What it's like to report from inside ISIS training camps

"I love my job, I love journalism- I want to tell the top stories in the world," Afghan-born journalist Najibullah Quraishi told me, by phone.

I have heard plenty of journalists around the globe say such things. But he isn't just saying it. He risked his life to get to the core of the most important story in the world right now.

Journalist Najibullah Quraishi reporting from ISIS controlled Afghanistan for PBS Frontline
Journalist Najibullah Quraishi reporting from ISIS controlled Afghanistan for PBS Frontline

Tuesday night, Quraishi reports for PBS' Frontline from inside ISIS held territory in Afghanistan. Quraishi, has reported from Afghanistan for a decade, has traveled with Taliban fighters but this time was invited, by ISIS, to document how ISIS fighters are teaching “jihad lessons” to elementary school children. In one scene, viewers witness "children being taught how to kill people, how to behead, and how to become suicide bombers." 

Even for a journalist who has covered war close-up since 2001, Naj told me that what he saw in the course of recording this documentary shook him. "That was a shocking moment to see those children learning jihad; it was the most horrible moment I felt ever in my journalism life." That moment, he said, gave him a glimpse into the future, a look at a new generation of warriors who would have no concept of living in peace. "I cannot see any bright future for Afghanistan," he said.

In "Isis in Afghanistan," Quraishi interviews two teenagers who say they are ready to carry out suicide attacks on behalf of ISIS that, they say, they have trained for with the help of foreign fighters who joined their group.

"All local children are educated by the Islamic State from age three," the documentary reports. Najibullah records chilling scenes of the ISIS teachers showing children how to fire a pistol, a Kalashnikov rifle and how to pull a pin from a grenade.

"You must sacrifice to gain eternal life," one ISIS leader said coldly.

Najibullah says the Taliban and now ISIS allowed him to tell their story because he says they want the world to know their goals. ISIS uses shocking execution videos as a recruiting tool. "They don't want to take over a province, they don't want to take over Afghanistan or Pakistan, their goal is to take over the world," he told me. "I told them, and they know, I will tell the world what I saw, what I heard. They want that and I want the world to see this group, close-up. But I will tell you the truth, telling this story has a lot of risk."

Quraishi lives in London with his family, but travels to Afghanistan often. He told me that he makes contact with ISIS leaders through community elders in outlying cities and uses those local leaders to help ensure his safety. "My message to ISIS was 'we need to tell people who you are, what's your aim, what you want.' It is important to tell that story because these are the most dangerous people I have ever seen."

The documentary says that is exactly what ISIS wants the world to believe, that the Taliban was not forceful enough and that ISIS is willing to do anything in the name of its religion. But Quraishi said that he found former Taliban members who have joined ISIS, not because of deep religious convictions, but because they can earn more money, up to $700 a month by switching sides. And now, ISIS battles the Taliban for control over territory in Afghanistan. Quraishi says in some villages, ISIS collects taxes, ISIS members live in the communities they rule and run village schools.

Quraishi said he cultivated the trust of rural village elders to approach ISIS leaders and ask for access. It took eight months to get permission and even then he wondered if he would be allowed in only to be taken captive. He told me he traveled with a local "fixer" who was a village elder and also a local guide. His fixer used a Go-Pro camera to capture some scenes of Quaraishi working. None of the team wore protective vests or other gear because they didn't want to stand out in crowds.

Quraishi told me that ISIS made a lot of promises about how open they would be with him but backed down some when he arrived. "Although, they have promised me that they would allow us to film with the for three to five days and also they were agreed to allow us to film everything we want, once I got in, they didn't stick with what they promised." He said they stopped him from recording many times. "I really wanted to film the village life. For example, I wanted to talk with villagers, shopkeepers, farmers and so on but they didn't allow me."

He says he doubts that he knows or saw anything that the military intelligence doesn't already know. While Quraishi has traveled to Afghanistan extensively, he says that on this assignment, he was guided into remote places he doesn't know and wasn't always certain exactly where he was.

Najibullah Quraishi: from PBS Frontline
Najibullah Quraishi: from PBS Frontline

It may seem remarkable that the groups he covers give him access at all. Despite the dangers he faces for reporting his stories, his previous projects covering the Taliban included a film, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, which exposed the disturbing practice of “bacha bazi,” or “boy play” that involved wealthy Afghans and warlords buying young boys for "entertainment." .Another Quaraishi film, Opium Brides exposed the the "unexpected collateral damage of the country’s counter-narcotics effort."  

"We have to tell the story closely, we have to be there with them," he told me. "As a journalist, although there is a huge risk, we have to tell their story and this is what I did."

 

ISIS in Afghanistan
Premiering on PBS and online:
Tuesday, November 17, 2015, at 10 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CT
pbs.org/frontline/isis-in-afghanistan

 

 

 

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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