Rokayya Al Abadi (Syria) – Fatima Othman (Lebanon)
Supervision: Zeina Arhim
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.”
Girls Scouts and Virgin Stars
The boys were not only attracted by the prospect of becoming a scout, but also by the hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese girls who joined the movement.
One of them was 20-year-old Lebanese Rayan. Encouraged by her mother, she joined the Mahdi Scouts when she was only four years old and stayed until she turned 18. She liked the “participatory and collective” atmosphere.
“The scouting environment is linked to the religious commitment of my family, which is what mostly motivated me to stay,” she said.
The activities for the girl scouts vary and are different from those for the boys.
“One of the most important tasks was collecting and distributing food,” Rayan explained. “We also attended religious and cultural courses, and participated in religious events as Ashura. However, we stayed away from political activities.”
The scouts also organized the so called “female veil stars,” which according to Rayan was aimed at strengthening the commitment, faith and proper behavior of girls. In addition, there were summer activities, handicrafts courses and leisure trips, including a visit to Sayeda Zeinab’s shrine in Damascus.
Yousef, a leader of the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts in Lebanon, who preferred not to be fully named, said the camps also offered activities related to agriculture and cleaning streets and beaches.
“The scouts furthermore work on moral behavior from both a psychological and religious point of view,” he explained. “In addition, they work on enhancing the members’ capabilities in dealing with society through theater, music and speaking in public.”
Yousef started working for the scouts eight years ago and eventually became a youth leader. According to him, the Mahdi Scouts do not have a fixed center in every Lebanese region. However, the headquarters is located in the area of Bir Hassan near the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Yousef denied the existence of any link between Hezbollah recruitment and the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts. He also denied the scouts were offered any arms training.
Three years have passed since Mustafa first joined the Mahdi Scouts in Deir Ezzor, during which he underwent training in a group of some 25 youngsters between 14 and 18 years of age.
According to Mustafa, they received theoretical and practical training in the use of weapons, in addition to religious classes. However, there was no weapons training at first.
“They gradually raised the issue, asking whether we wanted to learn about weapons, if we wanted to learn how to dismantle and assemble weapons in a short period of time,” he said. “All scouts were asked such questions to arouse their curiosity and to one day carry weapons.”
According to Mustafa, there are also camps directly affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, yet they have stipulated that participants must be between 16 and 20 years of age, and have a sponsor, generally a family member, to back them and sign a contract.
26-year-old Samer confirmed what Mustafa told us about arms training in the camps. He joined the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts in Lebanon in 2003 and remained a member until he turned 18. According to him, “literacy” is the name used for the training program in the use of light weapons.
“They do this to honor what Imam Musa Sadr said ‘Weapons are the adornment of men,’ during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon,” Samer said.
He added that the “literacy program” did not extend beyond “firing three or four bullets.” The aim was just to give children an idea of how to use weapons and encourage them, so that in a later stage they might join “the path of jihad.”
Samer emphasized the “literacy program” was not obliged, but optional. Practice would take place in and around Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, as it “ensures no sounds could be heard.”
Upon leaving the scouts, Samer traveled to Africa. His parents insisted on him leaving out of fear he might join Hezbollah’s ranks, and with an eye on the dire economic situation in Lebanon.
The Imam al-Mahdi Scouts have a long history. They originated in Lebanon in 1985. The movement defined itself as a leisure and educational movement under the slogan “Help build a better world.”
The movement obtained a license from the Lebanese Ministry of Education in 1992 and was recognized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement in 1998. It is named after Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Mahdi, who the Twelver Shia believe is the 12th and final Imam.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2008, Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political analyst and expert on Hezbollah, talked about the link between the Mahdi Scouts and Hezbollah.
“It is an integrated system from elementary school to university,” he said. “The goal is to create a generation that holds strong religious beliefs and is close to Hezbollah.”
In 2012, Hassan Khosh Nawais, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria, founded the Syria Province Scouts, which later became the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts. On November 10, 2019, the Mahdi Scouts started a branch in Deir Ezzor and began attracting students from government schools.
In cooperation with the Iranian Cultural Center and the Revolutionary Youth Union, which is the Syrian Baath Party’s youth branch, the Mahdi Scouts began targeting public schools in Deir Ezzor. The scouts would send representatives to promote their activities.
“When the schools returned to normal at the beginning of 2019, the Iranian Cultural Center started its activities in cooperation with the Baath Vanguards Organization,” said Ali, a 34-year-old teacher in a public school in Al-Mayadin, a town some 45 kilometer east of Deir Ezzor. “They provided money, stationery and food, and organized school trips and festivals.”
In April 2019, the first Iranian personalities appeared as part of the Mahdi Scouts school visits, which paved the way for affiliations with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
This coincided with the activities organized by the Friends of Syria Scouts and Mahdi Scouts in the fifth recreational camp at the Zubaida primary school, which was attended by Hajj Sadiq al-Irani, who is in charge of the Iranian Cultural Center in Deir Ezzor.
Also present were Baath Party representative Saher al-Sakr, Lebanese national Hajj Jawad, an Iraqi military leader named Hajj Abd al-Fattah, as well as several leaders of local militias affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, including Bassam Al-Satam and Adnan Al-Saud Abu Al-Abbas (“Zuzu”), commander of the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas militia in Deir Ezzor.
This was not the delegation’s first or last visit to the region. More visits took place at the Al Hassan, Zubaida and Ibn Sina schools in Al-Mayadin, where the leaders would talk about the importance of educating children about the danger of “Wahhabi terrorism,” jihad, martyrdom and resistance.
“I was asked to give religious lessons, as well as science and mathematics at the Iranian Cultural Center for a very attractive salary, some 100,000 Syrian pounds per month,” said Ali. “So I worked there almost daily for four months. And the children at that time went to train to fight on Fridays and Saturdays in the Mazraa area near the Al-Rahba Castle, and in the Ain Ali area. “
In addition to the Iranian Cultural Center, the Mahdi Scouts also use the Bright Light Center in Al-Mayadin, which is in fact the most important of its centers in the city.
They furthermore use five schools in the governorate to organize closed camps: the First Girls School and College of Electronic Engineering in Deir Ezzor, the School of Industry in Al-Mayadin, and Al-Ashara and Al-Maari in Abu Kamal.
In June and July of 2019, the Imam Mahdi al-Scouts organized closed camps in the Al-Mayadin desert, in which a first group of some 50 boys were trained in the use of weapons.
After being accepted as a fighter in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard as fighters, each former scout was given a special card and a monthly salary of 50,000 Syrian pounds.
The closed camps were repeated in Ain Ali, the Al-Mayadin farms and Husseiniya in Al-Mayadin. According to teacher Ali, dozens of children between the ages of 12 and 14 were enrolled in physical training, while those over the age of 15 were trained in the use of weapons to join the ranks of Iranian-backed militias.
Path of Resistance
Lebanese scout leader Yousef noted that the organization used to visit and organize camps in Syria and Iraq even before the beginning of the Syrian war. He acknowledged there are links between the Mahdi Scouts in Syria and those in Lebanon “to exchange experiences.”
However, Maher Qamar of the scouts in Lebanon denied this, saying: “There is no link between the Imam Mahdi al-Scouts and scouts under the same name in Syria and Iraq.” He refused to answer our questions regarding arms training.
Yousef did not deny that the Imam Mahdi al-Scouts follow the “path of resistance,” yet insisted that does not provide any evidence for weapons training. Adding: “If we did that, the United States would have imposed sanctions, as it has done on so many other institutions.”
According to him the total number of people active in the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts in Lebanon, including officials, is close to 80,000. He stressed that the scouts’ work is of an “educational and social nature,” seeking to develop young people based on an Mahdist ideology. And: “All work is on a voluntary basis.”
Iran consolidated its presence through rehabilitating some infrastructure and a “social invasion” through its cultural centers, thus extending its influence west of the Euphrates River
“The work of the Iranian cultural centers is not that different from the work of the scouts camps concerned with raising children according to the vision of the Iranian regime, and extending Iran’s influence over the Middle East,” said Mohamad (42), an elementary school teacher from Deir Ezzor. “Not only military, but also religious and sectarian.”
Asked about the reason to first join the Mahdi Scouts and then an Iranian-backed militia, Mustafa replied: “The first reason is the tragic life we live.”
He then hesitates, before adding: “There is also a tempting salary from the Revolutionary Guard, as well as a non-exposure card.”
All members of militias affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, get such a non-exposure card which bears the name of the person, a signature and stamp of the brigade commander and the text: “This mujahid brother is allowed to enter and leave at any time, not to be stopped by any security agency, which if needed will facilitate and support him.”
Mustafa said his family was afraid of him being part of the National Defense Forces. Local militias cannot threaten it, as they are affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, the most powerful authority in the region. “So, I have a certain authority,” said Mustafa.
There are special benefits for boys who are sent by the scouts to volunteer in a militia affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard. One of them, according to Mustafa, is a “a contract we know nothing about, which we sign with an official of the Revolutionary Guard, for a period of six months and a monthly salary of 160,000 Syrian Pounds.”
The scouts can also complete their studies in an Iranian and Lebanese university, but often the officials working for the scouts or the Iranian Cultural Center do not keep their promises. The main focus has shifted towards fighting.
On the other hand, an ordinary member of an Iranian militia is not entitled to go on any mission and is generally treated poorly. He may even be threatened with Syria’s military service if he does not renew his contract with the militia linked to the Revolutionary Guard.
The Iranian-backed militias that attract graduates from the Mahdi Scouts vary in nature. Having invited tribal leaders and notables to meetings in Tehran, Iran managed to persuade some local clans to establish militias affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard. The first such meeting took place on August 3, 2018.
One of them is the Al-Mashahda clan in Abu Kamal. Iran claims the Al-Mushahda lineage is rooted in the Iranian city of Mashhad. This is what convinced the clan to form the 47th Regiment under the name of the Hashemite Brigade, led by Yousef Mahmoud Al-Hamdan Abu Issa.
The 47th Regiment recruits its members from the region. It also receives family representatives to submit complaints. Some 200 children from the city of Albu Kamal and surroundings, aged between 15 and 18, were registered as 47th Regiment Scouts.
So far, six training camps were established for these teenagers, three of which we were able to confirm. They were established in January, April and July 2020
The average stay in such a camp was 20 days, during which the youngsters were given religious lessons, in addition to theoretical and practical military training, including firing weapons in the desert surrounding Abu Kamal under the supervision of the Afghan Fatimiyoun Brigade.
After completing the camp, the graduates were able join a brigade under a six-month renewable contract.
Nawaf Al-Bashir, a former opposition figure, headed the delegation of notables and sheikhs that visited Tehran in 2017, and returned to form Liwa al-Baqir (Baqir Brigade), which includes most of the members of the Baggara tribe, which trace their lineage back to the 5th Imam al-Baqir.
The Baqir Brigade too is affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. It has an estimated 1,000 fighters. The brigade admits children into its ranks without conditions, whom shall be treated as ordinary combatants.
In the countryside west of Deir Ezzor, Sheikh Manhal al-Fayyad, Sheikh of the Al-Busaraya clan, has encouraged the youth of his clan onto the “path of resitance.” Residents claim he has helped hundreds of them to join the ranks of militias linked to the Revolutionary Guard.
Dozens of former Mahdi Scouts have been killed after joining a militia in Syria over the past few years. Some were officially mourned. Others were handed over to their families or buried in secret.
In July 2017, Lebanon’s Hezbollah organized a memorial service for Mahdi Abu Hamdan, who was 17 when he was killed in Syria. From the will read at his memorial service and his friends’ social media pages it became clear he used to be affiliated with the Mahdi Scouts.
On the same occasion, Hezbollah announced the killing of Muhammad Husayn al-Haq, from the town of Al-Khawakh in the Bekaa Valley. He too was 17 at the time. Days after his death, his high school results were revealed.
Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General, justified the recruitment of children as Abu Hamdan by saying that they are considered mature at 15 “when the boy reaches puberty.”
On January 19, 2020, Mahmoud Sufyan Al-Salfij (15), Muhammad Ahmad Al-Hilabi (13) and Uday Al-Hanan (16) died in a landmine explosion in the Al-Mayadin desert. The boys were students at the Al Hassan School in Al-Mayadin and had joined the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts in mid-2019.
Mahmoud had just finished his 9th grade exams in 2019. As it turned out, he was not very lucky at school, nor in life.
International law prohibits the use of children in combat, which includes their recruitment and arms training.
“It is considered a crime in international criminal law,” said lawyer Tariq Shindab, who has Doctorate in International Law.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which most of the world signed in 1989, prohibits the recruitment and training of children younger than 15.
Article 38 states that: “Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” And: “Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years.”
The treaty was criticized at the time for setting the minimum age at 15, since most countries in the world consider anyone under the age of 18 a minor.
In January 2000, the Working Group of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
This requires signatory states not to recruit children under the age of 18. Iran signed the optional protocol on September 21, 2010, yet never ratified it.
Finally, the training and use of children in armed conflict violates The Paris Principles regarding children associated with armed groups and The Paris Commitments to protect children from unlawful recruitment or use. These sets of guidelines were adopted by 58 countries in February 2007.
“I can’t leave them”
Lord Baden Powell had to wait 19 years before the World Organization of the Scout Movement was officially established in 1922. He could never have imagined that the name “scouts” would be used to recruit children in one of the fiercest wars in modern history.
Mustafa laughed when we asked him about leaving his life of arms.
“I cannot leave whenever I want, because when I leave, the Syrian army will take me to complete my military service,” he said. “And the reason I did not join the army was to not be forced to do service away from home in other provinces. As for the Revolutionary Guard, my role is within my village. “
“I don’t think about what will happen to us in the future,” he concluded. “Me and the other volunteers are all in it together.”
This report is being published with the support of the Adwa Project.