The ISIS Files. Planting the Seeds of the Poisonous Tree: Establishing a System of Meaning Through ISIS Education.


In the aftermath of the fall of the so-called ‘caliphate’ under the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the children of fighters and the families of detained fighters are a major concern for security institutions globally.  Recent estimates have suggested that over 40,000 women and children are in detention in Iraq and Syria, some of foreign origin and some Syrians and Iraqis.  This is problematic not only for Iraqi and Syrian security officials, but also for countries where those fighters and their families need to be relocated—to include Europe, South East Asia, and North Africa (among others). Moreover, several countries have already started the process of repatriating their citizens that were living under ISIS—some of which include children. Notably, the children and families present a variety of challenges for security officials—to include trauma, potential participation in violent activities, indoctrination, and radicalization. However, participation in ISIS is not always clear, and some members of these families are passive victims in the so-called ‘caliphate.’ Thus, a robust plan for rehabilitating children and families is critical—a plan that is based on a knowledge of what these children and families faced while under ISIS control.

In order to extract knowledge on the indoctrination process that ISIS has used with respect to children, Hedayah and the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism have undertaken a research partnership to evaluate documents of the terrorist group ISIS, as collected in a group of primary source documents called the “ISIS Files.” The research has systematically analyzed a dataset of education-related “ISIS Files” documents using critical discourse analysis to identify common narratives, values, and themes, particularly those aimed at indoctrinating children. This primary research was based on exclusive access to the ISIS Files, provided by the Program on Extremism to Hedayah.

As part of this project, Hedayah transcribed, translated, and analyzed the files related to education. The dataset analyzed in this report includes 29 textbooks (16 from primary grades, 10 from secondary grades, and 3 from unknown grades; 27 in Arabic, 2 in English) and 40 additional files. The additional files are background documents, which include homework assignments and notes from coursework, handouts, letters and decrees from the Ministry of Education of ISIS, exam rules, and test scores.


  • Research Report: The findings were published in a research report in February 2021, along with the launch of a first batch of the education-related files.
  • Policy and Program Recommendations: In addition, this research will produce a list of recommendations for policymakers and practitioners working on rehabilitation and reintegration of ISIS-affiliated children, as well as working on P/CVE more broadly.  This is expected in March/April 2021.

About the Partners and Sponsors

This project was sponsored and conducted by GW, Hedayah and the New York Times in partnership with the European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP). The ISIS Files Project was also generously sponsored by the Government of Spain, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Union Cooperation.

Study Report_Planting the Seeds of the Poisonous Tree.