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A public policy blog from AEI
Terrorists understand the pivotal role that education plays in winning hearts and minds. That is why terrorist groups often attack schools and are increasingly turning to education as a way to spread their message. In response, foreign aid donors need to openly acknowledge that education is at the forefront of efforts to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism and — where appropriate — should design programs with this in mind.
Western-style education and schools have long been a target for terrorist groups. The worst school attack happened in 2004, when Chechen rebels (men and women) held a school in the Russian city of Beslan hostage on the first day of the school year. After days of negotiation, the Russian government stormed the building. 186 children were killed. Attacks on educational institutions have skyrocketed since the Beslan attack — peaking at roughly 400 attempted attacks in 2014 before falling to around 250 attacks in 2016, according to the Global Terrorism Database.
The Taliban, which recently killed at least 10 people in an attack on the education department of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, has a long history of attacking schools. Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize-winning educational activist, survived a Taliban assassination attempt that involved an ambush of her school bus.
Boko Haram, the local name for the Nigeria-based Islamist militant group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, loosely means “Western education is a sin”. The group has kidnapped hundreds of girls from their schools, most notably the 276 Chibok girls who spawned the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Once under Boko Haram’s control, schoolgirls are sold as slaves, forcibly married to fighters, or forced to cook, gather firewood, and otherwise support the group. The Islamic State has also used schools as recruiting grounds. In one instance, 12 students from a prestigious Sudanese university crossed into Turkey on their way to join the Islamic State.
From education to indoctrination
These chilling incidents demonstrate what Americans increasingly understand — that schools and children are easy targets for violent actors. But even more worrisome is that terrorist groups are now using education for their own purposes: radicalization, indoctrination, and control.
Palestinian textbooks have long been accused of fostering anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. But the Islamic State’s curriculum perhaps goes the furthest in actively indoctrinating children into violent extremism. While the Islamic State destroyed many schools, it operated schools in Iraq and Syria that taught math using textbooks featuring guns and bullets. Children educated by the Islamic State must now be reintegrated into regular schools — not only in Iraq and Syria, but also across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East — raising a host of concerns, including peer radicalization.
The international community knows how important education is in preventing the spread of violent extremism, but it struggles with policies to actively counter terrorists’ war on education. In FY 2016, the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development spent a combined $856 million on foreign education programs. But research suggests that current US government-funded education programs have contradictory effects on terrorism, and can even increase support for political violence in high-risk countries like Somalia.
Terrorism’s toll on education is profound. Despite America’s investment of more than $759 million in Afghanistan’s schools since 2001, student attendance remains poor. But we should be even more worried that the Taliban are now welcoming the opening of schools in areas under their control. Foreign aid may build the schools, but those who control the classrooms win the hearts and minds.
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