Why Jihadis Attack Schools
If you notice the institutions that jihadi groups choose to target during attacks against civilians, they often fall under one of two categories - places of learning or shopping malls. Both of these targets are uncomfortably familiar to American audiences. When paired with corporate offices, they form the ugly triumvirate around which most spree shootings in this country tend to coalesce. The temptation, at least for observers in the United States, is to therefore process jihadi assaults in Nigeria and Pakistan through the same dialectic. They must be, to use a phrase commonly ascribed to massacres of this style, fundamentally “senseless”. The unfortunate fact is there’s a harsh logic behind why schools and malls became priority targets.
Boko Haram and the Taliban’s semi-regular attacks are reported across anglophone broadcasting outlets under the overarching theme that they must be inexplicable acts of evil, carried out simply for the sake of destruction as a purpose unto itself. There’s a sort of breathless theatrically through which they’re discussed on daytime news programs. Much of this is the soothing noises that news anchors make to their audiences to insinuate that those foreigners and their cultures are degenerate and frightening in contrast to the ostensibly pristine composure of our Western lives. Divorced from context and delivered in sensationalistic outbursts, the core message is that these events just happen and the appropriate reaction is a cowed sense of apprehension. It aims to confound rather than clarify and speaks to some of the uglier pathologies of our news media and political culture. But that’s a whole other essay.
If you survey the list of targets that jihadi factions in Nigeria and Pakistan have made a business of attacking, you might be tempted to deduce they were targeted due to high civilian density. Which would be an understandable starting point, except both nations are replete with crowded spaces that could make for even greater human damage than places of learning. Open-air street markets, for instance. The reasons for targeting shopping malls and schools hinge much more on thematic and cultural motives than the grim calculus of body counts.
The attacks on schools are not random spasms like those carried out by a single maladjusted shooter. They require sober planning and a dedication to the logistics of group assault. If you examine individual incidents, it’s clear they’re conducted with obvious tactical coordination - something that speaks to just how singular the targets are in the eyes of jihadi strategists.
The most notorious of these was the brutal Peshawar school massacre of late 2014. Taliban operatives infiltrated a secondary academy while disguised as members of a friendly paramilitary force, making a deliberate push to the central auditorium before firing on the assembled students. Despite the comparative finesse of their breach, the attackers seemed to have no obvious exit plan or negotiation strategy, intending merely to inflict the greatest damage before a response team shot them down. By the time the Taliban operatives were neutralized, nearly 150 students and teachers had been murdered and an additional 114 wounded. The level of planning and suicidal ruthlessness turned the Peshawar massacre into the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history. Which was likely the intended goal, with the uniquely harrowing nature of the massacre engineered for symbolic resonance in addition to the localized brutality.
It’s important to note two aspects of this attack, especially in terms of designating why the Taliban chose this location in the first place. The school was a member of the Army Public Schools & Colleges System, a scholastic branch that emphasizes a holistic approach to education in addition to its secular leanings. Beyond this, students are instructed primarily (and in some cases, exclusively) in English. Its overall curriculum is remarkably cosmopolitan for a Pakistani school.
The academy is also located in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber province, a strip of terrain that hugs Afghanistan’s border and bleeds into the country’s tribal badlands. It’s part of the geographic area informally referred to as “Pashtunistan”, and rests within one of the most insular parts of central Asia. The local Pashtun can be a stridently conservative, tribalistic group, with certain enclaves nurturing a deep sympathy for the Taliban. Greater Khyber province has been a location of ongoing strife between the hyper-reactionary Taliban and various reformist elements, a conflict that’s been marked not by a state of perpetual combat as much as scattered outbursts of violence and guerrilla skirmishes.
So take an unusually progressive academy, place it in a region with reactionary agitators who are antagonistic to any whiff of modernizing influence, and you have the most high-priority target imaginable. And the local Taliban are well aware that the ongoing conflict is as much generational and ideological as it is martial. The prospect that an entire crop of young adults could be reared on an outward-looking, egalitarian style of education is ominous for the elements of Pashtun society who want insular mores to remain the dominant cultural paradigm.
In an unfortunate sense, the Taliban’s attempts to dismantle cosmopolitan education seems to be working - at least temporarily. The Pakistani government recently announced plans to close its network of military colleges and schools in the populous coastal city of Karachi, a location far removed from the hinterlands of Khyber province. There has also been discussion of shuttering public schools farther south in Punjab province as a preemptive safety measure. Western-friendly private academies are shutting down as well, with the Karachi American School folding last month. Taking all these in aggregate, especially the closing of schools outside Pakistan’s contentious north, and it’s clear the Taliban’s methods have delivered their intended payoff.
Boko Haram’s attacks in Nigeria have yielded a similar impact. While Boko Haram hasn’t executed a school massacre on the scale of what happened in Peshawar, their kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in April 2014 was carried out in service of distinct identical aims. Following on the heels of an attack that two months prior had resulted in the murder of 59 students, the jihadis descended on a local school as pupils were gathered for a physics exam - absconding with 219 young women in total after a small cadre managed to evade their abductors shortly afterwards.
The jihadis chose the secular Government Secondary School in the city of Chibok for this operation, which is part of greater Borno state. Borno has been the center of escalating sectarian strife over the last decade, and Nigeria’s fundamentalist Sunni consider it solidly within their domain. The kidnapped students were young women (many of them Christians) receiving a cosmopolitan education in the heart of territory fiercely contested by right-wing Islamists. It’s a complete and utter affront in the eyes of jihadis who want to exercise absolute control over the culture and religiosity of northeast Nigeria, a part of the country that has long been poor, traditional, and muslim.
It’s also why the social media noisemakers who tweeted #RealMenDontBuyGirls missed the point entirely. If you’d ever said as much to one of Boko Haram’s hardliners, they’d look at you funny and respond, “No, real men don’t let women get an education”. This wasn’t some American-style exercise in frustrated masculinity. What Boko Haram seemed to be doing through abducting 276 young women from their school was demonstrate in microcosm what they intended to achieve writ large. These jihadi types aren’t Bond villains for crying out loud, they’re hostile reactionaries of the most predictable strain. It’s even advertised through their brand name - the phrase “Boko Haram” is a mashup of the Arabic term Haram (“forbidden”) and the English-derived word Boko (“book” or roughly “book learning”). In an idiomatic rendering, the phrase “Boko Haram” means “Western book learning is sinful”. Their foremost goal is to prevent comprehensive education, especially of young women. It’s why their most media-focused, theatrical act of intimidation involved hightailing with a collection of schoolgirls. If they’re being kidnapped and pawned off to misogynist jihadis, their educational futures are being disrupted while male supremacist dictates are bolstered.
As The Economist outlined in 2013, Boko Haram’s attacks have been depressingly thorough in terms of sabotaging local education. Ten million Nigerian youth were out of school by that point, with young women in the country’s contentious north most severely impacted. As the report noted, this has increased the rate of young women being married off in their teens and rendered local boys more susceptible to militia recruitment. The terror campaign has reinforced old authoritarian structures - young women are corralled into lives as reproductive chattel while adolescent boys are sacrificed to sectarian antagonisms.
Since then, most of Boko Haram’s school attacks have been restricted to Borno state. It’s a simple process of Boko Haram living up to their name by expunging an education system engineered by the country’s more secular-leaning government. Nigeria’s muslim societies are notoriously strident and traditionalist, and have long resented the influence of their more cosmopolitan neighbors to the south. In light of this, the northeast’s hardliners perceive the introduction of secular schooling as tantamount to a declaration of war. Boko Haram's massacre of 59 students in February 2014 was also carried out at a government school, with Nigeria's jihadis sustaining a deep hostility to secular state-run education similar to that exhibited by the Taliban.
More than anything else, Boko Haram is attempting to claim full cultural and political hegemony of Nigeria’s muslim north. And to employ Mao Zedong’s classic aphorism about guerrilla campaigns, “Lose land - land can be retaken. Lose people - land and people both lost”. In a perverse sense, the sabotaging of education is an attempt to push the dial so that the local population ends up more securely in Boko Haram’s hands. Control over the social and demographic terrain is far more important than the outcome of particular skirmishes. Then again, Mao was also famous for stating, “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed” - which is a perspective Boko Haram understand in practice even if they lack Mao’s intellectualism. These are core aspects of human conflict that hold true whether you’re a Nigerian jihadi or a long-departed Chinese marxist.
Boko Haram is scared of education's potential to loosen the grip fundamentalist Islam sustains on local communities. It’s the same reason the Taliban targets schools, especially those that educate girls and young women. The single greatest threat to the reactionary hold in any given society is the liberation of women, particularly through scholastic access. It’s been shown to comprehensively undermine the grip that backwards-looking tribal structures have on local society. And, as a result, conservative Islamists from Pakistan to the Sahel express a relentless hostility toward the very concept of egalitarian schooling.
Despite the failure in analysis across western media outlets, jihadi groups aren’t particularly subtle about the purpose of their attacks. Broadcasting intent is often a core motive. The Taliban launched a recent attack against Bacha Khan University on January 19th, murdering 21 students during the assault. This, like the Peshawar massacre, was carried out in Pakistan’s culturally contested Khyber province. Less than a week later, the Taliban cell claiming responsibility released a video castigating Sunni muslims for ever attending schools in “a system that has come from Britain and America”. They declared, right in the open, that the enemy was the prospect of secularism and cultural partnership with modernity and the greater West. And while many Jihadi elements may be deranged in their methods, they are not irrational actors. The Taliban know good and well the towering importance that education has on shaping a generation’s perspective. The Taliban went so far in their video as to state this outright:
“Pakistan's evil democratic system and political leadership have these educational institutions as their nurseries… We will demolish the foundation of this evil system.”
The more students are exposed to concepts and ideas that step outside hyper-conservative Islam, the more friendly they become to the concept of reform and secular governance. It’s a rather simple equation, and one that localized jihadi groups find terrifying.
To return to Mao’s old aphorism, war can often be understood as politics extended through alternate means. And warfare is often just that - political or demographic ends achieved through violently breaking the boundaries of civil politics. Conflict can encompass behavior that traverses far beyond the simple image of warfare we’re sold in the Western canon - two countries fighting for neatly defined diplomatic goals culminating in the signing of a peace treaty. In the broad scope of human strife this is rarely, if ever, the case. Contention often manifests as separate ethno-religious or tribal groups (however defined) attempting to overpower the other through myriad antagonistic means. Even within certain ethnic enclaves, it can express itself as a particular ideological wing attempting to violently impose hegemony - or at least degrade the local foothold of its political opponents.
Whenever militias stage a string of attacks against a singular target, it’s often with the intent of expelling that target from what they hold as their terrain. Hezbollah using precision strikes against American infrastructure to drive the CIA from Beirut is a classic example of this methodology. But this was tactical and pragmatic in the purest sense, with the designated enemy being a definitive institution one could engage directly. The attacks against schools and shopping malls are much more thematic and waged along broader lines of culture and influence.
And this all ties back to one of the common tenets of human conflict - warfare is fought oftentimes not to conquer or expand, but to secure boundaries and control through violence. Think about how many minor turf wars through history have been fought for the sole purpose of either expelling or keeping unwanted ethnic groups out of a perceived enclave. Jihadis attacking schools and shopping malls are attempts to push modernizing influence from the domain of the believers. In a way, it’s a goal not dissimilar from the doctrine common among transnational jihadi groups like ISIS that emphasizes eliminating what they refer to as the “grayzone” occupied by recent migrants from Muslim societies. It’s held that muslims living in western societies occupy a sort of fragile transitory place between absolute traditionalism and local integration, and therefore jihadi plots should be designed to create a wedge between immigrants and their adoptive countries. The ultimate goal is to arrest the process of assimilation. This is achieved through attempts to turn the non-Islamic west against muslim immigrants in the hopes that Europeans and Americans will perceive migrant communities as toxic and alien. The more you look things over, the more you realize that right-wing nationalists and violent jihadis have a sort of creepy de facto alliance. Neither of them want muslims living in the West.
Jihadi factions desperately want to drag the muslim world back into a place of tribalistic and religious isolation. They seek to cordon Muslim populations across the globe from outside influence - particularly any cosmopolitan or universalizing inclinations. While spokesmen from jihadi groups spout fantastical proclamations about (for example) invading and subjecting Britain to Sharia law, the strategists among them often know good and well this ambition is ludicrous. The power of such proclamations lies not in the possibility of the stated actions coming to pass, but in the potential to drive a wedge between Muslims and their neighbors in the west. They serve the purpose of stoking suspicion and paranoia against local Muslims, ideally casting them as poisonous outsiders unworthy of community integration. In a strange way, jihadis are religious and cultural purists who define their sense of purity precisely on their ability to keep the ordained muslim world alien from the West. They don’t really bank on destroying America or Europe. With our profound economic hegemony and diplomatic eminence, not to mention towering military capacities, this would be impossible for some ragtag jihadi group to achieve. They want to keep the West and its modernizing influences the hell away in order to increase the power reactionary tribal mores hold on Muslim communities - whether in Paris or Pakistan.
Some of this also comes down to the supremacist paranoia of the dominant religious sect. Effectively all jihadi factions are Sunni organizations, and are concerned foremost with sustaining the cultural influence of fundamentalist Sunni Islam. Sunnis account for 85-90% of all Muslims both in the Middle East and worldwide. Outside of Iran and western Iraq, Shia muslims have typically lived as a repressed minority within harshly Sunni enclaves. Sunni fundamentalists often hate local Shia even more than they hate the western kuffar they rant so endlessly about. Hardline Sunni have a derogatory word by which they refer to all Shia - rafida, meaning roughly “heretic” or “rejectors”. They’re held as spiritual deviants who disavow the brand of Islam fundamentalist Sunni hold as the sole true interpretation. The Shia are therefore perceived as muddying the religious and cultural waters much in the same way that the West does with its flagrant consumerism and women’s liberation.
What this comes down to is that the true believers in more serious local organizations think in spiritual rather than hard numerical terms. They’re not counting bodies as much as they’re looking at how to manipulate social tides. It’s why elevating a jihadi attack survivor and women’s education advocate like Malala Yousafzai was such a smart move. Malala grew up under Taliban occupation in Khyber, and she began blogging and advocating for women’s education around when Pakistan’s military began intervening in the region. Incensed by her growing voice as a reformist and advocate for egalitarian schooling, a Taliban gunman boarded her schoolbus and attempted to assassinate Malala in broad daylight in 2009. Though critically wounded, she survived and became even more adored by the international community as a consequence. It’s no coincidence the attempt on her life was ordered in the midst of the Taliban facing growing military pressure and a weakening grip on Khyber. Malala was living evidence of their waning influence on Pashtun society.
Much of the West sees her story as one of resilience and anti-misogynist defiance, which is the rare instance of public narrative being accurate. Beyond this, Malala’s survival and perseverance is a rather withering demonstration of reactionary jihadism’s inevitable failures. It’s why those humorless assholes in the Taliban hate her so much. Despite it all, the girl kept reading.
The focus on attacking malls is a bit more complex, but not by much. Western-style consumerism is extremely seductive, and far more alluring than the monochrome, frowning rigidity of inward-looking Islamism. The introduction of products from outside your local enclave, or at least inspired by trends beyond your tribal confines, can make alien cultures appear friendly and charming. Shopping malls are also places where traditional styles of dress and gender segregation fall by the wayside. Young men and women mingle openly, rendered peers by the undiscriminating invitation of sales and commerce. And, to top it all off, shopping malls are opening with growing frequency throughout conservative muslim societies still in the complex throes of colliding with outside influence.
Though this attack flew somewhat under the radar of the western press - possibly because it lacked the shock value of their more lethal assaults - the Taliban launched a suicide attack against a Kabul shopping mall in February 2011. The attacker was stopped at the entrance and detonated himself in place, taking the life of two security guards but otherwise failing to harm the mall’s patrons. All signs indicate the attack was an utter fiasco, mercifully so. As I’d noted before, lone jihadis have a remarkable tendency to make idiots of themselves during terror plots. Since the Kabul mall couldn’t be spun into the atrocity porn that western media consumers love with an unsettling intensity, it was filed away and treating as a minor news anecdote. Which ended up concealing the attack’s raw symbolic importance. The mall in question was the Kabul City Centre, Afghanistan’s first ever modern indoor shopping complex that opened in 2005 following the American invasion. It was an unapologetic monument to the spread of western-style consumerism into conservative Afghan society. Kabul City Centre was the first in a wave of similar shopping complexes to open in the country’s capital in the wake of the coalition occupation. What was interesting is that the thwarted suicide bombing against the Kabul City Centre was the second attack in three weeks aimed at shopping malls popular among westerners and Afghanistan’s cultural elite. The message the Taliban was attempting to send was stone simple - shopping malls are not a safe place for Afghans to be, ever.
Shopping malls and all they represent are the effective antithesis of tribalistic Sunni culture. With the open intermingling of both foreign and local brands as well as complete rebuke of gender segregation, their encroachment represents a brazen disregard for the inward-looking fixations that define fundamentalist enclaves. They’re perceived as invasive and deeply corrosive to the old order.
The behaviors of localized jihadi groups are oriented not toward a sort of grand military victory but instead toward societal and demographic control. The persistent dumb-as-rocks right-wing fear in the States is that foreign jihadis will somehow invade America and implement Sharia law. Except that’s laughable on multiple levels - foremost because diehard jihadis want to stay the living hell away from America’s shorelines and all it represents. Fundamentalist Sunni perceive our societies as irreversibly degenerate and morally impure. What they want to claim is home turf - both politically and culturally. These are barbarians who’d rather storm their own gates.
Reactionaries of all backgrounds are terrified at the prospect of external cultural or ethnic influence somehow breaching their perceived sanctuary. What jihadis in particular fear is western-style openness and consumerism coming to their doorstep. Bigots have always been obsessed with the idea that their innocent, virgin daughters will be seduced (or not-so-consensually taken) by someone from another tribe or skin tone. White American racists have long been fixated on the idea of black men “defiling” caucasian women. Jihadis, on the other hand, are deeply afraid their virgin-pure daughters will be seduced by Twitter and Bollywood. It’s much harder to control a young woman with knowledge of the greater world and its cultural tableau.
So when the smoke settles, what matters to most jihadi groups is not casualty counts in themselves. In fact, if many of their own die, it’s often for the better. Throughout history and across cultures, the deceased soldiers were frequently more valuable than living - it was easy to motivate new recruits from your tribe with stories of the brave and valiant dead. And let’s not kid ourselves, the men (and yes, these are all men) of the Taliban and Boko Haram see themselves as righteous agents within their deranged struggle. The more who “sacrifice” themselves for the fight you preach to teenage recruits, the more their blood sanctifies and gives credence to the mission at hand. There’s no better argument that your cause is worthwhile than hard evidence it’s won through dying. Romanticization of combat and images of glory go over far too well with boys from the age 16-22 set. There’s a reason why old battle hymns sing of the fallen.
What matters most to these groups is the amount of cultural landscape they’ve managed to control through violence and intimidation. This is a classic instance where the political outcome is of far greater importance to the fanatics in question than the rote statistics of lives lost. If they can expend hundreds of young men to prevent thousands from access to education that would otherwise disempower old tribal fixations, the arithmetic is more than favorable.
What was telling about the Taliban’s latest university attack, the one that hit Bacha Khan University last month, is that it occurred after a stretch of time during which the local Taliban insurgency has been waning in power throughout Khyber. While the attack displayed some of the tactical savvy for which the Taliban are known, it seemed less like a demonstration of strength and more like a desperate attempt to stoke fear despite their overall military operations being in jeopardy. Fear is something that can be instilled in a broad, nebulous sense even if the concrete aspects of your martial infrastructure might lack comparative fortitude. It’s a smokescreen, and a way of at least temporarily reaching for your objectives while you still have some lingering influence.
Jihadi attacks on schools and shopping malls represent violent outbursts in the perennial fight between reactionary traditionalism and the inevitable motion toward reform. And the core truth is that right-wing Islamists are fundamentally and deeply scared by the encroachment of modernity. The pull toward cultural openness has a stubborn tendency to prove the winner in some form or the other, no matter how painful and slow-grind the process. It has time on its side, after all, and human society is incapable of absolute stasis. If you examine the desperate brutality of the Taliban and Boko Haram’s operations, the implicit admission seems to be that the perpetrators fear they’re fighting a losing battle. The course of history inevitably arcs toward change and revision, but the most rigid tribalists will be damned if they don’t go kicking and screaming. Or, in this case, bombing and shooting.
Header photo taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Adam Patterson can be reached by email at "napalmintheAM@gmail.com" or on Twitter @AdamPattersonDC.