Why many youths have turned into terrorists?


We have heard, read, watched and experienced terrorism in one way or another. Countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Algeria are some of the countries that have experienced the pain of terrorism. The most difficult part of it all is that terrorists are now recruiting the youth into their brotherhood.

In 1951, Eric Hoffer, a noted author and lecturer who was completely self-taught, published The True Believer, which was based upon his own observations of the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism as reactions to the Great Depression. He postulated that for the ‘true believer’ (someone so committed to a cause that he or she is willing to unthinkingly die for it), it was the frustrations of life which led them to join a cause that gave meaning to their own existence.

Understandably, the more frustrated they felt, the more attracted and susceptible they were to extreme revolutionary solutions to their problems. This observation, made more than half a century ago, sadly but accurately describes the dynamics and relations between youths and terrorism.


The definition for who a youth is varies among countries. The United Nations, for statistical purposes, defines ‘youth’ as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. What is clear, however, is that terrorist organisations today are recruiting and influencing youths to carry their deadly acts in the name of God and twisted ideologies. Sadly, many youths, irrespective of race, religion, educational background or economic status have fallen prey to the rhetoric propagated by these groups.

The statistics are grim. In Peter Singer’s book, Children at War, 300,000 children, both boys and girls, under the age of 18 are combatants fighting in almost 75 percent of the world’s conflicts. It is frightening to note that 80 percent of these conflicts where children are present include fighters under the age of 15 and approximately 40 percent of the armed organisations in the world (157 of 366) use child soldiers.

With no skill beyond that of a fighter, little integration with society, and a tumultuous past with a myriad of psychological and emotional issues, should these children live to reach their youth, what would their future be?


The Mumbai attacks in 2008 that left 165 civilians and security personnel dead was a series of 10 coordinated attacks orchestrated by 10 individuals. What was chilling was the common thread that bound them together – they were all young. Besides the eldest terrorist, Nazir/Abu Umer who was 28 years old, the average age of the other nine terrorists was only 23 years. The leader, Ismail Khan was just 25 years old.

In Iraq, insurgent groups have been accused of paying between $50 and $100 to teenagers to plant an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), shoot a mortar or fire a machine gun at coalition troops. Though young, these teenagers have proved to be not only a dangerous threat but a security dilemma to the coalition forces.

The extent of the involvement of youths in terrorists activities was further highlighted by the MI5 Chief in UK Jonathan Evans, when he stated that “extremists were methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in the UK,” and those groups like Al-Qaeda were recruiting children as young as 15 years old to wage “a deliberate campaign of terror” in Britain.

The reality is that while terrorist groups have extensive hard power, they also have considerable soft power, which they have proved to be adept in using. In turbulent times, these groups attract youths by exploiting their vulnerabilities and providing them with a sense of identity, belonging and cohesiveness. Over a period of time, in a troubled environment, these youths begin to define their identity with that of the group and its struggle.

When there are few opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty, perceived or real, injustice and despair, there is a greater tolerance for violence. Terrorists groups have used these circumstances to their advantage by identifying and offering youths what they are lacking or by even offering them a ‘way out’ of their situation through martyrdom. In a study on approximately 600 young Guantanamo Bay detainees (young being defined as those between the ages of 18 and 25), unemployment motivated a number of Gulf State detainees, particularly skilled and semiskilled labourers and terrorism was seen as a viable ‘alternative employment’.

This coupled with the fact that the opportunistic strategy of the terrorists of preying on vulnerable and susceptible youths has borne tremendous fruit in communities where there is a real or perceived injustice. Hence, these groups are not looked upon as perpetrators of violence but rather as fighters struggling against a tyrannical enemy. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps understandable why youths that do join such groups are perceived to be heroic and courageous – a narrative that is actively constructed, propagated and disseminated by terrorist groups. It is also significant to note that poverty and despair are not the only factors that draw youths into extremist groups. Membership into such groups also provide youths with a sense of identity, prestige or pride, acceptance, responsibility, outlets for frustration and excitement which appeal to all youths, regardless of economic or social status.

Youths with no prior police records allow the terrorist group more operational freedom as the involvement of youths would reduce the likelihood of arrest of the more senior terrorist leaders. Such youths also have the added advantage of allaying suspicion on the part of the security and enforcement authorities. This could perhaps explain Al-Qaeda’s interest in western youths.

Former USA Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Michael Hayden observed that Al-Qaeda was actively seeking recruits among western youths for possible operations against western targets because of their familiarity with the language, culture and appearance and who would therefore “not illicit any notice whatsoever from you if they were standing next to you in the airport line”.

It is estimated that youths between 15 and 18 years old make up about 20 percent of all suicide bombers. Terrorist groups who have suffered losses in terms of their members oftentimes are also forced to recruit youths as much of the adult population are simply too weary for conflict and are reluctant to continue the struggle. The Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb has countered the trend of diminishing adult recruits within the North African region by actively seeking out the next generation.

Youths are also, at times, given more dangerous tasks on the assumption that if they are caught, they will receive lighter sentences due to their age. Youths are also important in ensuring continuity.

Prison, ironically, provides a contributory environment for terrorist recruitment. They are said to be the breeding grounds for radicalisation and are ‘places of vulnerability’, which, due to the environment, produce ‘identity seekers’, ‘protection seekers’ and ‘rebels’ in greater numbers than in any other environment.

The American criminologist Harvey Kushner argued that western prisons were one of the main recruitment grounds for Al-Qaeda while some have suggested that the ‘relatively lax practices’ in western prisons have been well exploited by the Al-Qaeda. Matters are made worse in prisons when terrorists are not separated from the juvenile population. In the case of Pakistan, 92,000 prisoners share 41,000 prison places with little or no distinction being made between juvenile and adult or minor offenders, hardened criminals and politically motivated militants.

Hence, terror detainees who are not physically separated from other criminals and in particular the younger offenders have used the time and both physical and ideological space given, to recruit and indoctrinate potential youths into their groups. The youth in those circumstances are vulnerable and the support structure of family and friends is oftentimes supplanted by these groups.

Religious institutions, preaching a skewed and misconstrued interpretation of a religion, have the potential to capture the hearts, minds and imaginations of the young people. In most cases, recruiters would identify and target the more promising youths and pull them into a smaller setting where a more comprehensive indoctrination programme would be undertaken, without arousing the suspicions of the moderate members in the congregation.

Coupled with the actual injustices happening all around the world, these ‘men of God’ clinically exploit the minds and hearts of the youth into thinking that the only alternative left is that of violence. Having the advantage of ‘god’ on their side, these youths are manipulated into believing that they are actually struggling for a noble and worthy cause, with the assurance of victory.

Universities and institutions of higher learning are also being turned into recruiting pools for terrorists. Foreign students and lecturers from countries that are in conflict zones utilise lecture sessions to vividly describe the atrocities and injustices occurring in their respective countries and over a period of time mould their students into thinking that the ‘propaganda of the deed’ is the only recourse left. This problem is further compounded by local students going abroad to study but instead is being indoctrinated and radicalised. Not only are they ‘infected’ with such ideas but they ‘import’ these ideas to their local setting when they return home.

The Internet has been a useful tool, particularly in reaching out to the young and has been a God-sent for the terrorist in overcoming their handicap to acquire and attract young new recruits. According to Bruce Hoffman, “virtually every terrorist group in the world today has its own Internet website and, in many instances, multiple sites in different languages with different messages tailored to specific audiences.”

While in the past, terrorists’ indoctrination, recruitment and training relied heavily on physical meetings between recruits and recruiters which required time, coordination and travel, the Internet has bypassed this by providing connections quickly, easily, remotely and anonymously. The role of the Internet as a ‘radicalisation accelerant’ has significantly changed the way terrorists operate, for it has allowed them unprecedented scope and opportunity in developing and strengthening their modus operandi.

This has been made possible due to the simple fact that youths and the Internet in this day and age are so closely intertwined. Statistically, Internet usage among the youth has risen dramatically and the usage has evolved from a passive, individually directed, information-seeking process (termed as Web 1.0) to an active, socially connected, user-involved environment where youths interact, discuss, create and pass on content (termed as Web 2.0). Besides the websites, other facilities on the net, ranging from e-mail, chat rooms, e-groups, forums, virtual message boards, all facilities frequently visited and used by youths, have also been increasingly used by terrorists as virtual training camps, providing an online forum for indoctrination and the distribution of terrorists’ manuals, instructions and data.

The terrorist skilful ability to creatively utilise the Internet has enabled them to exponentially increase their potential reach and hence, we see a transition, by the terrorist, from the physical space to cyberspace. In December 2007, the as-Sahab, Al-Qaeda’s multimedia arm announced that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number two, would entertain questions from the public posted on selected militant websites. His offer elicited more than 900 entries and in April 2008, Zawahiri responded to these queries in an audio statement accompanied with English and Arabic transcripts.

The late leader of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi’s strategy of videotaping the carnage in Iraq and then disseminating it as broadly as possible has been greatly enhanced with the advent of YouTube and blogs. The utilisation of the video camera as a ‘weapon of war’ in documenting graphically the struggle accompanied by the extensive use of this social networking site to publicise the conflict have led some to refer to the conflict in Iraq as the first ‘YouTube war’. The Internet has also showed great potential in becoming the focal meeting point for terrorists all across the globe and has been said to be the next Afghanistan; where social networking sites replace the battlefield as the venue to link up and to fight for a common cause.

Given this development, we can perhaps understand how young people are being radicalised through the Internet without even having to physically meet other fellow terrorists. In Singapore, a 20-year-old national serviceman Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid was arrested under the Singaporean Internal Security Act (ISA) for having contacted Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical United States-born preacher and expressing interest in joining a militant movement operating in the Palestine territories, Iraq and Afghanistan.

While in the past, terrorists have used the Internet as the means to disseminate their rhetoric of hate, we now see that the Internet has extended its potential to include the actual identifying, nurturing and developing of a raw recruit into a fully fledged terrorist. Hence, Internet radicalisation has been utilised as a means of self-radicalisation. This ‘computer screen to battlefield process’ poses a grave threat and requires a paradigm shift in our efforts to counter terrorism.

The ability of the terrorists to identify, indoctrinate, recruit and utilise youths for political violence has been both systematic and widespread. They have also demonstrated great sensitivity in crafting out their message to the youth and creativity in exploiting the various technological mediums in reaching out to them.

In this arena, the authorities are struggling to counter and curb the momentum that terrorists have garnered in winning over the youth. Hence, while terrorists are developing strategies to target and attract the youth, counter-terrorism efforts continue to focus on hard power as the central approach in dealing with this issue. Given this scenario, it is imperative that the authorities seek to understand the dynamics between youths and terrorism. Among the areas that need particular research and attention are the profiles of youths that have joined terrorist groups and the reasons and motivational factors for them to do so, the radicalisation and indoctrination process employed by terrorists in recruiting the youth and a review of existing programmes in countering the vulnerability of youths towards extremism and terrorism. It is only by understanding the realities on the ground and taking proactive, preventive and resourceful steps will we be able to meet and address this challenge.

It is quite possible that the next battlefield in the struggle against terrorism will not take place on a physical plane but in the mental and emotional domains of the youth. Unless we win the hearts and minds of these young people, not only will we not garner their support but we will also be confronted with the distinct possibility of facing them as our future adversaries.

African governments should protect the youth from the insurgents by providing the youth with the social protection. We need the youth who can protect their nations, the youth who can bring development and order in their respective countries.

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