The IS is trying to indoctrinate a loyal citizenry for its new “caliphate”
One of the many striking differences between the so-called “Islamic State” (IS; formerly ISIS) and its ideological brethren and predecessors in the Salafist-jihadist movement is the unusual degree of interest the IS has shown in children and education. This reveals a great deal about how the organization conceptualizes the “state” it is trying to construct and what its long-term vision for the future looks like. All of this underscores how different and dangerous the IS is, even as compared to other offshoots of al-Qaeda.
For well over a year, the IS and its rivals in the “official” al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra, among others – have stood accused of indoctrinating, conscripting, and fielding child soldiers and terrorists, particularly teenage boys. Human Rights Watch recently released a report in which the IS is specifically accused of having “recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.”
A 13-year-old boy going by the assumed name of “Mohammed” is making the rounds in Western media telling harrowing tales of conditions and activities taking place in IS youth camps. He says he and others were forced to watch gruesome punishments such as crucifixions and stonings, and were being groomed as future terrorists and suicide bombers.
But the IS’s twisted relationship with children, particularly in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, goes far beyond the exploitation of youths in combat. Reports from Raqqa about the IS approach to ruling a sizable Syrian city in which it has developed uncontested control suggest implicit surprise that the new “caliphate” would be involved in entertainments and activities aimed at seducing and winning over to their ideology the children under their control. The group was said to be “holding ‘fun days’ for kids replete with ice cream and inflatable slides.”
What is really going on is a long-term project to create, through indoctrination and brainwashing posing as education, a new generation of genuine, committed followers of the IS’s new “caliphate.” They reportedly see the children under their control as the up-and-coming “generation of the Khilafah.” This reflects an implicit understanding that most of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis who have come under their control, or either fought alongside or not opposed the IS, did so out of desperation. The IS knows full well that their sudden rise says more about the policies of Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki than it does about the specific or long-term appeal of the IS ideology and worldview.
So it’s no surprise at all that the IS – which believes it really is a state, and which is consciously trying to think and act like a state (or at least how it thinks a state would conduct itself) – would be so interested in children and education. As a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War explains, “both ISIS rhetoric and the resources it has devoted to educational programming suggest its core motivation is to train the next generation of ISIS members, the actual citizenry of the Caliphate. ISIS sees itself not as a terrorist organization indoctrinating children, but as a sovereign state educating its citizens.”
In this context, it’s vital to understand that the IS sees its new “state” as not just another state, but another kind of state. This is not the familiar challenge to the existing state system of an entity that wishes to join it, with or without permission of a majority of others. Rather, it is a thoroughgoing and absolute rejection of the existing state system, particularly among the world’s Muslims, but ultimately globally. The stated and explicit intention of the IS is to bring down that system altogether and replace it with… you guessed it: itself.
Needless to say, this seems vainglorious bordering on the insane. But the IS is seducing youth online throughout the Muslim world and beyond to come and join it as fighters. And it is indoctrinating and brainwashing the children under its control in its new educational systems. Its schools insist on endless rote learning of the most retrograde and literalistic versions of Islamic fundamentalism, and have reportedly “permanently” banned numerous subjects including philosophy, chemistry, “fine arts, music, civics, social studies, history, psychology, and religion, including Islamic and Christian studies.”
Like all good hardcore revolutionaries, the IS is attempting to create a new man and a new society for the entire world. And it hopes to do that by exploiting these young people both now and into the future. Of course this is an absurdity that will fail spectacularly in the long run. But until it actually does collapse under the weight of its own bizarre contradictions, the fanatical project of the Islamic State threatens to consume all those who encounter it.
Chief among these victims will be the young people who have the dreadful misfortune of finding themselves caught in that maelstrom. It’s the worst form of child abuse imaginable.