Education and language: global and local strategies of Sahelian jihadism

Growing insecurity in the Sahel and especially in Central Mali and Northern Burkina Faso is characterized by lack of control of the central government over big parts of the country's territories and active and consistent presence of jihadist groups recurrently attacking both military personnel and civilians. Although targets are multiple, the scope of attacks can be summarized as a fight against (foreign) military presence, against the central government and aimed to destabilize the situation in the country, in order to make it ungovernable. With daily attacks during the last months, the growing number of victims summed up with high rates of criminal violence and banditry interlinked with terrorist activities.

Among the targets of jihadist armed groups there are also public state schools, also called ‘French’ schools. Attacks range from arson and the destruction of school buildings to intimidation and killings of teachers. During attacks jihadists frequently demand the conversion to Islamic type of education and the switch to Arabic as the language of instruction. As a consequence, many teachers flee, teaching is suspended and many children are excluded from the education system.

In Mali more than 670 schools were closed, the majority of them situated in Mopti region, according to a Humanitarian Bulletin by UN OCHA. UNICEF reports that last year in Burkina Faso at least 15 security incidents directly targeted schools in the Sahel region, especially in rural areas bordering Mali such as Nassoumbou, Diguel, Baraboulé, Koutougou and Tongomayel districts in Soum province (data as of 8 December 2017). According to the data provided by MENASTREAM between 25 January 2017 and 12 April 2018 there have been 17 incidents that involved schools or teachers. As of 24 January 2018, 92 schools were closed in the Sahel region in Burkina Faso due to security threats.

I. Global vs local strategies

Examining the practices and actions of the groups acting in Central Mali and Northern Burkina Faso, as also other groups, such as Boko Haram, it can be said that the interplay between local and global levels is very important and meaningful.1 There are different interpretations of these dimensions; for instance, Raineri and Martini (2017) talk about AQIM's territorialized and Boko Haram's de-territorialized strategies. Dowd and Raleigh (2013) emphasize the importance of distinct domestic contexts and issues out of which political violence arises. For them, the local agenda is the one that shapes the actions of the groups, while discursive practices may be linked to more global Islamic dimension. Whereas global connections and imaginaries are available to everyone through cell phones and TV, the local conditions of the populations living in contact with the jihadist groups should not be underestimated.
Global and local strategies and knowledge systems can be paired with languages that vehicle the information through different supports such as mp3s, videos, YouTube and so on. The choice of Arabic connects to a wider international audience, to other Islamic forces, and is frequently used for video messages presenting and promoting the stance of the group and their strength in a specific context. The use of local languages instead is fundamental for the communication within local environments, dissemination of messages, as done by Boko Haram in Kanuri or by Amadou Koufa in Fula.

Language preferences, styles of attacks, connection to other groups, integration to the global Islamic community are all choices that influence the construction of specific identities. As defined by Jean-Loup Amselle, the expression of any identity therefore presupposes the conversion of universal signs into one's own language, or, on the contrary, one's own signs into a planetary signifier, in order to manifest one's own singularity (Amselle, 2008).

Attacks against education are quite vocal because they situate the action at the ideological level, attacking both the idea and its physical embodiment. In the Sahelian countries, Western education, constructed as a direct successor of colonial French education, is associated with sharp inequalities. Initially it served for the purpose of formation of local civil servants. Nowadays, it still resonates with the elites that detain power and knowledge in these societies. Within this interpretive framework, it can be said that we assist at attacks that involve a political struggle for the reconfiguration of knowledge intertwined with extremist forms of power.

II. Attacks on schools and education as a political act

The education sphere in so-called ‘Francophone’ West Africa is very variegated and offers a number of options according to different needs and economic possibilities. This piece will exclusively refer to two ‘opposed’ poles of Malian education provision, that is ‘French’ secular schools and Qur'anic schools. Malian educational institutions can be divided in formal and informal sectors, i.e. those recognized and not recognized by the Ministry of Education. In the formal sector besides public schools (secular and based on the French model) are also included private religious and secular schools and modern Islamic schools called madrasas. They have a much extended curriculum in the number of subjects they offer — including sciences and Arabic language — than Qur'anic schools. The latter are not included in the formal system and are not controlled by the state.2 They are privately financed and can theoretically provide any type of teaching. These schools thus are much more vulnerable for extremist and specifically Wahabi influences because there is not external (state) control over the curriculum. For this reason this piece refers to formal education (state public school) and informal education (Qur'anic school) as two ‘opposed’ poles of the panoply of education options. These two forms of education are not mutually exclusive and the majority of the population has at least basic religious education. Access to education, especially to the secular one, may have different obstacles related to economic capabilities of the families or specific lifestyles, like nomadism. In case of general deprivation and multidimensional poverty, very often the family has to choose which of these directions to privilege, not being able to undertake both.

The school choice can be described as a strategy of dealing with the social reality and thus is dependent on parents’ prior values, constraints and pragmatic, economic or ideological reasons. For instance, public schools are seen as a trajectory towards economic mobility as they give access to civil service, government positions and employment in NGOs etc.3 In fact, these schools are seen as an opportunity to escape from poverty and advance economically and socially.4

Qur'anic schools instead represent an opportunity for social mobility within the Islamic community. They very often accommodate the poorest segments of population that cannot afford formal schooling. The main task for the students is to read and memorize verses from the Qur'an while teaching is predominantly in local languages. These schools do not facilitate economic mobility, but contribute to the reinforcement of hierarchical lineage structures (Bleck, 2015). They do not give opportunities in the ‘modern’ economy but confine the majority of the graduates to the informal sector and mostly to the pre-capitalist agricultural or pastoral society. Noteworthy, in Central Mali has been attested a growing number of Qur'anic schools which can be linked to various factors such as discontent with the public system, low education provision by public schools, inadequacy of this type of education for the environment and the needs of the students and their families.5

One of the main problematic features that explicitly demonstrate some rupture between school curriculum and existing reality is the language of instruction, French, that very often causes school drop out. According to the latest statistics, in Mali 42% of students complete the primary education cycle and 33% the secondary education cycle. Youth literacy rate is estimated at 49% (UIS UNESCO). There are many reasons for these high drop out levels (Villalon and Tidjani-Alou, 2012), among which it is important to mention the inadequacy of the school to the needs of the population and to the environment of their daily life. For instance, in the Sahel many nomadic pastoralists do not want and cannot enroll their children in the public schools also because of the community lifestyles.

Language choices and language politics in a postcolonial context represent the top of the iceberg of the whole system's social tensions and problems. In this case the French language can be juxtaposed, as a former colonial language, to Arabic, a language of Islamic civilization and religion, both representing two different epistemes currently clashing in the Sahelian context. The types and content of education behind these languages are directly linked to existing societal, economic and ideological systems.

III. Education at the intersection of local and global dynamics

These distinct social and economic systems, and the way education, economy and society are interlinked, also epitomize deep ruptures within the society. It is a clear evidence of how education, economy and society are interlinked together. Schooling, education and languages constitute a central feature at the intersection of knowledge and power. Jihadist groups use (armed) force to delimitate knowledge and also to limit the power of the central government on the territories where they operate. Multiple attacks on schools can thus be interpreted as attacks on a specific political choice or lifestyle preference. Global jihadist ideology is based on the fight against the West and Western influence and also those Muslims that do not comply with jihadi values. The education is in this case a double-edged sword that fits in the global and local jihadist narrative. In this case attacks against secular public schools represent a clear example of attack on the Western influence and its expansion beyond the European soil. It perfectly fits the global jihadist narrative on the establishment of God's rule on Earth and eradication of all opposing forces. The struggle is also for Islamic education and adherence to Islamic institutions such as courts, that should substitute secular institutions. At the local level, it fits in the discourse of local cleavages and local problems related to social mobility, distribution of wealth and power relations.

Interpreted in this way, terrorist actions become symbolic and very vocal expressions of confrontation between antagonist power/knowledge systems for which the school represents a complex symbol. The public school, an institution that aims to ‘shape’ citizens and teaches values common for the entire nation, is attacked by jihadists as an embodiment of power, i.e. the state system and its presence on the territory. Thus, jihadists directly intervene against it with extreme forms of coercive violence (Sandor, 2017).

In the school attacks that were reported by MENASTREAM between 25 January 2017 and 12 April 2018 there were 4 fatalities and 2 causalities. Nonetheless, such actions have a strong impact both on the social texture locally, on the national perception of the state capacities, global discourses of the jihadists themselves and responses from the international community. Schooling becomes part of political struggle undertaken by these armed groups representing a multidimensional factor fitting global and local narratives.


Amselle, Jean-Loup. 2008. Branchements: Anthropologie de L'Universalité des Cultures. Paris, Flammarion.

Bleck, Jaimie. 2015. Education and Empowered Citizenship in Mali. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Dowd, Caitriona and Raleigh, Clionadh. 2013. The Myth of Global Islamic Terrorism and Local Conflict in Mali and the Sahel. In African Affairs, 112(448), 498-509.

Institute for Security Studies. 2016b. Mali's Young Jihadists. Policy Brief 89, August 2016.

Interpeace, 2016. Au-delà de l'idéologie et de l'appât du gain: trajectoires des jeunes vers les nouvelles formes de violence en Côte d'Ivoire et au Mali. Rapport de recherche participative. October 2016.

Samdor, Adan. Insecurity, the Breakdown of social trust, and armed actor governance In Central and Northern Mali. Centre FrancoPaix, Montreal.

Villalon, Leonardo A., and Tidjani-Alou, Mahaman. 2012. Religion and Education Reform in Africa: Harnessing religious values to developmental ends. Policy Brief 07.

World Bank. 2014. Youth Employment in sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC, World Bank.


  1. It's anyhow clear that these binary oppositions are not comprehensive and represent some sort of abstraction.

  2. There is an ongoing reform for the inclusion of Qur'anic schools in the state system in order to supervise the content and quality of teaching.

  3. The public school system was inherited from the French colonial administration and reproduces a European education system. It is based on the assumption that students would work in the formal sector, use French language, numeracy and other skills necessary for the ‘modern’ employment.

  4. As mentioned earlier, formal jobs represent a very small percentage of work opportunities in the region. The majority of income generating activities are in the informal sector. With a growing number of graduates, unable to find employment suitable for their level of studies, the pool of unemployed or underemployed is also growing (World Bank, 2014). This constitutes a structural problem of the inherited education systems still anchored in their colonial pasts and nurturing the ‘colonial’ present (Gregory, 2004).

  5. Furthermore, the role of Qur'anic education seems crucial in the present context because it is directly related to the knowledge of the religious postulates. As stated in a recent UNDP research report (2017), those who attend at least six years of religious school are not necessarily prone to join extremist jihadi organizations, but it depends on other factors (see p. 49 of the study). This finding allows us to deduce that the relationships between radicalization and religious education are complex and are also dependent on social networks and strong inequalities within the societies.


Cover photo by Brook Ward, Abandoned classroom, (CC) 2013.

Brook Ward (CC)

Katia Golovko

Skilled professional with extensive work experience in West Africa. Master's degree in Human Rights and Conflict Management (Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies), PhD in linguistics (Univ. Bologna)