Rehabilitating Children of ISIS: Extracting Recommendations from the Education-related ‘ISIS Files’

31 January 2021    |    IRAQ

In the aftermath of the fall of the so-called ‘caliphate’ under the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the children of fighters and the families of detained fighters are a major concern for security institutions globally.  Recent estimates have suggested that over 40,000 women and children are in detention in Iraq and Syria, some of foreign origin and some Syrians and Iraqis.  This is problematic not only for Iraqi and Syrian security officials, but also for countries where those fighters and their families need to be relocated—to include Europe, South East Asia, and North Africa (among others). Moreover, several countries have already started the process of repatriating their citizens that were living under ISIS—some of which include children. Notably, the children and families present a variety of challenges for security officials—to include trauma, potential participation in violent activities, indoctrination, and radicalization. However, participation in ISIS is not always clear, and some members of these families are passive victims in the so-called ‘caliphate.’ Thus, a robust plan for rehabilitating children and families is critical—a plan that is based on a knowledge of what these children and families faced while under ISIS control.

In order to extract knowledge on the indoctrination process that ISIS has used with respect to children, Hedayah and the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism have undertaken a research partnership to evaluate documents of the terrorist group ISIS, as collected in a group of primary source documents called the “ISIS Files.” The research has systematically analyzed a dataset of education-related “ISIS Files” documents using critical discourse analysis to identify common narratives, values, and themes, particularly those aimed at indoctrinating children. This primary research was based on exclusive access to the ISIS Files, provided by the Program on Extremism to Hedayah.

As part of this project, Hedayah transcribed, translated, and analyzed the files related to education. The dataset analyzed in this report includes 29 textbooks (16 from primary grades, 10 from secondary grades, and 3 from unknown grades; 27 in Arabic, 2 in English) and 40 additional files. The additional files are background documents, which include homework assignments and notes from coursework, handouts, letters and decrees from the Ministry of Education of ISIS, exam rules, and test scores.

Outcomes

  • Research Report: The findings will be published in a research report titled “Planting the Seeds of the Poisonous Tree: Establishing a System of Meaning through ISIS Education” on 25 February 2021, along with the launch of a first batch of the education-related files.
  • Policy and Program Recommendations: In addition, this research will produce a list of recommendations for policymakers and practitioners working on rehabilitation and reintegration of ISIS-affiliated children, as well as working on P/CVE more broadly.  This is expected in March/April 2021.

Activities

About the ISIS Files

In multiple trips to Iraq beginning in 2006, The New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi collected thousands of files that were abandoned by ISIS in 11 cities as their strongholds were overtaken by the military campaign, with permission from local military units. Uncollected by local intelligence officials, the documents include land deeds showing how property was stolen from religious minorities, financial reports documenting the millions of dollars passing through their coffers, manuals detailing their operations, and detailed arrest warrants. Taken one at a time, each piece of paper often does little more than document a single, routine transaction: a land transfer between neighbors; the sale of a ton of wheat; a fine for improper attire. But taken together, the documents in the trove reveal the inner workings of a complex system of government.

The documents, which came to be known as “The ISIS Files,” constitute the largest collection of original files from ISIS that is held by any non-governmental entity. The New York Times understood the importance of making this collection available to the public.

In September 2018, The New York Times announced a partnership with the George Washington University (GW) to preserve, digitize, translate, and provide analysis of The ISIS Files documents and publish them on an open, searchable website. Immediately after digitization of the files, the original copies of the documents were hand-delivered by The New York Times to the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in Washington, D.C. The ISIS Files project only holds scanned copies of the documents and does not hold any original documents.

Translation, redaction, and analysis were undertaken by GW with the advice and partnership of The Times. All document redaction was done in line with an ethical framework developed and implemented by GW. The Times holds no responsibility for the redaction of documents.

For more about the ISIS Files, and to access the files, visit the ISIS Files Website: The ISIS Files (gwu.edu)

For information about redaction and the ethical framework of the ISIS Files, see: Ethical Framework (gwu.edu)

About the Partners and Sponsors

This project was sponsored and conducted in partnership with the European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP). EICTP is a research association operating worldwide which aims at creating policy-related recommendations based on scientific research and expert assessments for stakeholders and decision-makers from diverse areas. As an independent, non-partisan and non-profit institution its main focus is on key topics around security policy-related issues, research on the causes and effects of terrorism and on suitable ways and means to prevent and counter-terrorist activities. On the whole, EICTP wants to add value to confidence-building measures in the areas of security and stability.

This project was also generously sponsored by the Government of Spain, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Union Cooperation.