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Early intervention is key to diverting young people from violent extremism

Posted By on June 5, 2020 @ 11:00

The involvement of young people in violent extremism isn’t a 21st-century phenomenon. The Nazi party in Germany founded the Hitler Youth organisations in the early 1920s to indoctrinate juveniles, and the Irish Republican Army discovered the value of recruiting juveniles or ‘cleanskins’ during the 1980s and 1990s war of attrition in Ulster.

The 21st century has brought a new level of concern about the number of young people now engaging in violent extremism. The Radicalisation Awareness Network reported in 2018 [1] that young people make up the highest percentage of individuals joining violent extremist groups worldwide. This phenomenon also occurs in Australia.

In 2018, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation indicated that, due particularly to the persistent use of online propaganda and the presence of young people detained in the youth justice system, the number of young people involved in terrorism-related offences may continue to rise.

More than 10% of all people [2] convicted for terrorism offences since 2014 in Australia were under the age of 18 at the time they offended, and a further 25% were aged between 18 and 25 years. With such involvement of young people in violent extremist groups and in terrorist acts, the importance of youth-targeted approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism can’t be overstated.

While there’s no one specific pathway or profile for a young person’s radicalisation to extremist violence, there are a number of factors that contribute significantly, including the search for identity, sense of self or belonging, the ideological appeal or ‘sell’ of the group, the prospect of fame or recognition, and the influence of or indoctrination by family or peers.

Identifying young people who may be at risk of radicalisation to violent extremism involves looking for indicators similar to those among young people who may be engaging in gang-related or substance-use behaviour and includes identifying and recognising early signs when they withdraw from usual social or familial contexts and isolate themselves from their peers or community.

The digital age and the prevalence of social media in the daily lives of young people mean they’re more easily and frequently exposed to and able to access radical and extremist narratives and the messages of terrorist organisations, which have developed sophisticated online and social media recruitment campaigns. Campaigns specifically targeting young people, including through the use of domains and social phenomena such as online gaming, chatrooms or memes, have been increasingly exploited by far-right and Islamist extremist groups.

However, while most young people spend a lot of time online, and a large proportion of them have accessed or been exposed to radical or extremist material, most aren’t influenced to radicalise to violent extremism. Extremist messages seen online can reinforce existing negative views about other social or cultural groups and contribute to radical views, but current research suggests that exposure to online extremist content is unlikely to be a causal factor on its own in the development of violent extremist beliefs. The existence of this material and the continued proliferation of both the content and the number of platforms hosting the content does, however, normalise and justify extremist narratives.

Since 2001, the terrorism threat has evolved significantly. There’s been a significant shift from large-scale and complex attacks to low-level, rudimentary attacks, resulting in far lower capability requirements and more ability for young people to engage in violent extremist acts. There’s also been some recognition that holding extremist beliefs can lead to acting violently, which has prompted a policy shift to introduce measures to counter violent extremism.

Australia hasn’t been immune to the global terrorism threat. Our young people are, perhaps not surprisingly, increasingly engaged in the global extremist and terrorist phenomena. We face a unique challenge in Australia: our young people are geographically isolated from much of the conflict but remain connected through their technical and internet abilities. They’re also directly affected by some of the harshest counterterrorism legislation in the world and the complexities of a multicultural society that embraces religious and political freedom of expression.

In order to identify and respond to early indicators and divert young people from violent extremism, policymakers and those working with young people in the government and non-government sectors need to focus on engaging with them by recognising their strengths and interests, encouraging their engagement in positive social and community activities, linking them to appropriate mentors, challenging ‘us and them’ narratives, and maintaining their connection to their families and friends. It’s important that individual young people or groups aren’t singled out, publicly or in their communities and social networks, as ‘at risk’, as that may reinforce feelings of alienation or a lack of belonging.

This work can succeed through:

  • empowering young people to participate in the development and implementation of youth-specific interventions and programs
  • allowing them to develop independent thinking, research and leadership skills
  • building and fostering their capacity for critical thinking
  • engaging in early intervention and diversion conversation with them
  • delivering training and awareness-raising sessions to staff working with young people to help them understand and identify different ideologies
  • understanding when and how to report indicators that a young person may be radicalised to violent extremism.

It’s also important that young people are engaged in conversations and programs that assist them to develop their identity and a stronger sense of self. Programs that focus on helping them to identify their values, set and maintain clear boundaries, problem-solve and practise mindfulness will help them develop a sense of who they are.

While young people’s involvement in violent extremism is of particular concern, they are especially amenable to being diverted away from engaging in violent extremism if their latent radicalisation is identified and responded to early, with appropriate and respectful interventions.

This post was adapted from the author’s chapter in ASPI’s Counterterrorism yearbook 2020. The full text of the yearbook, which includes notes and sources for each chapter, is available on ASPI’s website [3].



Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/early-intervention-is-key-to-diverting-young-people-from-violent-extremism/

URLs in this post:

[1] reported in 2018: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/networks/radicalisation_awareness_network/ran-papers/docs/ran_young_policy_recommendations_032018_en.pdf

[2] 10% of all people: https://www.inslm.gov.au/sites/default/files/inslm-report-prosecution-sentencing-children-for-terrorism.pdf

[3] available on ASPI’s website: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/counterterrorism-yearbook-2020

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