[NB: following on from this post]
Are they [children] taken forcefully from their families, or do they, and their families, volunteer them for the cause?
There is no evidence of a general conscription. If that were the case all the children would be going to these camps. I think it's more a matter of volunteering and the financial incentives offered to the families. You received the information on the youth camps from a pro-ISIS person. What interest would ISIS have in publicly releasing this? The daily routine in the ISIS training camps is definitely not out of the ordinary of what we would expect in the jihadist world. ISIS is trying to emphasize that it has a regular army rather than just being a mere armed group.
So this makes them look bigger, stronger, and more organized?
That's what they're trying to portray. That portrayal goes back to its incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq back in 2006. Now they see themselves as a caliphate. So this is a very key part of their presentation, which distinguishes it from other jihadist groups, like al-Qaeda, which doesn't arrogate the role of a state for itself.
Can't this information be used against them?
When they believe that the information that gets out wouldn't be of harm to them, like the training camps, it doesn't bother them, although they are sensitive to what gets out, especially without their knowledge. I recently posted a document that included a general notification to its members in the Aleppo province. It was marked urgent, and it told the fighters that when the Prophet [Mohammed] wanted to conduct a raid, he would conceal it under another purpose. He would say war is deceit, so remind your brothers not to disclose names and information of their brothers' movements through the Internet.
Is ISIS as strong as it appears? How large are its armed forces?
I don't like extrapolating off the top of my head, but I would say it goes well over the numbers often given in the media. It's probably more than 30,000. As to their strength, there are clear limitations to what they can do. They can only focus on a few fronts at a single time, so despite taking Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, and Palmyra in Syria, they have lost significant territory in the north of the Raqqa province along the border with Turkey. To compensate for apparently lost momentum, they may try shock attacks and launch new offensives elsewhere, so thus the ongoing push to try to take Al-Hasakah, a city in northeastern Syria and another to take Haditha in western Anbar. Haditha is one of the few areas in Anbar that has stayed out of ISIS control because of a very strong local resistance.
As someone with insider's knowledge of the workings of ISIS, do you have any insights as to how they can be beaten?
Let me put it this way. I think we can talk about what the trajectory is. I don't see ISIS being defeated with the current western strategy. One of the problems is that in the heartlands of areas they control, such as Mosul, they're too entrenched to be destroyed from within. They have created a bureaucratic structure that brings an order to people's lives. So I don't see how they can be beaten unless ground forces attack them on all sides. It's going to be a long war, and that's not to say even if the west wins, that it wouldn't come back eventually. We have seen extremist organizations throughout history die many deaths but they never vanish completely — or at least the ideology lives on