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Five Reasons Extremist Groups Are Attractive to Youth

(And What You Can Learn from These Reasons)

Once again, we find ourselves in the wake of heartache and disaster caused by terrorist groups. The authorities in Brussels are still collecting the numbers, but it appears 30 more people are dead. The targets were strategic—rush hour at an airport and a metro station.

I have been asking myself a question since 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit by jet planes and nearly 3,000 Americans died. Today, after the Brussels attacks, the Paris attacks and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, I find myself perplexed again. I am asking the same question.

Why are people—especially young people—drawn to extremist groups?

The main target for groups like the Islamic State, for instance, is said to be young people between 16 and 24 years old. We must recognize, however, the radicalization process can start as early as 11 or 12, says Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies (GIRDS). BBC Journalist Jasmine Coleman suggests her own list on what draws youth to terrorism and says: “The number of under-18s arrested for alleged terror offences in the UK almost doubled from eight to 15 from 2013-14 to 2014-15. The total number of arrests for all age groups increased by a third on the previous year.” Terrorists have launched over 90,000 attacks in the last decade, killing 130,000 people.

So what is it that makes such a destructive organization so appealing? Why would a young person be attracted to this kind of thing? Further, are there lessons for us to learn, as we work with students this same age? Based on Coleman’s article on ISIS and leadership interviews I’ve done recently, let me offer five reasons below. For each of these reasons, I’d like to challenge you to think about how you can utilize these tactics for good in your own sphere of influence.

photo credit: tavopp via photopin cc

photo credit: tavopp via photopin cc

1. Social Media Connection

It’s important to remember, ISIS usually connects with young people first through social media. The Internet is essential, according to Koehler. Their goal is to produce 30-40 high quality videos a day in almost every language. “They have an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Twitter accounts and guides for carrying out jihad or how to join the Islamic State are easily available on-line.”

Our Take Away: As you enlist students, do you leverage social media well? Or, would students say your “brand” is antiquated and “tired?” Do you create engaging videos? Do you recruit through original and compelling ideas…and interact via the Internet? Have you created a community on-line for them to join?

2. Contrarian Viewpoint to Mainstream Thought

Young people have always been drawn to ideas that reject the “status quo” and combat what’s being done by mainstream adults, who’ve seemingly bought into the establishment. Do you remember the Baby Boomers as young people in the 1960s? Extremists are contrarian, and while unhealthy in their methods, they offer ways for youth to express themselves for what they believe is “civil rights,” taking on a perceived “unjust system” wherever they live.

Our Take Away: Would students view you as merely “status quo?” Or, do they see you as an organization (or school) that challenges the status quo and unjust systems? Do you think for yourself and offer fresh solutions to today’s problems? Have you found ways to communicate to students that while you’re established you still can be contrarian?

3. The Offer to Become Someone Significant

One practice the terrorist groups do well is pitch the idea that to join them, your identity will improve. You will be somebody important. You will know people who are important. Experts say one of the greatest draws for young followers is the promise of belonging to a significant collective. Members tell their stories of impact and the stories can be heard in schools, in communities and on-line.

Our Take Away: What do you offer that would make a student feel significant? How do you improve a young person’s identity? Do they get to do something significant, or do they simply fill a position that feels like “going through the motions?” Are you about maintenance or mission?

4. Grievances Against Society as a Whole

The Islamic Jihadists attract those who experience negative emotions. They appeal to those who are disenfranchised and they franchise them. Many causes throughout history have drawn the marginalized young person who feels they have nothing to lose. Charlie Winter, an expert in jihadist militancy says, “Real or perceived grievances in the hands of a recruiter can reach fever pitch.”

Our Take Away: Do you attract students who are marginalized or mainstream? Does a kid on the fringes feel welcome? Do you engage students to turn their negative emotions into positive ones, helping them channel depression into hope and action?

5. The Challenge to Invest Your Life in Something Big

Extremist groups offer a cause to join. Ideology is very important but it is also about how people feel about the society they live in, according to experts. The appeal doesn’t begin with violence. It begins with doing something significant, focusing on being someone important. Once a young adult buys in big time, they’re willing to take extreme measures on behalf of the cause. They want to prove they belong.

Our Take Away: What do you provide that makes a student feel like they’re doing something very important and almost impossible? Are you up to something big? Are students compelled to join your organization or club because it calls the very best out of them? Is your vision easy to understand yet challenging to achieve?

The best hope that we have in the face of grave realities is to work toward a future absent of them. One where young people don’t turn toward violence. Let’s together utilize these principles to create in our young people a passion toward a noble goal: to solve problems and serve people. Perhaps we have a new measuring stick for what to do to inspire our students toward positive action.

Give me your thoughts. I’d enjoy a conversation on this topic. What can we learn from even unhealthy movements or organizations around us about reaching youth?



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