- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Every child left behind? The Islamic State has set up education programs to groom the next generation of fighters. And they don’t just cover your standard jihadi topics, but also the more banal subjects like math, grammar and the English language. The Islamic State’s built schools, created textbooks, and even developed phone apps, to “educate” children, shedding light on a surreal aspect of the terrorist organization’s reach and strategy.
Here’s an app the Islamic State purportedly developed to teach children things like the alphabet… and tanks and guns.
From the Islamic State’s mobile child education app: “B is for Bunduqiyya (gun)”
“S is for sayf (sword)”
“D is for Dababa (tank)”
Experts say there is a tactical purpose behind the pedagogy. “There’s a need to physically and mentally prepare children to be the ‘next generation’” of fighters, said Mia Bloom, terrorism expert at Georgia State University told Foreign Policy. “It exposes the children to violence in a routine and daily fashion so it ceases to be shocking and normalizes violence,” she said.
Bloom and others at the Georgia State University Minerva research project on children and extremism track these apps, textbooks, and other macabre Islamic State learning tools. She told FP her team already found 35 Islamic State textbooks easily downloadable and ready to use in the dark corners of the Internet. Some are even in English. Whatever they find, they send to U.S. law enforcement and defense officials.
The Islamic State doesn’t stop at teaching materials. It has even built schools in eastern Syria in 2015, complete with curriculum, lesson plans and salaried teachers to indoctrinate children.
And what school wouldn’t be complete without phys ed? The Islamic State has a textbook on that, saturated in Islamic State imagery, that focuses less on dodgeball and more on tactical fighting moves.
Then there’s the math textbook, where children learn to count things like cherries, crayons — and bullets with weapon watermarks in the background.
Here’s excerpts of an Islamic State English primer, obtained by the Middle East Media Research Institute:
What the Islamic State does actually isn’t uncommon, experts say. Children’s education may be one of the most important — and overlooked — front lines in the battle against terrorism. Terrorist groups from ETA in the Basque Country to Hezbollah use ersatz education programs to lure children into their ranks.
“It makes terrorist organizations resilient and makes things like targeted assassinations far less effective,” Bloom said. If a key fighter is taken out, by drone strikes, special forces raids, or otherwise, his children can quickly take his place in the ranks.
Officials and experts say it’s too early to gauge the long-term effect of the Islamic State’s educational efforts. After all, the organization has only been around for just over two years.
But the group is unusually tech-savvy, likely making its impact more potent. The Islamic State’s use of social media and technology “is more sophisticated than past groups,” said Peter Weinberger, senior researcher at University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism.
And the investment pays off. Weinberger told FP once the Islamic State teaches young followers English, they can deploy not just to the frontlines but to meetings with criminal networks, to cities to recruit more fighters, and to the Internet to bolster the group’s online presence in the English-speaking world.
But some are used for more gruesome tasks. The United Nations recorded 362 cases of child soldier recruitment in Syria in 2016 alone, of which 274 were attributed to the Islamic State. The terrorist group was reported to use children to carry out raids, engage in fights, and even execute enemies. But the path taken from child to executioner, experts say, all started in the classroom.
Image Credits: Middle East Media Research Institute; Georgia State University Minerva Research Project: “Preventing the Next Generation: Children and Violent Extremist Organizations”