American teenagers are among the key recruits targeted by propaganda from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The group’s rise is in part fueled by its marketing savvy, selling its cause not simply on ideological and political grounds but as a hip counterculture. Across Europe, Canada, Australia and increasingly the United States, teenagers from diverse backgrounds — including Jews, Christians, atheists and even Shiites — have followed the siren song of ISIS’s narrative.
In the latest headline case, a 17-year old high school student from Virginia pleaded guilty to supporting ISIS by acting as a travel agent to help a friend from school join the group in Syria. A few weeks prior, a 16-year-old in South Carolina “lured by the ideology of ISIS” was convicted on gun charges. A few months earlier, three teenagers from Denver were stopped in transit to Turkey en route to ISIS in Syria. If not for a last-minute intervention of U.S. and German officials, who scrambled to act after frantic calls from one of the girls’ fathers, the teenagers likely would have joined the wave of minors drawn to terrorist organizations.
FBI Washington Field Office Assistant Director in Charge Andrew McCabe called the recent case of the Virginia teenager a “tragedy.” Indeed, the young man will likely spend the next 15 years behind bars, as his family now struggles to pick up the pieces of a misspent adolescence.
However, the steady stream of teenage recruits to ISIS is not simply a tragedy but also a particular challenge for U.S. officials, who cannot easily charge minors with terror support. Law enforcement officials, who have a responsibility to stop illegal activity, would prefer to concentrate limited resources on violent radicals who pose an imminent threat. While 17-year-olds can be moved from juvenile to adult court, there is a reluctance to charge minors for material support for terrorism.
The solution is an alternative to simply arresting minors: a targeted intervention with at-risk youth that, if properly implemented, can help sway young people from militancy. In the past two years, U.S. officials have increasingly recognized the value of introducing individual-specific interventions. Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, has noted that families, friends, teachers and mentors — and not law enforcement — are most likely to notice the early stages of radicalization: “We need to do more to help communities understand the warning signs and then work together to intervene before an incident can occur.”
Some FBI field offices have attempted to implement Monaco’s suggestion, carrying out “improvised” targeted interventions rather than employing traditional law enforcement tactics. The FBI Denver field office deployed this approach in case of Shannon Conley, a 19-year-old woman who intended to join ISIS. Rather than rushing to detain Conley, bureau officials tried to convince her to desist from her plans, working with her parents and religious leaders to suggest charity work for Syrian refugees rather than engaging in violence. Authorities in Minneapolis tried a parallel approach last January in the case of 18-year-old Abdullahi Mohamud Yusuf, accused of seeking to join ISIS. Yusuf was released to a halfway house while his case was pending on the condition that he work with a group promoting civic involvement.
Nonetheless, targeted interventions so far have been deployed at the whim of local authorities, without an articulated methodology and clear legal framework. Several European countries, on the other hand, possess a well-defined intervention strategy that clearly divides tasks, sets standards and establishes responsibilities. This is in part because Europe’s violent extremist threat is more acute and because Turkey — the gateway to ISIS’s declared caliphate — is but a quick plane ride away. Efforts in European countries, where authorities have experimented with intervention strategies for years, offer some useful pointers.
In many European cities, an expanding web of police officers, educators, health professionals, social workers, housing officers and community leaders have received training on recognizing the signs of and dangers posed by radicalization. Once a case of potential radicalization is detected, stakeholders refer the case to a specialized unit, increasingly run by municipal authorities and civil society organizations rather than law enforcement. If a genuine threat is assessed, officials craft targeted interventions aimed at swaying the individual away from militancy and back to a normal life. In most cases the intervention entails the designation of a mentor, somebody who already has or could potentially establish a trust-based relationship with the radicalizing individual. Ideally, the mentor steers the individual away from violence and extremism. This complex process is constantly monitored by authorities and varies from case to case.
Critically, this process is seen as a way to protect youths rather than an intelligence gathering tool. Young people undergoing a process of radicalization are seen as vulnerable individuals harming themselves and ultimately in need of help. Radicalization is presented as a problem like gang recruitment or drugs. Just as they would do if they detected young people falling prey to such social ills, community leaders have a responsibility to report cases of radicalization. European authorities increasingly describe their efforts with the language of protection or, as the British say, “safeguarding.” Some have likened instances of radicalization to cases of child abuse, with online recruiters compared to Internet pedophiles.
In the face of increasing numbers of radicalized minors, the United States needs a fresh approach when the perpetrators are barely old enough for a driver’s license. Targeted interventions with juvenile would-be recruits has significant potential, but the intervention process requires a high-level framework and clear guidance from federal officials. Working with civil rights advocates, the government should provide guidance on minimum standards for intervention efforts that address the specific roles of government and communities, as well as the legal parameters of interveners who currently place themselves at risk of liability if interventions go awry.
With a refined system in place, targeted interventions for minors can become an important tool in helping communities and law enforcement address this growing challenge.
Dr. Lorenzo Vidino is the director and Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Hughes previously worked at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The views expressed are his own and do not represent the position of the NCTC, the intelligence community, or the U.S. government. Follow the Center on Twitter at @gwupoe.