What drives youth radicalization? This question has renewed relevance in recent weeks in the wake of dual terrorist attacks, one at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 and the other in Barcelona on Aug. 17, in which the alleged assailants were 20 and 22 years old respectively.
Our research with Club de Madrid on radical messaging and youth recruitment in the Middle East and North Africa indicates that, in the vast majority of cases, it is not the ideology itself that resonates, but rather the way in which an ideology provides a conduit for perceived grievances. Understanding the process of radicalization, rather than the content of the ideology, is thus crucial for developing effective interventions to disrupt those processes.
There is of course a plethora of research, both qualitative and quantitative, on youth radicalization in recent years. However, as most of the research has focused on the source and content of radical messages, a key missing element has been understanding the dynamics that take place at the very end of the communication chain — that is, how citizens actually receive and perceive messages, and what conditions make them more receptive to extremist recruiting.
In our research, we organized 18 focus groups with 138 teenagers and youths, ages 20 to 30, in Lebanon, Tunisia and Nigeria, in which we introduced a variety of messages for critique and discussion. Based on participant responses, we collected data on which aspects improved or weakened community and individual resilience to violent extremism, the appeal of extremist messaging (in terms of both production and conceptual values) and other mechanisms of recruitment, and the perceived efficacy of countermeasures to that recruitment. By using the discussion of radical and counter-radical messages as a starting point, we were able to uncover nuances in the wider debate that challenge common misperceptions of youth radicalization.
Relative deprivation, marginalization and lack of hope matter more than poverty
From our focus groups, youths who were the most susceptible to radical messaging were those who perceived themselves to be politically and/or economically marginalized, resulting in a pervasive sense of purposelessness and lack of hope for the future. However, it was not poor socio-economic status itself that pointed toward susceptibility, but rather a sense of relative deprivation, coupled with feelings of political and/or social exclusion. For example, uneven development in rural areas fed a narrative that central government authorities only serve the interests of urban elites. Likewise, perceiving that one’s ethnic group or sect was more monitored by the government than other groups increased feelings of alienation and susceptibility to radicalization.
Ideology provides a conduit for grievances and a sense of purpose
Ideology matters, but not necessarily its core messaging, be it Islamic fundamentalism or white supremacy. Rather, radical groups use religion and ideologies to legitimize grievances, placing themselves as agents of change and promising empowerment and a sense of purpose. As a Tunisian participant said: “[V]iolent groups are using religion to brainwash and recruit people; religion is a sensitive subject and can influence easily, especially when there is a lack of awareness.” Likewise, Christian Picciolini, a reformed white nationalist, said: “I think ultimately people become extremists not necessarily because of the ideology. The ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent. I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.”
Media/Internet messaging matters, but not as much as personal engagement
While media messaging from groups such as the Islamic State can be a contributing factor to radicalization, the presence of face-to-face recruiters who target individuals was considered a more significant element in all of our focus groups. Personal contacts made recruitment much more likely because recruiters could tailor their message to the local concerns of communities and individual experiences.
Credible community leaders and former combatants can help prevent radicalization
While personal interactions with recruiters increase the likelihood of radicalization, one positive finding was that credible community leaders can help prevent radicalization. In particular, ex-combatants and former extremists who are now engaged in outreach carry notable social capital and are often effective in dissuading youths in their communities from following their previous path.
Traditional approaches to preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) can further alienate at-risk youth
Traditional P/CVE strategies that focus on increasing security measures often further alienate and disenfranchise young people who feel they are “under the watch” of the state. Over-policing of public spaces, frequent questioning and detention of youths and rhetoric from public officials that feeds the narrative of the “dangerous youth” demographic only further push alienated youths into the margins.
As one youth leader in Lebanon indicated, recruiters seize upon these policies in their tactics to convince youths of their alienation from the state. According to this leader, governments and NGOs alike can better address P/CVE indirectly via programs and policies that foster hope and trust rather than fear, such as job creation, service provisions and community engagement.
As with most studies of violent extremism, our findings represent general trends of susceptibility to radicalization; the factors are not determinative, and most youths who become radicalized, whether in the United States, Europe or the Middle East, do so for a complex variety of reasons.
It is clear, however, that given the similarities in radicalization processes across different ideologies and contexts, it is crucial for policymakers to look beyond the intricacies or appeal of the ideology itself, and more at the processes of radicalization. This shift in focus will allow for more informed interventions for disrupting such processes, such as supporting those working at the community level to prevent further youth radicalization.