Flag used by the Islamic State and many of its affiliates, containing the Islamic creed (above) and the seal of Muhammad (the circle) / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Broken learning

Interview. Education, indoctrination, brainwash. Elm met with researchers Charlie Winter and Juha Saarinen to discuss learning within ISIS, the jihadist militant organization.  


The Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. Names abound for the jihadist group and self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate controlling key areas in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is the new face of global terror with its acolytes carrying out attacks across the Middle East and Europe.

Spawned at the turn of the millennium in Iraq, ISIS rose to prominence in 2014 after the group wrestled key areas of Iraq from government forces. Today the militant group controls territories in Iraq and Syria, and through its affiliates, also in North Africa, Afghanistan and small parts of Nigeria. Some 5 to 8 million people live under the rule of ISIS -and Islamic sharia law- in these areas. A US-led global coalition hammers ISIS positions with airstrikes continously but the group still remains a force to be reckoned with.

ISIS runs its training camps for recruits but it is easy to forget that the organization is also responsible for school education within its “borders”. Elm talked to researchers Charlie Winter and Juha Saarinen about ISIS indoctrination and brainwash -an entire warped education system.

Charlie Winter (l.) and Juha Saarinen (r.) have delved deep into the inner workings of ISIS. / Photos: Winter and Saarinen’s personal archives 

Charlie Winter is a Senior Research Associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative. His specialism is the study of the Islamic State, especially its outreach strategy and infrastructure. Juha Saarinen is Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, focusing on jihadism, armed conflict and political violence in the Middle East.

Elm: ISIS draws radicalized youth into its ranks from the Middle East and Europe. What is the typical recruitment process for ISIS?

Juha Saarinen: There is no typical recruitment process, but rather several pathways into the Islamic State. In Europe, certain non-violent Salafist groups – which nevertheless glorify jihadist violence – have played a significant role, e.g. Sharia4Belgium, Forsane Alizza in France or Propheten’s Ummah in Norway.

Additionally, the influence and attitudes of social networks -friends and, to a lesser extent, family- play a part in radicalization.

Lastly, the Islamic State’s strong presence in social media seems to increase recruitment, albeit this can often be exaggerated. ISIS propaganda does however play a role in shaping the world view of sympathisers of violent Islamism in general.

Elm: Is there a typical recruit? Does for example education level play a role?

Juha Saarinen: It’s hard to find a “typical” recruit profile, although some attributes are widely shared. Individuals participating in political violence tend to be young males, and in Western countries, second or third generation Muslims. Apart from this there are significant differences in socio-economic, educational, vocational and other backgrounds of jihadist foreign fighters joining the Islamic State.

Elm: Religion seems to be a recruiting and legitimisation element for ISIS. Is ISIS fundamentally a religious organization, as opposed to a political one?

Juha Saarinen: Religion is an important piece, but not the entire puzzle.

The real question is not whether global jihadism has anything to do with Islam or not, but rather how Islam relates to these kinds of groups. But it’s also important to understand that jihadism isn’t only about religion, either.

It is hard to distinguish the religious from the political as the Islamic State – and other jihadist groups – pursues a political project that is legitimised by its own narrow interpretation of Islam. Jihadist groups perceive themselves to be the representatives of an “authentic” version of Islam, and pursue their agenda in defense of their religion and the global community of Muslims (“Ummah”).

Elm: Once in ISIS, what kind of training do new recruits go through? What kind of practical techniques of indoctrination does the group use?

Charlie Winter: First, the recruits are isolated from their former existence and identity. They often change their names and start with rigorous physical and ideological training.

Juha Saarinen: For example, according to anecdotal data during this time the recruits’ passport and electronic devices are often confiscated so they cannot communicate with the outside world during this process. The training period can last from a few days to several weeks.

Charlie Winter:  The learning within ISIS, for children, youth and adults alike, aims at indoctrination into the jihadist cause, but the process is different for adults. The adults are often already rather well educated in jihadist ideology, and the ISIS training offers a sort of extension of that learning in an environment where the individual is completely surrounded by extremist thought.

The Islamic state operates schools for children in its territory and subjects such as history, geography and physics are taught at primary school level. The schools are mainly revised versions of the Iraqi schools under ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule. Learning is very top-down and based on repetition and memorizing -not very dissimilar to schools in Saudi-Arabia for example.

Then there are so-called “cub camps” for those children who are chosen for early militant training. These camps combine some basic school education with weapons and combat training. These so-called “cubs of the caliphate” are a propaganda weapon for ISIS -they could be compared to the Hitler Youth or the “Cubs of Saddam”, a similar programme under Saddam Hussein.

Elm: What kind of religious teaching takes place within ISIS?

Charlie Winter: Religious learning is obviously very valued. There actually are Islamic study circles, but these would be very carefully monitored and there would be no room for open debate.

Teaching would focus on certain key texts such as wahhabist texts (ISIS adheres to the ultraconservative wahhabist branch of Sunni Islam) and jihadist books. These are books that examine, sometimes on an ad hoc basis, concepts relevant to jihadists such as e.g. suicide, caliphate, captives, beheadings and weapons of mass destruction in the context of the Hadith (reports of staments and actions of Muhammad, a crucial body of texts for Islam).

Elm: What kind of place does learning and education have in the value system of ISIS?

Charlie Winter: There is a disdain for modern science but there seems to be a rather ridiculous double standard there. I recently read an ISIS text describing modern science as “pointless”. “Why is the Western world obsessed with studying the roots of trees or grains of sand…?”, it asked. But the same text praised modern science as “…very useful if it is useful for muslims”.

An interesting detail: a form of learnedness cherished within ISIS -as more widely in the Arab world – is poetry, and poets are revered within ISIS. Their work adheres to classical formats and often extols the virtues of ISIS leaders and the jihadist life. There is even poetry meant to be sung as hymns, although music with instruments is forbidden.

Read more

The New Yorker: Battle lines 

Did you find this article?
  • Interesting 
  • Useful 
  • Easy to read