The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
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 that the Diwan of Education—ISIS’ education department—“was an utter failure,” since it failed to provide even the basics, such as textbooks. “It is wrong to even call it a Diwan of Education,” Salem, another teacher from Deir ez-Zor, said. When Ahmad, an elementary school teacher from Mayadin, in rural eastern Deir ez-Zor, was working at an ISIS school in 2014, teaching his third-grade students was an uphill battle because there was neither a curriculum nor teaching materials. That is because soon after ISIS forces took over rural Deir ez-Zor, in July 2014, administrators closed the community’s schools until all teachers completed a two-month “sharia course” to ensure that they were well versed in ISIS’ ideology, since many of them refused to swear allegiance to the group.
Although teachers were promised hard copies of a new comprehensive curriculum that included math, English, and chemistry for secondary-level students, the materials never arrived. English courses were reserved for the children of foreign fighters, not Syrians. Eventually, teachers were offered electronic versions of the curriculum, but only if they brought their own USB flash drives. When they did, they discovered that the content was dedicated exclusively to aqidah, or Islamic theology.
Despite ISIS’ healthy distribution of educational materials in its online propaganda, the teachers said that they had never received those documents either electronically or in print. Some were not even aware that these resources existed, since they had little access to the Internet. Others said that they had heard about the online curriculum but had received only incomplete versions of the electronic textbooks. According to Ahmad, ISIS actually banned printed textbooks of any sort from his school because, at the time, the only printed curricula that were accessible belonged to either the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian Interim Government, run by the Syrian opposition. ISIS forbade these materials and any alternatives from being taught at their schools. In the rare instances when PDFs of ISIS’ textbooks were distributed, students and teachers alike were expected to cover the costs of printing, and so few hard copies were made. Samira, a mother, and Fadia, a teacher, both from Raqqa, confirmed that the online versions shared by local educational authorities were incomplete and consisted mostly of aqidah. It was thus not surprising that one of the most common refrains heard when asking interviewees about the educational system in ISIS-held territory was “What education?”
Many of the problems within ISIS’ schools stemmed from the group’s unwillingness to bear the costs of rehabilitating educational infrastructure, especially in areas such as Deir ez-Zor, where the damage to schools was extensive. According to Omar, a teacher from Raqqa, ISIS was “frugal.” “They didn’t want to spend on education,” he said. “Opening schools would require lots of money, rehabilitation of schools, books, bringing diesel for heating, paying salaries. It is too costly, and they didn’t want to do this.” The exodus of civilians from ISIS-controlled areas and the resulting low attendance rates further discouraged ISIS from investing in schools. ISIS’ Diwanof Education also ran into serious personnel problems. For instance, it struggled to hire qualified teachers and competent administrators. Some recruits had only a high school diploma, and most refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
ISIS would also have needed to set up a records system to track enrollment, take attendance, and monitor dropouts, all of which are fundamental elements of educational administration. It did none of these things. Ahmad admitted that he was unaware of the ages or grades of his students due to a lack of documentation, and ISIS authorities never asked him to record student attendance.
Exams were minimal, with basic literacy being the goal at the primary level, according to Alaa, a woman who taught in al-Bab, in rural Aleppo. In Raqqa, Samira and her son reported, principals at the local level had significant discretion to set their own curricula, indicating a lack of coordination between different ISIS provinces and even within Raqqa itself. Based on her conversations with the parents of students attending the ten major primary and secondary schools in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, Samira concluded that each school had a different curriculum.
Unlike the health-care sector, which ISIS was highly motivated to invest in because of its need to treat injured fighters, education was a low priority for ISIS. “Unlike the Diwan of Health, which seeks licensed doctors and health professionals, the Islamic State sought no expertise for education,” said Amir from Raqqa. The head of the Diwan of Education in Mayadin was a Moroccan fighter who had been transferred there after being injured in battle. Not only did he lack a background in school administration, but he had not even finished his own education, getting only as far as secondary school. The fact that ISIS appears to have used the Diwan of Education as a dumping ground for unskilled or incapacitated fighters indicates the institution’s lack of importance in the group’s strategy.
When teachers offered suggestions for improvement, they were immediately rebuked. In 2014, after teachers approached an ISIS education official in rural Aleppo to recommend that additional schools be opened to accommodate the increasing number of internally displaced people and unenrolled students, the official warned them to never advise a higher authority again.
Indeed, ISIS feared and despised its teachers because most of them did not pledge allegiance to the group. A teacher from Deir ez-Zor said that she, along with fellow attendees at a sharia training course, were scolded for having the “mentality of Baathists and Bashar al-Assad.” The incident illustrates ISIS’ paranoia about its ranks being infiltrated by traitors and spies. ISIS did not trust teachers to respect its authority, let alone uphold standards that included segregated classrooms and strict clothing guidelines. In many cases, ISIS’ distrust of teachers was warranted; the teachers who were interviewed, as well as others, said that they were unwilling to propagate the group’s ideology. According to Amir, some teachers secretly taught their own, nonreligious lessons. As ISIS began to acknowledge its inability to monitor and regulate schools and became increasingly concerned about teachers’ insubordination, its solution was to close one school after another.
From 2015 to 2016, the Diwan of Education in Syria and the local education directorates in each of ISIS’ provinces were essentially defunct. By 2016, virtually all ISIS’ schools had shut down, a natural transition given the low attendance rates, limited teaching staff, poor teacher salaries, and the fact that cities such as Raqqa were being shelled by anti-ISIS forces. The group’s online propaganda apparatus, however, continued to churn out glossy electronic textbooks, creating the illusion of an organized system.
ISIS’ true recruitment machine was the Diwan of Dawah and Masajid (outreach and mosques), which ran sharia training centers, mosques, Friday sermons, and so-called media points, or propaganda centers with large screens that played footage of battles; beheadings; sermons of ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and Islamic chants and songs. They were placed in popular, high-traffic areas, such as town squares and market places. Children were attracted to these media points, which often resembled open-air movie theaters, and considered them a source of entertainment.
The teachers who were interviewed said that children began skipping school to spend time at these media points, but they knew that it would be pointless to raise these concerns with ISIS. “The Diwan of Dawah and Masajid had highly ranked ISIS officials,” Ahmad recalled. “We in the Diwan of Education did not matter; they could wipe the floor with us and no one would say anything.” In fact, sharia courses for children and youth were deliberately scheduled in the morning to keep students away from the classroom. According to Alaa, the Diwan of Dawah and Masajid provided “snacks and music to encourage children to join ISIS,” to mold a generation of members who “only know of fighting.” When the sharia courses and media presentations would finish, ISIS officials would enthusiastically call on the children to join the group as lion cubs. An imam would then bring the young volunteers to the local recruitment office, where they would enroll in a 90-day sharia and military training course. Fadia, the teacher from Raqqa, said that when children decided to join ISIS, they did so through their imam or Koran teacher, not through their schoolteachers.
Because ISIS prioritized the work of the Diwan of Dawah and Masajid to indoctrinate and recruit children, formal education was virtually unknown within ISIS-controlled areas. In the words of a teacher from Deir ez-Zor, “If I had not been a teacher, I would not have even known of anything called the Diwan of Education.” That is not surprising, since ISIS never made much effort to publicize its educational system among locals. Teachers were told to spread news about schools by word of mouth. In the absence of official publicity, the few schools that remained open were unable to attract many students.
The weakness of ISIS’ educational system calls into question its claim to be a fully functioning state rather than simply a military organization. Although ISIS’ propaganda highlights the importance of educating the caliphate’s next generation, the grim reality is that children appear to be valued primarily as potential fighters. After the eventual collapse of ISIS in Syria, policymakers will need to address the educational vacuum that a generation of Syrian children has been subjected to for the past several years.