Young people are a vital source of support for many terrorist groups, with roles ranging from cooks to armed fighters.
But the ways young people are recruited vary widely across contexts. Youth end up in terrorist groups through forced and voluntary recruitment. They perform a range of roles that vary according to age and gender, with girls and young women often being subject to gendered social roles and sexual and domestic violence.
In many cases, young people join terrorist groups because they are duped, trafficked, kidnapped, or forcibly recruited. Others join terrorist groups voluntarily owing to the appeal of a group-based identity; perceptions of exclusion, grievances, or cultural threats; the promise of economic stability; prospects of fame, glory, or respect; and personal connections, including family and friendship networks.
Young people serve as a vital source of support for terrorist groups. Strategically, terrorist groups can signal both their brutality and resolve to win by using young people in attacks. Al Shabaab, meaning “the youth,” reportedly has a majority youth membership. Youth are also better at evading security, which serves as a tactical advantage. In conflicts featuring extensive use of small arms, young people serve as able-bodied fighters.
The vulnerability of youth to terrorist recruitment can be affected by a multitude of factors, including their geographic proximity to a terrorist group, economic vulnerability, and perceptions of social or political marginalization, exposure to permissive social networks, and exposure to extremist propaganda. However, the relative importance of these factors varies individually and according to the local context.
Youth, both male and female, are frequently employed in support, recruitment, and combat roles in terrorist groups, though a significantly higher proportion of youth combatants, are male. In jihadist groups, such as ISIS and al Shabaab, ideology often constrains the roles available to young women to that of wives and mothers. Boko Haram is a significant exception for its extensive use of young women and girls as suicide bombers. Nevertheless, female terrorist members play essential and under-recognized roles in advancing their group’s mission.
Terrorist groups employ young recruits in almost every capacity: in support roles, as recruiters, as propagandists, and as fighters. Individuals’ specific roles are often determined by their age and gender. Generally, girls and young women primarily perform support duties, including preparing food, gathering firewood, providing medical treatment, and maintaining camps. This is true of those who join voluntarily or are forcibly recruited. Girls and young women in many terrorist groups also take on roles that are specific to their sex, acting as fighters’ wives and mothers to their children. However, these gender-specific roles are deeply intertwined with other support roles.
The involvement of youth in armed conflict is not a new phenomenon. However, programs to counter violent extremism have yet to put the vulnerability of youth to terrorist group recruitment at the forefront of their efforts. This is especially true for girls and young women, whose participation in terrorism prevention efforts has lagged behind that of their male counterparts.
Policy and practice need to take the roles of young people, both male and female, in terrorist groups seriously and think creatively about the roles of families and family life in fostering violent extremism.
To improve the government’s response to the exploitation of youth by terrorist groups, it can adopt a clear criteria to be used in weighing young peoples’ vulnerability to radicalization and recruitment and in creating and targeting terrorism prevention programs, fostering both attitudinal and behavioral change to build youth resilience to recruitment, moving beyond a traditional focus on young men to confront the radicalization and recruitment of girls and young women, and engaging the family as a potential site of radicalization and recruitment.
These include geographic proximity to conflict, economic vulnerability, social or political marginalization, permissive family and social networks, and exposure to violent extremist propaganda through educational institutions and media.
Bobo Kiragu is a Creative Designer at Epuka Ugaidi and the views expressed here are her own
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