Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Tackling Terrorists' Exploitation of Youth

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Tackling Terrorists' Exploitation of Youth

Article excerpt

MAY 2019


On a busy Sunday morning, two small girls wandered among the crowd near a market in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri. Then, suddenly, the bombs strapped to them exploded, killing one person and wounding more than a dozen others. (1) The repeated exploitation of children and youth in terrorist attacks by groups such as Boko Haram is a chilling reminder that terrorism knows no bounds.

Young people can serve as a vital source of support for terrorist groups. (2) 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. (3) 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. Nearly 1 in 10 of the youth fighters who joined the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014 had previously participated in jihad, according to a report published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. (4)

Over time, the recruitment of youth into armed groups can lay the foundation for future conflicts. (5) As former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley noted in the context of South Sudan, "Conflict is planting the seeds of future hate in the next generation.... If we don't do something about the way these kids are being raised... we might be dealing with them as adults on the battlefield." (6)

This report addresses terrorist groups' recruitment of youth (ranging from small children to women and men in their 20s), the roles that youth play in these groups, and how the US government can better respond to this threat through international programming to counter violent extremism. The report focuses on terrorism prevention efforts as opposed to deradicalization or disengagement programs for youth who are already affiliated with a violent extremist group. It also focuses exclusively on youth participation in designated terrorist groups, as opposed to other non-state armed actors that actively recruit youth.

While there have been sincere and even promising efforts to address youth radicalization and recruitment by terrorist groups--as discussed below--significant gaps remain. These include effectively targeting at-risk youth in US government-funded programs and confronting the issue of radicalization and recruitment within the family.

A vigorous US government response to the exploi tation of youth by terrorist groups should include:

* Clear criteria to use in weighing individuals' vulnerability to radicalization and recruitment and in designing and targeting programs to counter violent extremism,

* An emphasis on fostering both attitudinal and behavioral change among youth vulnerable to recruitment,

* An expanded effort to confront the radicalization and recruitment of girls and young women by violent extremist groups, and

* A recognition of the family as a potential site of radicalization and recruitment, as well as a source of resilience.

How Terrorist Groups Recruit and Mobilize Youth

Our understanding of how young people enter into violent extremist groups should inform our approaches to countering and preventing youth involvement in terrorism. Pathways into terrorist or violent extremist groups are extremely complex (Figure 1). Many young people are recruited by sympathetic family members or are led to believe that membership helps defend their families or communities. Others are duped, trafficked, kidnapped, or forcibly recruited.

The forced recruitment of children through kidnappings or outright violence is not a new phenomenon. Since 1987, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda has kidnapped more than 20,000 children. (7) Boko Haram has employed mass kidnappings in Nigeria, including the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014 and 110 more girls from a school in Dapchi in March 2018. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.