A call for rethinking education in areas of conflict

Outwitting Al Qaeda in a changing world

by Elliot Silverberg

When the conflict in Syria began, Farah was just five years old. Today, she is eight. Were Farah living anywhere but in wartorn Syria, she would have been in her second or third year of elementary school. Instead, Farah spends her days helping her father, a rebel commander, run his makeshift bomb factory. She scavenges the charred, corpse strewn streets for spent rockets whose fuselages can be salvaged, and pours combustible materials into canisters that serve as improvised explosive devices. The work is fraught with danger, but she is no stranger to death and destruction.

Farah’s horrifying experiences, recounted in the PBS Frontline program “Children of Aleppo,” are typical of Syrians her age who, were it not for the brutal conflict tearing their nation apart, would only have had to contend with the common fears of an ordinary schoolchild. Stranded in a harsh land amongst harsh people, children like Farah are consumed by the struggle to survive; inevitably, the urgency to take part in the violence becomes too great to shrug off. Theirs is a tale of uncertainty and upheaval that is repeated countless times elsewhere: in nearby Iraq and Lebanon; in Afghanistan and Pakistan; in Chechnya and the Balkans; in Somalia, Sudan and the Central African Republic indeed, in any land ravaged by war.

In 2013, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimated that the previous year saw 28.8 million people, of whom at least half were women and children, displaced by war and civil unrest. The IDMC suggested that this figure, the highest ever recorded, could be explained by an increasing incidence of intrastate violence in Latin America (+3.1 percent), sub Saharan Africa (+7.5 percent), and the Middle East and North Africa (+39.9 percent).

Wars, once conducted between sovereign nations, are increasingly orchestrated by non state actors: small, isolated groups of ideologically charged irregular troops whose scare tactics (assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, suicide bombings, etc.) have branded them terrorists. Accordingly, the incidence of interstate wars plummeted in the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and again in the early 2000s. This astonishing transformation came to a head a year and a half ago when the 2012 Heglig Crisis, a six month long border war between Sudan and South Sudan, was the only declared interstate war in the entire world.

The international community’s counter terrorism efforts, which for the most part run parallel to the U.S.’s counterterrorism efforts, have been counterproductive to say the least. Aggressive military intervention and fragmented nation building have been mainstays of the war on terrorism. During its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, the U.S. placed great emphasis on security and defense, but little on education and infrastructure. The idea, as presented by President George Bush in his supercilious “Freedom Agenda,” was to systematically deadicalize and democratize Al Qaeda influenced regions by browbeating dissenters into fitting the mold of what is regarded as proper in Western society. Bush failed to consider, however, that the people whose lives America interfered with would not take kindly to any such patronizing displays of paternalism. Prosecuted to devastating effect in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Freedom Agenda has since misfired and, in many instances, backfired.


Consider that, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were approximately 102,616 terrorist incidents between 1980 and 2012. Of these, 62,775 (or 61 percent) took place before the attacks of September 2001, for an average of roughly 2,900 incidents per year. Since 9/11, however, that average has risen to well over 3,500 incidents per year. There are, in effect, more terrorists now than there were 13 years ago.

If violence continues to spread across the world and the international community continues to intervene, chances are an entire generation of young children like Farah, the vivacious yet uneducated Syrian girl whose rebel father runs a bomb manufactory, will become resentful malcontents, ripe pickings for Al Qaeda and Company. Just as Somalia’s uneducated, impoverished and war weary youth were incited to band together as Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) and take up arms against the West after the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Ittihad Al-Islami preyed on their fears and frustrations through the 1990s, so too are today’s youth falling under the spell of Al Qaeda. The extremists are winning the hearts and minds of the vulnerable, thereby once again outwitting the suited denizens of Foggy Bottom.

If the international community intends to strike back against Al Qaeda and its associates, it must prioritize education. However, it cannot neglect to acknowledge the cultural and ethnic plurality of today’s globalized world and the variety of education systems. To do otherwise would repel the would be beneficiaries of any attempt to promote education, there by further empowering Al Qaeda and rendering the effort pointless. The authors of a UNESCO report entitled “Rethinking Education in a Changing World,” prepared last February for a meeting of senior experts on education policy, are of the same opinion: “The relationship of power between knowledge systems in the North and South needs to be recognized. . . . Alternative traditional knowledge systems need to be recognized and properly accounted for, rather than be relegated to an inferior status.”

Malala Yousafzai, the world renowned Pakistani schoolgirl and education activist who nearly died for her cause, puts it differently (and quite eloquently) in her bestselling autobiography I am Malala: “Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”

Human and humane. An admirable sentiment indeed, one that all of us should keep close in mind as we collectively strive to overcome our more base instincts in the pursuit of world peace.

Elliot Inoue Silverberg is an undergraduate student at Oregon State University who is interested in a career in journalism. This article was edited for publication.