(Reuters) The boy’s fear was palpable as Iraqi soldiers brought him blindfolded before an intelligence officer in a house on the northern edge of Mosul.
“How long were you with ISIS? colonel Amer al-Fatlawi asked the boy in front of him.
“Twenty days, sir,” replied the 17-year old submissively.
The boy appeared harmless, but Fatlawi, the head of intelligence for the 16th division of the Iraqi army, suspected he may pose a latent threat after ISIS days of ruling over vast swathes of territory come to an end.
More than two years after the militants took over Mosul and proclaimed a caliphate for all Muslims, Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition have retaken the eastern half of the city, and now have the west in their sights.
Although thousands of militants have been killed since the start of the campaign three months ago, ISIS is expected to live on, going back underground and reverting to its insurgent tactics of old.
That means the enemy will be less visible to Iraqi forces, and the fight against it more covert.
“They have planted him as a sleeper cell,” Fatlawi said when the boy was out of earshot. “He will be a secret informant for Daesh.”
Slight and wearing jeans, the boy said he was one of a group of some 150 men who gathered at a local mosque around one year ago and were taken to a training camp nearby.
The daily routine involved waking at dawn for prayer, followed by breakfast, physical exercise, lessons in Islamic doctrine and how to use a kalashinkov.
After three weeks, the recruits were allowed to go home on break: “They told us to come back, but I didn’t. I was scared,” said the boy.
Fatlawi was not convinced: “They all say they quit,” he said, sceptically. “We will interrogate him and get information. If you know your enemy, he is easy to find.”
As Iraqi forces rout ISIS from the east, they are learning more about the workings of the militant group, which left behind a formidable paper trail.
On Fatlawi’s desk was a stack of documents recovered from ISIS bases in northern Mosul, including diagrams for making unmanned aircraft and two Russian passports from which the pages containing personal details had been torn out.
The passports appeared unused, except for a single stamp upon entrance to Turkey in 2013.
There were also internal communications sent from senior ISIS members to mid-ranking commanders, with instructions not to use earphones whilst on duty, and to smile and speak nicely to their subjects in order to “increase affection amongst all”.