A Syrian teenager who voluntarily turned himself in to the authorities in Iraq after being sent on a suicide mission for the Islamic State (IS) group in Baghdad should be released from custody and allowed to go home to his family, activists and officials in Syria's Aleppo Province told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq this week.
Sixteen-year-old Aseed al-Barho from Manbij, an IS-controlled town in Aleppo Province, was given an explosive vest by IS militants who then drove him to a Shi'ite congregation hall in Baghdad.
Instead of blowing himself up inside the congregation hall as his IS recruiters had ordered, Aseed sought out security guards and gave himself up. In subsequent TV interviews, the Syrian teenager said that he never had any intention of carrying out his recruiters' orders, and that he had tricked the militants by donning the explosive vest and accompanying them from Manbij to Mosul in Iraq, and then to Baghdad.
Mundhir al-Sallal, the deputy leader of the opposition Free Aleppo Provincial Council, told RFE/RL that Aseed had never been involved with the Free Syrian Army or similar groups, but had suddenly started studying the Koran with the Islamic State group.
"[The IS group] deceived him, asking him to take part in military training courses before taking him to be trained at their training camp," Sallal said.
The militants then began taking Aseed to the front lines, against the wishes of his family. "His family had no authority over his movements," Sallal said, adding that if the teen's family had tried to intervene, the militants could have arrested them.
Even though Aseed voluntarily surrendered to the Iraqi authorities, the 16-year-old remains in custody.
In December, Sallal and the Free Aleppo Provincial Council called on UNICEF and other child-welfare organizations to intervene and call for Aseed's release.
Sallal says that he has also written to the Iraqi government about Aseed. "Our plea to the Iraqi government was for his release and for him to be handed over to us, given that we as a provincial council are prepared to receive him and his family, whether in Aleppo or its countryside, or in Turkey," Sallal told RFE/RL.
The Free Aleppo Provincial Council is also in touch with rights group Amnesty International, who promised to exert pressure on the Iraqi government, Sallal said.
The teenage boy had "been enlightened by God to surrender of his own free will and did not blow himself up amid our Iraqi brethren," he added.
Aseed's young cousin Ahmed told RFE/RL's correspondent in Syria that the 16-year-old had joined the IS group after local teenagers persuaded him to do so. "There were neighborhood kids who had joined. They convinced him of their ideas and promised him money, so he joined," Ahmed told Radio Free Iraq.
According to Ahmed, Aseed had been an ordinary teenager who had been preparing to take his ninth-grade exams at school, when "things happened."
After the teenager joined the IS group, he "seldom came home and his family was not happy with him," Ahmed said. "We are asking the Iraqi government to take into account that Aseed al-Barho is a 16-year-old minor. He's just a child."
Free Aleppo Provincial Council deputy Sallal said that he and his colleagues were willing to cooperate with the Iraqi government to address the issue of minors like Aseed, who he said must be saved from the IS militants.
"Their minds are still young and have been filled with ideas that can be removed and replaced with other ideas. We must cooperate, we and the Iraqi government and the whole world, in disarming these 'time bombs' that can blow up on us," Sallal said.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview that Aseed was being treated humanely.
Brigadier Sa'ad Ma'an said that the Iraqi authorities considered Aseed to be a victim. However, Ma'an said that the law views Aseed as "an accused person even though he did not carry out a crime."
"He is viewed as a juvenile but he is being treated humanely and from a psychological and social point of view we know he is more of a victim than a criminal or guilty person," Ma'an said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk