Inside ISIS’ Dysfunctional Schools

The Failure of the Group's Educational System

Internally displaced children who fled Deir al Zor are seen at a school, a former Islamic State base, in the Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria, September 19, 2017. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

In recent years, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has attracted considerable attention for its educational system, given the shocking nature of its curriculum and the role that it is believed to play in the indoctrination and recruitment of children. In graphic propaganda videos, ISIS has featured ashbal, or “lion cubs”—the term that the group uses to describe its underage fighters, most of whom appear to be well under ten years old—participating in violent training exercises and even executing prisoners. Its “textbooks," which the group distributes as PDFs through its social media channels, cover a wide range of subjects, such as geography, history, computer programming, chemistry, mathematics, and English, but use crude exercises to desensitize children to violence: arithmetic problems that involve counting bullets or the number of ISIS soldiers and “nonbelievers” on a battlefield, for example.

Much of what is known about ISIS’ educational system, however, is based on the group’s own propaganda. Although analyzing such material provides a window into how ISIS wants the world to view its educational system—as rigorous, organized, and ruthless in the grooming of child soldiers—there is a significant gap between the group’s virtual world and the reality on the ground. In interviews conducted through a third party with over two dozen civilian teachers and parents who had fled to southern Turkey from ISIS-held territory in Syria (specifically, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, and rural Aleppo), I have found that ISIS’ school system is in truth deeply dysfunctional and, in some ISIS-controlled areas, nearly nonexistent. 


Some of the teachers and parents who were interviewed had fled ISIS in early 2014, when the group still held large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria. Others had escaped more recently. Together, their accounts provide a picture of how ISIS’ school system has evolved over the years.

Aminah, a woman from Deir ez-Zor, taught during ISIS’ early days. (Her name and those of all others interviewed for this article have been changed.) She said

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