Think Your School Is Rough? Mine Was Run By ISIS
In June of 2014, a thousand-ish ISIS fighters assaulted and captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. For the next three years, Mosul's million-and-a-half civilians lived under ISIS rule, including hundreds of thousands of children. These kids not only had to contend with the grim specter of war invading their daily life; they also had to deal with the fact that ISIS was now in charge of the public schools.
On a recent visit to Mosul, Cracked editor Robert Evans sat down with one of these students, and several teachers and parents, who had to live with knife-wielding lunatics setting their curriculum. What the shitting shit was that like? We're glad you asked ...
Most Teachers And Students Refused To Go
At a refugee camp on the outskirts of West Mosul (the part of the city still largely controlled by ISIS), we met Mr. Mohammed. He was a teacher before ISIS came, but he didn't stay long after they took charge: "When Daesh come, after a month we fled Mosul." He didn't teach under their regime, but he stayed in touch with his friends and colleagues. His estimate is that 5 percent of students kept attending classes during ISIS's reign: "Most of the parents, they stopped sending their children."
Two days later we visited a school in East Mosul, and met with several teachers who, until a couple months ago, were forced to teach school the ISIS way. They echoed Mr. Mohammed's estimate: " this school had only 50-60 students. Now we have 700." Seriously, imagine going to a school with so few students, a single basketball team (including bench players) would take up a quarter of the population.
I also sat down with 11-year-old Abdulrahman, who prefers to go by the nickname "Abood." Which, honestly, even if he protested, I was going to call him that anyway.
He spent almost two semesters as a student while ISIS ran his city, and he told us about the first day the mujahedeen (ISIS's fighters) came to speak to his class: "They wore Afghan clothes, like a long dress with a pistol around their waistband and bullets on their chest, an AK-47 on their back. Their beards were long, their hair was long." They mostly talked about killing people, which I'll cover in more detail, shortly. As a general rule though, Abood saw the ISIS guys more often outside of class than in it. "When they did the call for prayer they had a vehicle and would patrol, if they found someone not attending prayers they would hurt them."
"Abu Ahmed," the father of one Mosul student, gave us the parents-eye view of those first few weeks: "They said children must attend school. If they don't, they would come for the father. People were very scared at first." But gradually, he noticed other parents withdrawing their kids from school without repercussion. There's an important point in that; as terrifying as ISIS seems from our President's tweets, they only ever had between 4,500 and 7,500 fighters in Mosul. That's enough to wage a brutal guerilla battle against the Iraqi army, but it's not enough to search 200,000 households to make sure every kid attends class. That's definitely a "yeah, good luck with that" situation.
Abu Ahmed pulled his kid after one semester and never caught any flak for it. That said, Mr. Mohammed knew one man who died for pulling his kids out of class. A member of the Hisbah, ISIS's religious police, caught his kid truant and asked why he wasn't at class. "His son told the truth. And ISIS killed his father."
We met with a half-dozen different teachers in East Mosul, and this lady, "Ms. Faeruz," was clearly the group's spokesperson:
She's been a teacher for 32 years, which means Ms. Faeruz has been educating Iraqi kids since Saddam Hussein was a fresh new name, practicing his mustache flexing. It also means she's seen more war than the average general. Here's how she described the first few weeks of ISIS rule as a teacher:
"They showed us how to teach children. They bring us their rules. They separated female from male." That part really pissed her off (which, if I'm being honest, did give me the "hell yeah" shiver). "They should be together! This is the first thing they did. They separated male and female teachers ."
They also shot up the school's water tank, because at their core most ISIS militants are childish douchebags with guns. "The barrel full of water, the water tank. They shoot it." And then, to top things off, "ISIS burned all the textbooks."
Once they'd gotten rid of the old lesson plans and, uh, the fucking water, ISIS really got to work.
School Became All About Murder
What with the whole "being an apocalyptic death cult" thing, the Islamic State wasn't exactly big on, say, prepping kids for a successful college experience. Here's how Ms. Faeruz described the change: "They are forcing us to teach the children the rules of . It's all about the jihad, and fighting. Islamic law."
Mr. Mohammed also told us, "The curriculum was mostly about war. When they said, 'one plus one equals two,' they would use bombs and bullets." He's not exaggerating even a little bit. Here's the cover of an ISIS second-grade math textbook:
Yes, that's a bunch of numbers whimsically Voltroning into a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. It kind of makes your old Wood Shop teacher look sane, huh?
Mr. Mohammed noted that, in addition to replacing standard English and History textbooks with their own and removing Geography, "They have a subject called Islamic Religion." This focused heavily on the hadiths, purported teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. "They rewrote the hadith according to their beliefs." The cover of this eighth-grade Islamic Faith textbook sure seems pretty, uh, sword-focused.
Our awesome little friend Abood also noted that, " eliminated some curriculum and added other classes, talking about explosives, bullets, weapons." He explained that, "Sometimes while were studying IS would enter and talk to about how, when we grow up, we will join and kill enemies ... Most of their speeches were about how to be killed and kill for their beliefs."
I asked him, "Who were they teaching you to kill?" half expecting him to say, "Americans." But he replied, "The police and Iraqi army guys." Goddammit, ISIS. I thought we had something special? Is America not good enough for your hate now?
That aside, Abood (seriously, if he's using that nickname in the old Urban Dictionary sense, this kid needs to work for Cracked) noted one distinct upside of murderous terrorists running the education system: "Math class easier. We didn't have to do homework or spend time with mathematics." But he did report some homework: "They would a bomb on the blackboard and tell us to draw one at home and bring it back to class."
You'll find a lot of stories on the internet about ISIS schools forcing kids to behead dolls:
But that stuff was mainly for the kids in special training camps who jumped on board with the whole death-cult thing. Ms. Faeruz denied it had occurred at her school, or any other schools she knew of in Mosul. She doubted it happened anywhere at all: "For the cutting heads off the doll stuff, that's a lie." But, she explained, they did force teachers to pose terrorism-related math questions. "For example, there's a circle, where do you place five or six bombs inside the circle. Calculate that." The goal of this fun math problem would be to figure out where to set off your bombs to cover the most of that circle.
Yeah, that's dark as fuck. Let's talk more about their wacky textbooks, because holy shit.
Holy Shit, ISIS Textbooks
Half math book, half terrifying slot machine.
Most of those are from printed textbooks recovered from captured parts of Mosul and sold to news agencies by "fixers" -- local Iraqis who work with foreign journalists. Complete textbooks can bring hundreds of dollars. But printed ones are rare, because ISIS didn't actually issue printed textbooks. Here's Abood:
"They didn't bring textbooks, just CDs. And they wrote stuff on the chalkboard. When IS brought CDs, they obliged parents to copy them with their own money. That cost them 75k dinars . Many people could not afford this. They brought CDs to the principal to distribute to the students," but most students withdrew before printing anything out.
Some ISIS textbooks are shockingly normal. This geology textbook (Mr. Mohammed was wrong about them cutting that class) seems to be a perfectly normal textbook ..:
... But here's a picture my fixer, Ayar, sent us, of what appears to be the section of a biology textbook telling kids why it's important to stay hydrated (which is super important when ISIS shoots the shit out of your water supply):
You'll notice the kids face is blurred. That's a fundamentalist Muslim thing: You're not supposed to depict the human form. Slightly blurring it is apparently OK. Anyway, a lot of ISIS's educational stuff is like this, and here's why it's interesting to me: All of these bland lessons are sitting right next to some extremely dark messages. Like this English textbook:
The picture they picked for "Woman" is even scarier than the fact that "sniper" is apparently a word they feel first-year English students need to know:
It's good they're teaching kids about watermelons and needles, though.
Ms. Faeruz was not very happy with the new curriculum she was expected to teach; "First of all, in their books, they are writing that Saudi Arabians are bastards. Second, they were teaching the children ... for example they are writing down a story. There are four ISIS, two of them, they kill themselves by suicide bombing. How many is left? You have to say two."
In, uh, ISIS's defense, it's probably a lot harder to fall asleep in one of their math classes. Meanwhile, their version of a history textbook ...
... focuses less on world history than Ms. Faeruz would have liked. Rather than talking about stuff like World War I, the polio vaccine, or the Agricultural Revolution, "In the book of ISIS, for example, they say there was a suicide bombing five years ago ... who did that? For example, Abu Qataba. The embassy in Baghdad had some kind of explosion. Who did that? Father of Ahmed, for example. So they are teaching children in this way."
Kids in more advanced grades could expect to learn more advanced terrorism information. This ninth-grade Physics textbook dedicates a lot of cover space to homemade bombs:
And this textbook seems to be all about making vehicle-based explosives:
"This doubles as your Driver's Ed course."
And that's all, just, fucking awful. I mean, awful enough that we need to invent a new word that represents how awful it actually is. Maybe we can make that a Cracked contest or something. Wait, "Awefucked." Scratch the contest idea; I won. But if you're worried all these textbooks have trained up a new generation of jihadis, armed with Practical Carbomb Physics 101 and Advanced Shooting People English, well ...
They Weren't Super Good At The Whole Indoctrinating Children Thing
Abood's two semesters of ISIS-school didn't exactly turn him into a raging jihadi. If they had, he probably would've tried to stab me when we were talking. "I hated them. I couldn't stand them. I wouldn't do the homework they assigned."
Indoctrination was a serious worry on many parent's minds, though. Abood's father told me, "When our children came back from school they were talking of bombs and bullets. We decided not to let our kids attend school anymore ... When their answers were about bombs I was scared they would train my children to be IS fighters."
Abood's dad was a former policeman, and he said, "I was scared my son would be trained to fight against me." It turns out that very situation happened kind of a lot. "I know a guy who killed his own father. His emir asked him to kill his father because he was caught selling cigarettes ..."
According to Abood, the ISIS guys he met relied more on bribery than brainwashing to try and get kids to help them. "They were bribing children, giving gifts to get information about who is selling cigarettes, who has a satellite TV at home, and who was police, army before." The gifts were generally "Toys, like balls, cars, or other toys." The kids who went alone with them did it less out of loyalty than fear. "Children were scared of IS, and so they would answer."
At one point, Abood saw a bunch of Hisbah searching houses they knew belonged to former policemen. They came to his house, when his dad wasn't home, and asked, "Where is your father?"
To which Abood responded, "He's not here."
Next question: "Is your dad a cop?"
That also got a no. Then they asked if his dad had any weapons, or a car, and Abood kept saying "No." Finally they asked, "Do you have a car on the roof?"
According to Abood -- who we should note is 11 -- they often asked ridiculous questions of children. "Sometimes their questions were tricky, like a joke, would be afraid, and they wanted to think they were joking around."
"We like to have fun sometimes; if your dad or you want to check out our improv group, hit me up."
It's kind of like a bully who comes at you, fist-clenched, demanding your lunch money. Then when you tell him you don't have any, he kind of laughs it off and says, "Gah, I'm just fuckin' with you, bro." Only instead of ganking your lunch money, these guys are looking to murder your dad. Abood's answer to that trick question, by the way, was, "That's impossible."
So most of ISIS's success with kids came from scaring the bejeezus out of them, very few kids showed up to get indoctrinated, and, as Abood put it, "Almost no one loved ISIS."
But almost no one isn't no one.
There Were Regular Students, And ISIS Students
Ms. Faeruz explained to us that, after the first semester or two, most of the children left in school were the kids of ISIS fighters. Those kids left with their parents as ISIS fled East Mosul and barricaded themselves in the West side of the city. ISIS did put together a very murder-focused PE plan:
It's like my gym teacher always said, "You can't run laps without knowing the different types of Kalashnikov."
Mr. Mohammed, however, assured us, "Not all children were physically trained, except the ones they trusted. The followers would be trained, not only physically. They would be trained with rifle and pistol."
Abood echoed this, and added what might be the greatest crime to ISIS's rap sheet: they told him taekwondo practice was forbidden. "They said it was a waste of time to do any sports but jihad."
At this point another guy chimed in. He'd spent some time in an IS jail cell and he'd seen their kids -- the "Cubs Of The Caliphate" -- practicing taekwondo. He clarified that they just didn't want kids who weren't loyal using self-defense. Which makes sense in a pretty dark way: You train your team to fight, and make sure the opponents never learn how. You stop their asses before their montage music hits.
Author Note: I am not 100 percent convinced of that man's ability to determine if something is taekwondo.
Clearly, some kids were very much down with the ISIS curriculum, and not just because literally any 12-year-old boy would kill for his own AK-47. Abood told us: "I knew a guy named Haris ... who stayed to become a spy for IS. He gave information on the police and military guys in Mosul. He would say, 'This is the country of Islam. We should all defend Islam.'" When ISIS fled, "They took Haris with them. He wasn't bribed with money or toys. He was given a pistol. Haris would go around the neighborhood and ask other children to follow him."
I asked Abood if he had any idea what made Haris so jolly for jihad. "Haris's house was destroyed by an airstrike. He took it personally." Last Abood had heard, "Haris was killed by special forces in Mosul."
Haris would have been around 13 when he died.
Our Failure To Help Rebuild Might Do More Damage Than ISIS
Ms. Faeruz and her fellow teachers have been "liberated" for months now. But it turns out "liberated" means something very different from "having your life unfucked."
"We cleaned our school by ourselves after they liberated the area. A lot of the students arrived here without any clothes. We don't have water here. Our hearts are very hard. We need books. ISIS burned all the books here. We have a little book for teaching students. We help them with our money, with the books and with the clothes. We are without salary. But we are teaching them."
None of the teachers we spoke with had been paid in the last two-and-a-half years. That's starting to change now, but while the city was under ISIS control, the Iraqi government cut off salaries for all government employees. And they weren't exactly quick to start payments up again. All the teachers I met complained, loudly and sometimes semi-shoutingly, about the fact that the U.S. government hadn't helped out either.
"We didn't see any helping hand from America to help our school. You guys have all this stuff, you should be helping us. We need help. We need our students to go to university."
Back in September, President Obama sent six hundred additional troops into Iraq to help with the retaking of Mosul. From the vantage point of Iraqi civilians, like Ms. Faeruz, this is what those soldiers look like:
During our three days in Mosul, touring both civilian areas and the front line, the only American soldiers we saw were driving absolutely titanic route-clearance vehicles (trucks designed to survive being blown up). There are U.S. special forces embedded with Iraqi military units elsewhere in the city, but if you're a teacher or a parent or a student or basically any Iraqi civilian, this is what Americans look like to you. Well, this and airstrikes. Here's a little something for you graph nerds, showing how much more often we're bombing Iraq since the beginning of the year:
That's caused a corresponding surge in civilian deaths. Remember Haris, the 13-year-old who decided ISIS seemed alright after losing his home in an airstrike? He's not an isolated case. Drone strikes, at least, are frequently used as a recruiting tool by terrorist groups. Meanwhile, at least some evidence seems to suggest that more kids making it to secondary school "has a negative impact on the supply of terrorism."
"We want a helping hand from other countries. Where is the American power helping us? Only UNICEF is helping us."
All the Iraqi schoolkids we saw were sporting brand new backpacks and school supplies, courtesy of UNICEF. So if this article has you thinking, "Jesus shitballs, what can I do?" Well, give them some money.
"I like the American people. The normal ones. But the politicians, they are bad." You know what, Ms. Faeruz? I don't know many people who would disagree with that.
And as for Abood, "I miss my old school, and I miss Mosul." Even though his neighborhood has been "liberated," he can't go back home yet. "My house was taken by IS. Today other people sent me photos of my own house. It became a clinic for IS. It got shot up and all our clothes and furniture was destroyed."
Hey editors, can we, uh, can we find a joke to end this on?
Robert and his videographer, Magenta, are filming a documentary about the young Iraqis fighting ISIS in the media. They face gunfire and explosions every day to deliver stories like this one. You can learn more by checking out and backing their Indiegogo.
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