Terrorism and Youth: by Jessica Trisko Darden

Updated: May 21, 2019

How do terrorists take advantage of youth? What are Governments failing to do? What are the measures to control radicalization that really work? Check out all the answers, by Professor Jessica Trisko Darden, American University.



1. What would be the role of youth in this new era of ISIS after the so-called caliphate? And in Boko Haram?


The recruitment of youth by armed groups is a global challenge. However, we should be particularly concerned about the recruitment of youth in countries with a youth bulge—where there is a disproportionate number of individuals under the age of 30 relative to the rest of the population. In these countries, youth are more likely to face challenges accessing education and employment opportunities. Unfortunately, many of these countries have already seen terrorist groups make significant inroads, including Afghanistan, Chad, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Terrorist groups’ exploitation of youth will remain a feature of conflict for the foreseeable future.


2. In the context of ISIS, what would be the role of young women in the future?


For a non-state armed group, ISIS succeeded in mobilizing an unprecedented number of women and girls. The thousands of women and children that remain in internment camps in Syria and Iraq is evidence of how spectacularly the counterterrorism community failed to recognize and respond to ISIS’s recruitment of young women. That said, young women’s roles in ISIS were relatively limited. Most participated in support roles, serving as propagandists, recruiters, and as part of the morality police, in addition to traditional female-dominated professions such as teaching and nursing. They also engaged in domestic tasks such as cooking and childcare, which allowed men to devote their time to other matters. However, I’ve argued elsewhere that the emphasis on their roles as wives was not, in fact, exceptional.

Research finds that women’s participation is relatively limited in Salafi-jihadi groups like ISIS and Boko Haram in comparison with Marxist or nationalist groups that tend to field women as fighters.

There is some evidence that women’s roles in ISIS expanded as the group’s control over territory collapsed. However, research finds that women’s participation is relatively limited in Salafi-jihadi groups like ISIS and Boko Haram in comparison with Marxist or nationalist groups that tend to field women as fighters. So we are likely to continue to see young women participate in ISIS-linked groups and even some attacks, as in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, but their overall participation in terrorism is likely to remain limited to support roles.


3. What are the most effective measures to avoid young people from radicalizing in the context of Salafi-jihadist terrorism?

Our understanding of youth radicalization is deeply contextual. For instance, even though ISIS had a significant online recruitment effort that involved social media and online videos, the United Nations Development Programme found that only 3% of individuals who joined a violent extremist group in Africa did so through the internet. Instead, 50% joined as a result of a friend and 8% as a result of a family member. Counter-radicalization measures need to be tailored to the tactics of each group. In many instances, an online strategy will prove effective, but we cannot rely exclusively on that approach. Engaging with the family as a source of radicalization is one area where more effort can be devoted.

Only 3% of individuals who joined a violent extremist group in Africa did so through the internet.

4. How can Governments counter the exploitation of youth abroad and what mistakes are they making?


Governments run a range of programs to counter violent extremism among youth. Many of these have focused on youth and civic engagement and involved social media training or soccer tournaments, for example. The challenge is that recruitment is ultimately a local phenomenon. This means that broad programs, such as support for girls education, often fails to address the local dynamics that lead girls to be trafficked into groups like Al Shabaab. There is also a significant risk that programs targeted at youth will raise the expectations of young people without being able to deliver lasting results. As a result, Western government-funded interventions may exacerbate the problem they are trying to solve. Ultimately, programs need to be able to change the attitudes and behaviors of individuals. If a program can get youth from two different religious groups to cooperate, but it cannot change their views about the other group, then what has it actually achieved? Programs should focus their efforts on at-risk youth and local recruitment strategies.

Support for girls education, often fails to address the local dynamics that lead girls to be trafficked into groups like Al Shabaab.

5. What should the role of the US be in response to the exploitation of youth by terrorist groups?


The United States and other governments that seek to counter violent extremism abroad must balance their military and civilian counterterrorism efforts as well as their international development goals. There are clear trade-offs and ethical challenges in choosing to fund one type of effort over another. However, the United States’ interest in limiting the expansion of terrorist groups means that it will continue to support terrorism prevention efforts abroad. At the same time, the United States has the responsibility to ensure to its taxpayers that those programs are well designed and effective. To achieve this, programs need to have a clearly identified scope and objective, be evidence-based and data-driven, and be monitored for evidence of robust attitudinal or behavioral changes among participants.


Jessica Trisko Darden is an Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service and a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of the AEI report “Tackling Terrorists’ Exploitation of Youth” and co-author of Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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© 2017 by Talking About Terrorism.