within “weeks.”

—It confirms that much of the eight years and $25 billion training Iraqi security forces during the first such effort accomplished little. “At a personal level, the most frustrating part of going back to Iraq in February was seeing so much of what we had fought for and achieved during the surge really gone to waste,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who served four tours in Iraq as a Marine.

—It reinforces Carter’s observation last month that the Iraqi forces driven out of Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, lacked the “will to fight.”

So long as the Iraqis lack even the will to sign up to fight, the “long, hard slog” that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted for Iraq 12 years ago shows little sign of speeding up.

TIME Military

Of Two Minds About Fighting ISIS

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Josh Petrosino / U.S. Navy An E/A-18G electronic-warfare plane readies for takeoff May 26 from the USS Theodore Roosevelt for a mission against the Islamic State.

The military's leery, and two top newspapers disagree

The U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for nearly a year, and its citizens—thanks to no American blood being spilled—are paying scant attention. That’s probably just as well, given the lack of consensus inside the U.S. government on what to do, and on the opposing views of two of the nation’s most influential newspapers.

Here’s a tip: it’s generally a bad idea to expand a shooting war when the government and press are split on its merits, a President’s in the twilight of his tenure, and the public doesn’t care. Even successful air campaigns—remember the 32-week effort that pushed Muammar Gaddafi out of Libya’s presidential tent in 2011?—seem less victorious in hindsight, as the north African “nation” becomes a Petri dish for terrorists (the U.S. launched an air strike early Sunday that reportedly killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist who’d set up shop there, the Pentagon said Sunday).

The U.S. thirst for vengeance on ISIS was fueled by the beheadings of three Americans last year. ISIS wanted deeper American involvement (remember, many of them are suicidal) but Washington refused to bite. While President Obama has pledged to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, Pentagon officials lately have been saying “containment” more often. The air strikes have frozen the situation on the ground, which amounts to a de facto containment strategy. Absent a major terror strike linked to ISIS, that could continue indefinitely.

Before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of every three U.S. officers opposed it, according to an informal sampling of opinion at the time. Given that—and the years of turmoil it generated inside the U.S. military, and inside the region to this day—it’s not surprising that U.S. military leadership doesn’t want to wade more deeply into the anti-ISIS fight, as the Washington Post reported Sunday.

“Some of the strongest resistance to boosting U.S. involvement came from a surprising place: a war-weary military that has grown increasingly skeptical that force can prevail in a conflict fueled by political and religious grievances,” the Post said. “Their shift reflects the paucity of good options and a reluctance to suffer more combat deaths in a war in which America’s political leaders are far from committed and Iraqis have shown limited will to fight.”

Actually, it’s not that surprising. The notion that the military chomps at the bit to wage war is usually not the case. Some of its leaders, like Colin Powell, have advocated a series of guidelines (overwhelming force, clear objective) that have acted as a brake, when observed, on U.S. military action. It was the State Department, the Post reported, that pushed for assigning limited numbers of U.S. troops closer to the front lines alongside Iraqi forces to make U.S.-led air strikes more effective.

That schism inside the government has been reflected in recent days in editorials in the New York Times and the Post.

The Times complained Friday that Obama’s decision to dispatch 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq will do little to “change Iraq’s dysfunctional politics.” Iraqi politicians “have consistently demonstrated an inability or unwillingness” to share power and reduce the historic divisions among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, it said. “With each increase,” the Times noted, “the United States is being dragged more deeply into a war that lawmakers have been unwilling to authorize formally.”

The Post‘s Sunday editorial seemed uninformed by that piece on its front page about U.S. military doubts. It said the 450 troops, a 15% increase over the 3,100 already there, are too few to make a difference. “Rather than aiming to destroy the [ISIS], Mr. Obama is focused on limiting U.S. engagement,” the editorial said. “It is well within the capacity of the United States to destroy the [ISIS].”

Well, yes. Just like the U.S. succeeded in destroying Saddam Hussein’s state.

TIME Military

U.S. Adapts ‘Lily Pad’ Strategy to Defeat ISIS in Iraq

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked against the Taliban in Afghanistan

The top U.S. military officer likened the expanding American footprint in Iraq Thursday to “lily pads” that will sprout across the pond known as Anbar Province, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria seized the capital last month.

“Our campaign is built on establishing these ‘lily pads’ that allow us to encourage the Iraqi security forces forward,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a visit in Italy. “As they go forward, they may exceed the reach of the particular lily pad”—leading to the creation of new ones.

While the strategy may be a new one since the U.S. pulled its forces out of Iraq in 2011, it has been done before. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, similar campaigns were carried out, often called “oil spot” or “ink blot” strategies.

Retired Army lieutenant colonel Andrew Krepinevich popularized the oil-spot notion in a 2005 article in Foreign Affairs, during the darkest days of the U.S.-led alliance in Iraq. “Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort—hence the image of an expanding oil spot,” wrote Krepinevich, who heads the non-profit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Military scholar Max Boot advocated using what he called the “‘spreading inkblot’ strategy” in and around Baghdad in 2007.

It makes sense to establish protected bases in potentially-hostile terrain that can be linked to safer rear areas by air and roads. Each lily pad (or oil spot, or ink blot) gets bigger if its troops succeed in expanding the secure zones around them. Military momentum can lead to the creation of additional lily pads. Ultimately, they all expand until the entire region is free of enemy forces and secure.

Wednesday’s announcement boosts the number of U.S. bases in Iraq to five. “We’re looking all the time to see if additional sites might be necessary,” Dempsey said, although he said the two now in Anbar would probably suffice for that province. “I could foresee one in the corridor that runs from Baghdad to Tikrit to Kirkuk over into Mosul,” he added.

Dempsey detailed the evolving U.S. strategy the day after the White House said it would send up to 450 trainers and advisers to a base near Ramadi in eastern Anbar, within easy range of ISIS attacks. President Obama has pledged to keep U.S. troops out of combat with ISIS, even though allowing small numbers to embed with Iraqi forces to call in U.S. air strikes would make them more effective. The additional forces would push the U.S. troop total in Iraq to 3,550. Any decision to plant additional lily pads could require more U.S. troops in Iraq. U.S. troop strength in the 2003-2011 Iraq war peaked at 158,000 in 2008.

Adding U.S. troops to the Taqaddum military base is significant, Dempsey added, because “it gives us access to another Iraqi division and extends their reach into al Anbar province and gives us access to more tribes.” The U.S. is eager to enlist the Sunni tribes in Anbar in the fight against ISIS, whose members are Sunni. Sending the largely Shi’ite forces in Iraq’s national army to battle Sunnis in the Sunni heartland could inflame sectarian tensions.

Of course, lily pads don’t always thrive. In Afghanistan, they’ve shrunk in recent years. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, warned two years ago that danger was spreading across the country and limiting the places his inspectors could visit to do their jobs. “U.S. officials have told us that it is often difficult for program and contracting staff to visit reconstruction sites in Afghanistan,” he said in October 2013. “U.S. military officials have told us that they will provide civilian access only to areas within a one-hour round trip of an advanced medical facility.”

The Afghan lily pads have continued to shrivel. “Americans can only really travel safely in Kabul, and for most part no travel outside of green zone in Kabul,” one U.S. official said Thursday, speaking of travel in and around the Afghan capital. “Helicopters are needed to travel less than a mile from the embassy to airport.”

SIGAR

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