At first glance, the children in ISIS propaganda videos look just like those you’d find in any elementary school across the world. They’re smiling and happy, toting bright backpacks, and running around playing kickball outside.
But it’s hard to miss the sign that these aren’t normal students — the black cloth tied around some of their heads that bears the Islamic State’s symbol.
The terrorist group (which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) has released a barrage of propaganda in recent months touting the schools in the territory ISIS refers to as its “caliphate,” located in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Business Insider viewed several propaganda videos featuring children and saw dozens of photos of kids posted on ISIS’ social media channels.
Photos show students sitting attentively in class, always segregated by gender, and solving maths problems on a chalkboard. They display textbooks with maths problems that mix weapons and tanks in with objects like fruit and flowers.
ISIS is “trying to establish its deep roots for itself … by creating many classrooms worth of heavily indoctrinated, heavily committed children who are being brought up only understanding the world through Islamic State’s binary view of jihad, which is dangerous,” Charlie Winter, an expert on ISIS propaganda and senior researcher for Georgia State University, told Business Insider.
ISIS targets children specifically, aiming to create a generation of loyal followers who are indoctrinated from an early age and therefore might be less likely to dissent. It’s an issue that worries experts like Winter.
“It is instilling very young children with … Islamism, jihadism, and it’s something that’s going to stick around for a long, long time,” Winter said. “It’s an elephant in the room that isn’t being given enough scrutiny.”
In Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital in Syria, ISIS throws parties for children and hands out toys and prizes for answering questions correctly, Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a Syrian activist with the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Business Insider late last year.
“Boys it’s affecting a lot,” said Raqqawi, who goes by a pseudonym. “They see all the time guns and calls for jihad. So they love to go. Sometimes they think it’s a game, so they love to go and do these things.”
ISIS targets children because it’s easier to recruit them than adult men, Raqqawi said. Experts have said that such regular exposure to violence normalizes it in children’s minds.
“It’s very familiar to see a lot of children carrying a AK-47s,” Raqqawi said. “Sometimes the gun is taller than the kid.”
ISIS has made violence commonplace in the “caliphate,” the swath of territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, meaning that a new generation of children living in those areas are in danger of being socialised to believe that such brutality is normal.
“If violence is being broadcast in the open, children would see it and believe that it’s normal and accepted because it’s in public and it’s not publicly condemned, which would lead children to commit similar violent acts,” Rachel Bryson, a researcher who studies ISIS propaganda at the Quilliam Foundation, told Business Insider late last year.
She added: “They’re aiming to control a lot of the curriculum to indoctrinate children, and so that is just a way to do it. Nazi Germany was a similar situation.”
ISIS has been known to leave headless bodies in the streets, lock people in cages in public squares for infractions as petty as smoking, and carry out public executions. The group has also set up “media points” around its territory to broadcast its propaganda videos in open-air theatres.
As children are immersed in this public violence, they are also targeted by ISIS members who lure them with various techniques.
“Sometimes they make parties for children, so if you answer the right question they will give you a present or a mobile phone. … They recruit a lot of young boys” this way, Raqqawi said.
A Syrian man from Deir Ezzor, who goes by the name Fikram, told Business Insider last month that the ISIS “advocacy” office “distributes biscuits and juice to passerby children while they showcase publications.”
ISIS sends some of its child recruits to military camps to train them in how to handle weapons and fight. Militants provide an incentive to poor families by offering to pay parents hundreds of dollars per month for each child they send, according to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. ISIS calls these children, who have been featured in many ISIS propaganda releases, “Cubs of the Caliphate.”
Even the children who resist recruitment to ISIS’ military training camps are now apparently being indoctrinated in schools in some ISIS-controlled cities.
“The military camps are for military training in particular, so they don’t necessarily educate in things like geography and history and the humanities,” Winter said. “… To be a Caliphate Cub is different from being a kid living in the caliphate.”
ISIS shut down many schools in its caliphate, but some have been reopened after militants indoctrinated teachers with their radical ideology and developed a curriculum that supports its mission.
“They are making these books for propaganda, sending the message to foreign fighters that we have books, we have schools, that your kids will have education,” Raqqawi told Business Insider in January.
Like most aspects of life in the caliphate, its schools are supposedly run by a bureaucratic agency set up by the militants to mimic the operations of a legitimate state.
A report from MosulEye, an Iraqi historian who reports on daily life in ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq under a pseudonym, details how ISIS attempted to build up an infrastructure for education after the terrorists took over the city:
[The education emir] sees that the age a child must start his education at is the age of 4 years. At this age, the child learns how to read and write, and by the age of 5 years, the child starts to learn the alphabets of monotheism, then teach the child the Arabic language more heavily to be able to understand the Quran correctly and accurately. Then, at the age of 10, the child starts his Shar’i[a] education until the age of 15 years old. At the age of 15, the young student then starts to learn how to use weaponry and electronic technology and then it is determined which field the young student must be directed to complete his studies after presenting the student before an evaluation committee to evaluate the student’s capabilities and qualifications and the field under ISIL’s rule Soft Resistance and Civil Disobedience the student will excel at.
ISIS has also reportedly included weapons training in its elementary-school curriculum. There are dress codes as well — girls as young as 6 years old are reportedly forced to wear niqab face coverings.
Rasha Al Aqeedi, a researcher from Mosul, said the report matches what she’s been hearing from her sources in Iraq, although she couldn’t confirm that all schools include military training.
“Until last February schools were pretty much the same apart from eliminating some topics considered non-Islamic,” Aqeedi told Business Insider via email.
In recent months, ISIS has released propaganda photos showing these textbooks being printed, and the books can also be found online.
Business Insider viewed one textbook that was circulated by ISIS-affiliated channels on the secure-messaging app Telegram late last year.
At first glance, the document looks similar to any maths workbook you’d find in a typical grade school. But the equations are filled with illustrations of guns, tanks, and bombs alongside normal, everyday items.
Winter has seen similar books.
“There was one [maths problem] that said, ‘If the caliphate has 283,000 lions and the crusaders have 277,000 soldiers, how many heroes make the difference?'” Winter said. “Ludicrous things like that.”
MosulEye’s report also mentions the textbooks. ISIS reportedly forced teachers in Mosul to show up to a center to rewrite school curriculum to suit the group’s needs.
“ISIL imposed harsh conditions with regards to attendance; every professor writes down his name on the attendance sheet daily, and for those who violate their attendance, a punishment awaits them,” the report notes.
“ISIL has invested heavily on reconstructing the educational curricula, and spent a long time to reconstruct them all over. They revised the curricula three times because [the head of ISIS’ education council] did not approve them.”
Raqqawi confirmed the existence of the textbooks in an interview with Business Insider in January.
ISIS seems to be teaching chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English, all tailored to the group’s message and purposes.
“For the chemistry, they teach kids how to make bombs,” Raqqawi told Business Insider in January. “Same thing with the physics. For geography, they are telling the kids that there is only the territories of Islam and the territories of Kufar [infidels].”
The territories of Islam are depicted as light, while the territories of the infidels are dark, Raqqawi said.
Liz Sly, a reporter for The Washington Post in the Middle East, toured the town of Tal Abyad in Syria late last year after it was liberated from ISIS. She documented the classrooms she came across in photos on her Instagram account.
They show bomb-making tutorials and illustrations instructing students how to bring down helicopters:
A photo posted by Liz Sly (@lizslywp) on Nov 2, 2015 at 2:38pm PST
A photo posted by Liz Sly (@lizslywp) on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:04am PST
Western journalists aren’t able operate in ISIS territory, so it’s difficult to know how these textbooks are actually being used in the caliphate. But experts believe the militants are actually educating young kids with this material.
“Based on the evidence that we have, and also the documents that have emerged and been translated, as well as conversations I’ve had with people in Iraq, yes, I think that they are administering schools,” Winter said.
Children also study ISIS ideology in mosques.
“Most of the children go to the mosques for Sharia courses,” Raqqawi said. “… Some people don’t like ISIS at all but when they force them to go to these Sharia courses they change a lot. … It’s really shocking how they’re playing with people’s minds.”
ISIS governs its caliphate according to a strict interpretation of Sharia law. ISIS’ version of Sharia allows for amputations for crimes like stealing.
“ISIS is recruiting children and teaching them the extreme curriculum, which is based on fighting and religion,” Ali Leili, who runs the Syrian activist group DeirEzzor24, told Business Insider last month.
Leili said the militants are raising kids “to hate the rest of the communities living in Syria” and noted that an entire generation of children in ISIS-held territory is at risk of growing up without proper education. They would know only ISIS’ radical curriculum.
Raqqawi echoed this belief.
“It’s like these kids are a time bomb,” he said. “It’s not just a problem for Syria, it’s a problem for the whole region. We don’t know where these kids will go, what they will do.”
Communities in Iraq and Syria are already seeing the effects of this indoctrination — Raqqawi said that children as young as 12 years old are being used for suicide attacks.
“They want to make [it seem] like everything in their life is about weapons and explosions and war and fighting for Islam,” Raqqawi said. “Their main idea is to recruit these children and make them into what they want. Small children, you can control them, you can shape them how you want.”
Classrooms and camps
PBS Frontline went inside ISIS-controlled territory in Afghanistan, where the group has been gaining influence, and got a firsthand look at how ISIS is running schools.
The ISIS flag is prominent at the front of this classroom:
The instructor tells the children: “We must implement God’s religion over all people. God says do jihad until intrigue, idolatry, and infidelity are gone from the world.”
In this school, ISIS also conducts hands-on lessons with weapons:
The ISIS instructor asks a child what Kalashnikovs (a type of automatic rifle) are used for, and the child replies, “to defend the faith.” When the instructor asks who they will hit with the weapon, the child replies, “infidels.”
The children are also given weapons to practice with. They appear to be unloaded.
The instructor justifies teaching children such gruesome skills.
“Sharia law tells us that children should be given all essential skills,” he tells PBS. “So we teach them and give them military training to prepare them in mind and body so they are set on the right path and each generation will learn and teach in turn.”
These ISIS-run schools seem to exist in addition to the military camps for the “Cubs of the Caliphate.”
Education seems to vary widely in ISIS territory. Some parents refuse to send their kids to ISIS schools, and many schools remain shut down, despite ISIS claims that they are educating children across the caliphate, activists said.
Aqeedi, the researcher from Mosul, said her friends and family who remain there “have stopped sending their kids to education institutions and have opted for homeschooling.”
MosulEye’s report confirms that many inside the city refuse to send their children to ISIS-led schools, even though on October 27 ISIS declared that anyone who doesn’t send their children to school will be punished and their assets confiscated.
ISIS has issued similar decrees in Syria. Fikram, the man from Deir Ezzor, pointed to a September report from Good Morning Syria stating that some teachers started holding classes in secret after ISIS moved in so that students could continue their education free from ISIS propaganda.
A private teacher who owns a fuel station told the news outlet: “I have a family to feed every day and knowledge to pass down to the next generations. I sell fuel to feed my family and give private lessons in secret to share my knowledge with the next generations. But — like any other teacher working in secret — I fear that, if the Islamic State found out about us, our families would have no one to feed them, and the students no one to teach them.”
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