Islamist Terrorists’ Strategic War on Education

by Dur-e-Aden,  PhD student in the Department of Political Science at University of Toronto

On December 16, 2014, Pakistani Taliban attacked Army Public school in Peshawar, and killed over 140 children. Just a year later, in January 2016, they attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda and killed over 22 people, making Pakistan the worst hit country in terms of the targeting of education institutions. On February 1, 2016, Boko Haram burned 86 people alive, including several children and have regularly attacked educational institutions in Nigeria. Recent estimates indicate that as a result of Boko Haram violence, one million children are out of school, and over 2000 schools have closed in Nigeria and the neighboring countries. In Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, ISIS is taking the lead in indoctrinating the next generation of children by taking over the existing educational facilities, designing new curriculum, and attacking alternative institutions that challenge their ideology.


Why are terrorists so interested in claiming the lives of children? And why do they specifically target educational institutions? Below, I outline three reasons for this well-calculated strategy.

Intimidation:  By attacking children, terrorists can intimidate their parents (i.e., the broader society) in two ways. First, they send the message that their children should not be exposed to alternative ideas that challenge a terrorist organization’s worldview. And second, the frightened parents can put pressure on the government to concede to terrorists’ demands in return for their children’s safety. As a result, terrorist organizations successfully polarized society exactly at a time when it needs to be united against their atrocities.  

Controlling the Narrative: While one would imagine that targeting of innocent children would increase opposition to a terrorist group, unfortunately that is not always the case. Here, it is important to keep in mind the role of their propaganda and the resulting media attention that such attacks generate. After these attacks, terrorist groups very creatively release statements which change the course of the conversation. As a result, the initial opposition and abhorrence against them very quickly gets lost in bigger geopolitical narratives of two kinds: either the attacks on educational institutions are reprisals due to a local or foreign state’s fight against them, or these terrorists are part of some conspiracy of foreign powers to destabilize the country. This narrative takes away the individual agency of terrorists, does not hold them responsible for their actions, sometimes even generates sympathy for them, and diverts the attention from micro to the macro level. One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon was a tremendous backlash inside Pakistan against Malala, instead of her attackers.

Recruitment: After intimidating the parents and controlling the narrative, the only places that are left to provide any education for children are then controlled by these terrorist groups themselves. This way they can create another generation of recruits, which is much easier than spending time and resources to gain new recruits. These children can than provide multiple roles, from mere support to outright fighting. In short, by attacking children, particularly in educational institutions, terrorists are achieving two objectives simultaneously: A new generation of recruits, and eliminating opposition by killing those who can stand up against them.

What can be done about it?

First, current counter-terrorism policies are very heavily focused on de-radicalization, an approach with mixed rates of success. Therefore, focus should be on protecting educational institutions and curriculum from extremist take-over so that radical ideas within them do not spread in the first place.  

Second, there is an urgent need to provide extra security to educational institutions because they are now deliberate targets of this war, not collateral ones. While these moves are hard to take in weak states like Pakistan and Nigeria, and even harder in failing states Iraq and Syria, major stake-holders at least need to put this on their agenda. Whether the final responsibility falls on the individual state or an international actor can be determined based on each state’s capacity. It is unfair to expect children and their parents to stand up to guns and bombs.

Third, since education is considered a basic right, it needs to be given the same priority as food and shelter by countries such as Canada who are providing humanitarian assistance. States need to make sure that children who are in refugee camps displaced by the wars, or are simply afraid to go to school, are still receiving education as this is one of the best ways that they can break out from the cycle of violence, and have a chance at a brighter future.

Finally, though it has been said a million times before, it needs to be emphasized again: the narrative of terrorist groups needs to be challenged, by everyone, and not just any one political or religious group. Their arguments are often so weak that they can be knocked down with common sense, and do not always need complex religious jurisprudence. That’s why they are attacking ordinary educational institutions in the first place. They know that they cannot stand up to critically thinking minds. Often times, academics, policy makers and especially the media, takes terrorists’ statements at face value. However, it is worthwhile to remember that just because they say something, doesn’t make it true. These groups are not fighting any oppression, otherwise they would not be oppressing the same people on whose behalf they claim to fight. Moreover, by attacking educational institutions, they are deliberating planning to create a new generation which remains submissive to their ideology, and does not revolt by developing the consciousness of their oppression. Every fascist movement throughout history has maintained control like it, and groups like the Taliban, ISIS and Boko Haram are the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.

As a student, I have often observed that every time we study history, we are appalled and end up asking the same question: “How could anyone let that happen?” Yet, a crisis is unfolding right before our eyes but very few international players are paying sufficient attention to it. In countering terrorism, effective intelligence needs to stay two steps ahead of adversaries. Unfortunately in this case, Islamist Terrorists are already a generation ahead of us.

Dur-e-Aden is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at University of Toronto, Graduate Affiliate at the Center for Critical Development Studies, and a Junior Researcher affiliated with TSAS. She holds a MA in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on the recruitment patterns of both men and women in terrorist/insurgent groups. She can be contacted at and can be followed on twitter @aden1990

Image via Flickr “Education-Éducation-9” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  GAC | AMC

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