FJA Shortlist 2021

Category: Outstanding Investigative Reporting

Authors: Rukaia Alabadi (Syria), Fatima Al Othman (Lebanon)

The Mahdi Scouts: A Chronicle of Child Recruitment into Iranian Militias

Daraj - May 6, 2021

The original publication is available via the following link: https://daraj.com/en/71879/

This investigation reveals children were trained in weapon use in Iranian camps in Syria and Lebanon under the banner of the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, which serves as a bridge to militias affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Rokayya Al Abadi (Syria) – Fatima Othman (Lebanon)

This report investigates the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts through exclusive interviews with young scouts, their families, teachers, and scout leaders. The youngsters not only gain strength by joining the Mahdi Scouts, but also evade Syria’s two-year mandatory military service.

So, what are the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts? And what role do they play in supplying Iranian-backed militias in Syria with fighters?

The Boys of Imam Mahdi

Mustafa was 16 when, at the end of 2018, he joined the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts. He had been told about them by friends in Hatla, a small town north of Deir Ezzor.

People in Hatla are mostly Shia. Following intense fighting with opposition forces in June 2013, they fled to regime-held areas only to return with the arrival of Iranian-backed militias in the region in late 2018.

The town is headed by Muhammad Amin Raja, a member of the Syrian People Assembly, who first attracted young men to be included in the ranks of Syria’s Hezbollah and the Fatemiyoun Brigade.

Mustafa was among the first boys to join the Imam Mahdi Scouts when it started its activities in Deir Ezzor about a year after the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian regime’s return to power in the governorate.

At the time, the scouts mainly attracted the children of people close to Iranian leaders and relatives of those affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Mustafa therefore needed some mediation from his friends in Hatla, before being able to join the scouts in the Ummal neighborhood of Deir Ezzor.

Here the sleeping and eating quarters are located. Training took place in the College of Electronic Engineering in Port Said Street, which is also considered the headquarters of the Pakistani militia, the Zainabiyoun Brigade, also backed by Iran.

Mustafa spent three months here. He did a lot of sports and attended religious classes from Iranian teachers they used to call “the turbanis.”

“They talked a lot about the battles of Hussein, the one in Taf when he was killed, and Imam Ali, which affected me a lot,” Mustafa said. “I was young and changed my religion from Sunni to Shia.”

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