Al Qaeda lures Syrian children into its new schools

 
 Despite the war in Syria, some schools in rebel-held areas have managed to open their doors for the new academic year. Some of these schools are run by jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an organisation allied with Al Qaeda.
 
In Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah, around Latakia and even in the suburbs of Damascus, jihadist-run schools are working hard to enrol Syrian students. Following two and a half years of conflict in Syria, public schools in these areas have been completely destroyed.
 
According to UNICEF, nearly 40% of all students between the ages of 1 and 9 — roughly two million children — were forced to drop out of the Syrian school system last year because of the war.
 
An advertisement for Koranic schools run by the Ahrar al-Sham jihadist group in the Hama region. Video uploaded on September 16.

“Syrians are totally destitute, so they take help wherever they can get it”

Mohammad is the leader of a jihadist brigade close to the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (both of which are linked to Al Qaeda) in northwestern Syria.
 
The people running these schools are very dedicated and have significant financial resources. They don’t force children to attend or parents to send their children. But they know very well how to cater to their needs by helping out with meals, providing toys, etc… Some parents were scared at first, but after more than two years of war, most Syrians are completely destitute and so take help wherever they can get it. In my region, jihadists opened a school in Aïn el-Baïda, near Latakia, just over a month ago. It’s a sort of pilot school.
 
Promotional video for “Madrasathak al-Oukhoua” (“School of the Right to Fraternity”), “a boarding school that can host 50 children six days out of seven”. At the end of the video, you can see Abou al-Walid “the Chechen”, a well-known jihadist who participated in the latest operations of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Latakia.

Classes mainly focus on teaching the Koran and Arabic, so that the children learn how to read and correctly pronounce words in the holy book. The students are also taught the basics of other disciplines such as mathematics and geography.

The “Islamic State” is careful that philosophical or ideological questions related to political Islam, such as Salafism, are not discussed at the school. They don’t want to scare people away, as they are trying to attract as many students as possible.
 
Instructors are residents of the village or the surrounding area, often unemployed Arabic professors. They receive nominal salaries of between 200 to 250 US dollars per month [between 150 and 185 euros]. In contrast, the principal is not from the village; he was appointed by the “Islamic State”. His role is limited to supervising the work of the instructors.
 
There are three educational levels; a group for 6-to-10 year olds, a group for 11-to-15 year olds, and a group for teenagers over 15. Children are encouraged to participate in daily Koran-reciting competitions within the school and sometimes in public in the local villages.
 
In Aleppo, a “preaching and competition tent”.
 
The school does not provide any military training and there is no military presence within the building. However, the school venerates jihadists and strongly supports the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
 
Speeches by several jihadists during a public meeting in Aleppo.
 

“In Daraa, the Islamists have no influence over our schools; in fact, girls and boys attend school together”

Jaouad Massalmeh is an activist from Daraa, a rebel zone that’s home to several jihadist groups, most notably the Al Nusra Front.
 
In Daraa, we’ve opened two new schools inside the city and several others in surrounding villages. Local civil society committees are in charge of running these schools, and we intend to keep this arrangement in place.
 
Several philanthropists fund us. No regional political organisations or rebel brigades are involved — unless you count the Free Syrian Army’s safeguarding of the buildings the school are in.
 
In general, the schools are set up in secure apartments in the safer zones. We can’t use the old schools, which were all destroyed, and some of which are still being shelled by the regime. We welcome all children of primary school age.
 
The Islamists have no influence over our schools; in fact, boys and girls attend school together.
 
All our teachers are volunteers, since we don’t have the means to pay them. But we plan to do so soon if we can get the necessary funding from the National Syrian Coalition or other groups.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).

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