Closing and burning down schools, murder, displacement, and the removal of children to military religious camps in order to produce future terrorists is the new strategy implemented by the terrorist group Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM) in Mali.
JNIM or SGIM (Support Group for Islam and Muslims) is a network of jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was formed in March 2017, becoming the bloodiest terrorist alliance in Mali. Its leader Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly is one of the most wanted jihadi leaders by the coalition of national and foreign troops operating in the Sahel region.
Recently, the militant organisation's new strategy has been to brutally attempt to destroy secular public education by closing schools because they do not provide a Quranic education, with children as the main targets.
In the central, northern and eastern regions of Mali, where schools have been forcibly closed by jihadist groups, thousands of students have fled to other towns across the country to continue their education. In some places where terrorists arrive unexpectedly, school premises are immediately ransacked and burned down.
Abandoned by local authorities, schools are prime targets for armed terrorist groups, who exploit this failure of the state in order to extend their influence in many parts of the country, where they maintain a climate of terror.
Many of the children who could not flee have been torn from their parents and taken to jihadist camps in the forests, where they are brainwashed and trained in terrorist fighting. In other localities, Islamist leaders offer strong financial incentives to families to let their children join the terrorist network.
Radical Islam is taught to children who have had no choice but to give up a conventional education and the jihadists also teach them how to use weapons with the aim of training them in the ‘jihad’ that they preach as the "main life goal" of a man on earth.
Teachers of schools that have been shut down are forced to flee their homes. Despite the security efforts of the Malian government and its international partners to curb this criminal strategy, about 900 schools remain closed, according to UNICEF, which states that nearly 332,400 children are deprived of education because of the extremist threat in a country where the literacy rate is usually below average.
Hundreds of displaced teachers have been reassigned by the Malian Ministry of Education to other localities that need teachers and where the school population has become overcrowded because of the number of children from areas besieged by jihadist groups.
"When the jihadists arrived in our borough in February, they threatened to execute the headmaster if he did not close classrooms. Our teachers were forced to leave within 24 hours under threat of severe punishment," Bourama Sidibé, a teacher from the central region of Ségou and a refugee in Bamako for two months, told 7Dnews. He added that many of his colleagues born in the area were forced to take refuge in neighbouring villages with their families.
"In March, during evening prayer, radical preachers accompanied by armed men unexpectedly came to our mosque. They told us that now nothing would be as before and that Islamic teaching would be compulsory for everyone and they threatened with death anyone who would not accept the new Quranic school," said a village chief from the eastern region of Banamba.
"They said that the secular education, taught in French, is inherited from Western colonisation and that the education advocated by sharia law would be provided. They also banned ritual ceremonies and other enjoyable customs. When they left the mosque, the jihadists went to our schools and cultural venues and set them on fire.
"Before leaving the village, they threatened anyone who tried to alert the Malian armed forces with execution. They warned us about reopening classrooms and said any villager who did not accept the new regime would be severely punished, starting with me," said the village chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The central region of Mopti has the highest rate of closed schools and out-of-school children. In the region, 464 schools have not reopened this year, nearly 50% of the closed schools across the country.
"These fanatical, violent groups have realised that it is harder to manipulate an educated person than someone without education," said sociologist Dr Mohamed Abdallah Haïdara.
Since February 2017, the Malian government has adopted an integrated security plan for the Central regions. The plan set out security and local governance measures to deal with growing insecurity and underdevelopment.
The government confirmed that it will enhance security to enable children to go to school and re-establish basic social services to ameliorate the suffering of the population.
"We will be more present than ever in the regions undermined by the extremist threat," said the Malian Prime Minister. However, the figure of 332,400 children currently deprived of schooling shows how hard it will be to implement the security plan.
"With a generation deprived of education, the country may not be able to ensure the future of economic, health and educational institutions. The future is prepared in the present. School is not a privilege or a luxury but a fundamental right and one of the most effective ways to combat the radicalisation imposed by the enemies of the state," Doctor Haïdara said.