Photo Essay: A look inside Islamic State schoolbooks in southern Syria

In a small town in southwestern Syria, 10-year-old students open their math textbooks to solve a series of simple multiplication questions. But while the arithmetic wouldn’t feel out of place at a school anywhere in the world, the word problems and exercises reveal a darker motive to education at this school.

“In front of you are three pistols, and in each magazine nine bullets,” reads one question in the lesson. “How many shots do you have?”

Next, a matching exercise asks students to correctly multiply numbers of RPGs and draw a line to the expected number of incinerated humvees.

Seemingly drawn from the imagination of a violent parallel universe, questions like these are being used in textbooks at schools in a corner of southwestern Syria run by the Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW). Thousands of children continue to live and receive education from the jihadist group in pockets of Syria that IS and its affiliates still control.

JKW currently rules much of the Yarmouk Basin, an agricultural area of southwestern Syria nestled along the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. There, the IS affiliate applies an extreme and violent interpretation of Islamic law.

In the Yarmouk Basin, JKW authorities have forced women into niqabs, publicly displayed smokers in cages and beheaded dozens of people for crimes including blasphemy and sorcery. Regularly forcing civilians to watch recorded videos of executions, they have also burned musical instruments and CDs.

In JKW-run schools, curriculums have been turned upside down and violent propaganda injected into daily lessons for subjects as mundane as arithmetic.

Syria Direct’s Sulaiman al-Ebrahim has obtained exclusive photos of school textbooks being used to teach sixth graders in the JKW-held town of Tseel from the mother of one student. She says she has seen a radical transformation in her child’s daily instruction. 

A matching exercise asks students to multiply the number of RPG shells and connect it with the corresponding number of destroyed vehicles. 

Students in JKW-held Tseel learn about decimal places using groups of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to visualize the numbers. 

“Complete the multiplication table below.” A chart teaching students to multiply the number four uses pistols as an illustration. 

Question two: “The soldiers of the Islamic State launch an attack on the wicked from seven different points. If the number of soldiers at each point is seven, how many soldiers are there?”  Question four: “In front of you are three pistols, and in each magazine nine bullets. How many shots do you have?” 

Alongside an exercise (left) asking students to correctly multiply a number of sniper shots, the facing page includes the question: “Islamic State soldiers seized seven boxes of weapons, each containing eight machine guns. How many machine guns were there?”

Sulaiman al-Ebrahim

Sulaiman completed his schooling in Daraa province, but the war prevented him from continuing his education at a university. He previously worked as a media activist and photographer in southern Syria. Sulaiman sees the Syria Direct training program as a first step toward a professional career in journalism.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut.