In today’s world, it is not uncommon to hear that schools have been destroyed in conflict, or twelve-year-old girls have been banned from going to class.
Insurgency groups—regardless of their creed—aim to destabilize society in one way or another. But why do insurgency groups target educational institutions in particular? When examining the Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram, nearly every answer points to changing the societal status quo—oftentimes to counter secularization and embedded Western-norms. Having spent some time surveying religiously-motivated groups and their hostility towards domestic education systems, I have found Boko Haram and IS to stick out as particularly nuanced case studies.
Free and Fair Education Has Always Been Contested
Insurgency movements differ from other militant movements in that they often operate using asymmetrical and unconventional warfare to overthrow a standing regime. This usually means that they fight against state forces, or against the values that the state stands for. In the case of religiously-motivated groups, resentment is often directed towards the latter. This shift, shouldered by several regional rebel organizations, coincided with the U.S.-led effort to counter anti-Western sentiment in the MENA region following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Studying the guerilla tactics utilized by Boko Haram and IS towards academic institutions sheds a bright light on the importance of free and fair education, as well as the profound influence that comes with controlling such institutions during times of conflict.
Groups like Boko Haram and IS have made their religious and ideological affiliation quite apparent. Both groups are considered “Islamic fundamentalist groups” by the United States and associate themselves with a strict political-religious sect of Sunni Islam known as Jihadi-Salafi Islam. Salafis emphasize the concept of unity with the umma, or global Islamic community, against others who they deem oppressors of Islam. Inherent to this ideology are strict gender norms that tend to relegate women to a position below the man in most realms of society: one being the pursuit of free and fair education. Under Salafi rule, women may receive post-secondary education only if their studies are conducted in private and adhere to Islamic law. The Taliban utilized a similar doctrine during their rule in the early 2000s. Despite the resemblance, however, the group does not consider themselves Salafists. The splintering of extremist Islamic sects in this manner soon becomes an issue of its own, with many groups denying affiliation with certain Islamic schools and proposing their own hybrid version instead. Once this dissociation takes place, religiously-motivated insurgency groups begin to take on a new dimension. Oftentimes, these groups succumb to in-fighting due to ideological discordance and split up into smaller groups that adopt certain niches to differentiate themselves from others—Boko Haram’s niche has become resisting Western-style education, and IS’s niche has become the formation of an Islamic Caliphate.
Case Studies: Boko Haram and IS
For both groups, targeting educational institutions proved useful in accomplishing three major goals: ideological indoctrination, recruitment, and circulating propaganda. The common denominator that ties these three things together is the strategic utilization of fear. When populations fear a group’s capabilities, capturing large swaths of territory becomes easier for the insurgent.
Boko Haram is the local name for the Nigerian-based insurgency group “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad.” Roughly translated into English, the name means, “Western education is forbidden.” Although the group has been active in Nigeria since 2002, widespread awareness of the group’s activities was not well known until the group’s abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014. This event, alongside IS’s advances in northern Iraq, made the world realize the extent to which these groups were gaining traction in their respective regions. Though initially unclear why Boko Haram was targeting civilians whose support was integral to maintaining power, it soon became clear that, in the eyes of the group and its followers, Nigeria’s educational institutions were where Western-style thinking came to fruition. This meant that controlling these institutions became necessary to curtail their influence.
A common stance is that insurgent attacks on schools instill fear and anxiety, and create a situation where students begin to lose interest in pursuing an education if it comes at such high risk. The paranoia surrounding attacks also causes schools to shut down for extended periods, forcing those that want to continue attending school to fall behind on their studies. Boko Haram has destroyed an estimated 882 classrooms and burned down five colleges in the past ten years. With no money to rebuild what has been lost, students have been forced to abandon their education. Amid this destruction, fear also reached Nigerian teachers, who were often threatened or killed if they refused to comply with the group’s strict religious curriculum. Parents became frightened as well, causing them to keep their children at home instead of sending them to school where attacks were frequent. All these strategies aimed to sabotage the educational infrastructure in the country through direct and indirect channels. Ultimately, intimidation and psychological warfare against innocent civilians contributed to the group’s success just as much as physical destruction did.
An interesting way to analyze Boko Haram’s animosity towards Western education is through the Frustration-Aggression hypothesis. This theory claims that human aggression stems from the frustration of being unable to accomplish one’s goals, or failing to live up to one’s expectations (also referred to as relative deprivation). In other words, those that cannot achieve their goals will actively rebel against them. As of 2021, 40 percent of the population in Nigeria lives below the poverty line. With such a large chunk of the population living in destitute conditions, insurgency groups often have an easier time getting their message across. For many of the group’s members, the pursuit of education growing up was either impossible or unsuccessful in bringing about an improvement in living standards—triggering a deep frustration towards the system as a whole. Such grievances could be a reason behind Boko Haram’s distrust in the government and cynicism towards the country’s educational institutions. In effect, the group used these grievances to mobilize membership from school dropouts, unemployed graduates, and women who were discouraged by the government’s failure to grant them a way out of poverty. Hopelessness began saturating society, and soon enough, Boko Haram’s desire to overturn a system that failed them became a more attractive option to Nigerian citizens. What was not yet apparent, however, was that Boko Haram’s elimination of stable educational institutions ended up doubling the country’s poverty rate in the long run. In addition to sending the country into an economic decline, the group’s attacks also exacerbated religious divisions in the region, especially between Christian and Muslim groups
The Islamic State
The Islamic State (IS) is another extremist group in the MENA region that follows Jihadi-Salafi Islam and targets academic institutions. IS’s peak during the Obama years alarmed many and triggered counterinsurgency (COIN) responses by major world powers. These years witnessed mass atrocities committed against the Yazidis of Iraq, public beheadings, and a number of suicide attacks across the globe conducted by civilians who pledged allegiance to the group. With such destruction capturing most of the media’s attention, little coverage was granted to the massive IS campaign against Iraq’s educational system—especially during its occupation of Mosul.
Mathieu Guidère states that not only did the group quash the existing education systems in its stronghold areas, but the organization actually adopted its own educational system complete with its own curriculum, teachers, textbooks, and schools. Furthermore, IS’s educational structure was to be based solely on the “voice of the Salafs” and aimed to rid its territory of all existing schools which they viewed as “corrupted by Western influence.” The group eventually established a document titled “Teaching Policy in the Islamic Caliphate” in November 2014 which laid out the new rules regarding how schools were to be run under IS leadership. The new curriculum enacted by the group banned subjects such as art, social studies, music, philosophy, and sociology, as well as barred anything that had to do with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Such efforts were made to ensure that anything that did not adhere to the group’s dogmatic interpretation of Islam was inaccessible to the public. As a result, thousands of textbooks were purged, hundreds of teachers were killed, and numerous schools were left deserted. This policy persisted until the dawn of IS’s downfall in 2017. Another emerging group of literature emphasizes that targeting educational institutions— and vulnerable populations in general—is akin to a publicity stunt. In the case of IS, the global recruitment of fighters was key to the group’s survival and attacking the pillars of free and fair education was appalling enough to create significant international buzz. This has also been a strategy that Boko Haram employs widely, especially when it came to their abduction campaign and the kidnapping of the Chibok girls.
Today, the educational system in Iraq remains fragmented, and the lingering civil war in Syria has eradicated a large portion of civil society. Still, the situation still looks better than it did five years ago: an accomplishment on the counterterrorism front, but a failure on the reconstruction front. In essence, both Boko Haram and IS viewed Western-style education as an impediment to Islamic advancement and a sure way to attract domestic and international attention to their cause.
So far, I have proposed that religiously-motivated insurgency groups target educational institutions because they find controlling them essential to changing the status quo. But the question that remains is: what can we do to mitigate the damage of such attacks? To answer this question, I have proposed three recommendations: containing the insurgency group in order to stabilize national security, a greater effort to rebuild schools destroyed by the group in conflict, and increased funding for NGOs on the ground that are working to revive social infrastructure.
The first recommendation I propose is by far the most important course of action needed to ensure the long-term stability of a state. Nonetheless, a successful counterinsurgency campaign is exceedingly difficult and particularly costly, both monetarily and in human lives. My suggestion is that instead of sending ground troops, powers like the United States should continue providing the Nigerian and Iraqi government with intelligence and logistical support through diplomatic channels. Furthermore, the U.S. should utilize agencies like USAID to continue providing humanitarian aid to non-profit organizations on the ground. Aid in this form needs to be carefully vetted to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands, but the possibility of such an occurrence should not inhibit aid from reaching innocent civilians that depend on it to survive.
The second recommendation I propose focuses on the role that NGOs can play in conflict zones. A major reason why states crumble during civil conflict is because essential civil infrastructure is left ruined and abandoned by its patrons. For the students in Nigeria, the rebuilding of schools destroyed by Boko Haram will not only revive essential institutions, but it could send a message to similar groups that such actions will be met with resistance. Non-profit organizations like Pencils for Promise can be brought in to work with local agencies to rebuild vital civil infrastructure, such as schools.
Finally, international organizations like The United Nations Development Programme should allocate funds towards NGOs on the ground that are actively working to alleviate suffering and advance human development. In today’s world, there are countless organizations working to accomplish such goals, but I believe that bolstering local grassroots organizations will be more effective at bringing a divided population together, as well as preventing the possibility of further conflict.
In the past, countries like the U.S. have either directly or indirectly intervened in complex civil conflicts such as in Somalia or Libya in an attempt to prevent human atrocities, but such actions have often failed to achieve their intended goals. Instead, resources should be directed towards locals that understand the culture and intricacies of the situation at hand. Moving forward, I am optimistic about our generation’s capacity to overcome such atrocities, but the proper playbook needs to be followed if progress is to be made. We should not allow the protection of civilians in warfare to slip under the rug, and I believe that we possess the tools needed to protect basic rights—such as free and fair education—on a global scale.
Awortu, B.. “Boko Haram Insurgency and the Underdevelopment of Nigeria.” Research on Humanities and Social Sciences 5 (2015): 213-220.
Olivier Arvisais & Mathieu Guidère. Education in conflict: how Islamic State established its curriculum, Journal of Curriculum Studies, (2020). 52:4, 498-515.
Thurston, Alex. “’The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” Brookings. Brookings. August 8, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-disease-is-unbelief-boko-harams-religious-and-political-worldview/.