Rise to Peace blog

Finding the Root Cause of Youth Extremism

Children and youth populations are the most vulnerable to radicalization and violence all around the world1. Currently, the youth population is the largest the world has ever seen, and the largest sect of this population are in war torn countries. The UN resolution 2250 defined youth as the ages 18 through 29[1]. In summer of 2016, the UN General Assembly hosted a panel discussion with various stakeholders on the drivers of youth extremism1. These various stakeholders identified high rates of unemployment as a principle driver to youth radicalization. Even before the UN resolution was passed, President Barack Obama addresses the UN and pointed to jobless youth as most susceptible to radicalization3.  This hypothesis is the dominant narrative of what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, where youth unemployment is expected to reach 29% by 2019, which is double the global average[2]. However, the root of the problem is more complicated than just poverty and unemployment. The principle driver of extremism in young populations is rooted in experienced injustice, which is caused by poor or corrupt governance[3].

The Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS and so many other terrorist groups are recruiting and training younger and younger children to fight wars to the death.

In 2015, the organization Mercy Corps used focus group interviews and quantitative studies to conduct a report on youth extremism/political violence in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Columbia. The organization found that employment status has an insignificant impact on whether a young person decides to support or engage in political violence3. For example, while interviewing young men who were previously engaged in jihadist groups, Sharon Curcio, found that many of them left their comfortable lives in Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Western Europe to join the movement[1]. Also, according to OCED, countries like Greece and Spain have youth unemployment rates close to 50%[2], yet these countries are not leading in youth radicalization. If there was a linear relationship between unemployment and political violence, these European countries would have the highest rates of extremism from young individuals.  Radicalized groups, however, are established in states that have weak government intuitions, which is why youth radicalization is not prevalent in countries like Greece and Spain. Poverty and unemployment are often a symptom of an unstable government. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to claim poverty as the only cause of young radicalization.

Unemployment is a major issue facing youth today. The youth are frustrated by observed and experienced political corruption and unresponsive government. Why does this injustice impact the youth population more than other demographics? The answer is in the psychological development of young people and just the general search of the purpose that the adolescent population seeks. In comparison to older populations, young citizens have more energy, passion, and the capabilities to make a better life for themselves and their communities[1]. However, when all facets of society fail to provide resources to channel this energy into constructive actions, young people will search elsewhere for sources of purpose. Often times extremist groups offer education, money, shelter, and a sense of purpose their own government has failed to give them. This is why extremist groups are successful in gaining political holds in politically unstable areas.

Frequently extremist’s groups will shape their narrative around youth frustration, and their idealism that pushes them to make a difference. For example, extremist recruiters will repeatedly show videos of suffering women and children refugees and push the narrative that joining the movement would give recruits a chance to alleviate this suffering4.Unfortunately, countries with political instability have the largest youth populations, and this is often referred to the ‘youth bulge’3. Young people usually have the least political power, and inherently are persistently marginalized. Research has shown the lack of representation in government increases young person’s chance of taking up arms by three times3. Recruiters offer guns and violence to solve their problems, instead of peaceful political discourse. This peaceful discourse is not possible with a lack of government or existence of authoritarian government regimes.

Young children of the ISIS fighters in Syria

Recruitment is successful when the youth feels like their skills aren’t being utilized. These groups seemingly offer a ‘constructive’ role in society. A role where the recruits can make their voice heard, and given a noble path to salvation. This is the general message used by groups, like the Taliban, ISIS, and Boko Haram to recruit young people. Generally, the messages are narratives, which claim victory is near for the resistance, and injustice, pain, and suffering will end if one joins the cause6. Recruiters offer jobs such as teaching the Koran, distributing donation money to widows and refugees, helping Muslim comrades fight oppressors against Islam, and a chance to stop the threat to Islam4. These terrorist organizations offer an escape from constant frustration and give a young people who join a sense of identity and belonging they have been searching for3. This tactic is consistent with most extremist groups and is difficult to prevent with modern technology. Groups often use social media platforms and websites to reach younger people. Recently the Islamic State has used social media to lure young girls to join the organization as jihadist brides by portraying the organization as a big family[1]. These accounts and pages get taken down and blocked as quickly as new ones are created.

The first step to solving this problem is finding the true reasoning behind why young people join these organizations. Poverty and unemployment often are rooted in societies that are experiencing political instability or war. Commonly in this fast-paced society, people want to just look at the surface for solutions to problems. It is easy to look at an impoverished country with violence and point to poverty as the cause. The steady increase of youth radicalization is a complex issue that has no simple solution. Poverty alone does not lead someone to join a terrorist organization that uses suicide bombers to push an extreme political agenda. In order to fight extremism, nations need to focus on educating and empowering youth in these unstable areas. They should give them an outlet to express their frustration in a peaceful way. This is easier said than done, but at Rise to Peace we hope to eradicate youth radicalization because everyone should have a say in his or her future choices and to not be lured by basic needs.


[1] United Nations. (2015). Security Council, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2250 (2015), Urges Member States to Increase Representation of Youth in Decision-Making at All Levels. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12149.doc.htm

[2] Cronin, S. (2014). Middle East youth jobs crisis “lures recruits to extremism”. The National. Retrieved from http://www.thenational.ae/business/economy/middle-east-youth-jobs-crisis-lures-recruits-to-extremism

[3] Mercy Corps. (2015). Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence. Retrieved from https://www.mercycorps.org/research-resources/youth-consequences-unemployment-injustice-and-violence

[4] Curcio, S. (2005). The Dark Side of Jihad: How Young Men Detained at Guantanamo Assess Their Experience. RAND National Security Research Division. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR354.html

[5] Unemployment – Youth unemployment rate – OECD Data. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://data.oecd.org/unemp/youth-unemployment-rate.htm

[6] Ahmad, B. (2015). Afghan Youth and Extremists. United States Institute for Peace.  Retrieved from https://www.usip.org/publications/2015/08/afghan-youth-and-extremists

[7] Harvey, D. (2015). How Islamic State extremist use social media to recruit. BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/31574846/how-islamic-state-extremists-use-social-media-to-recruit

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