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ENGAGING YOUTH TO FIGHT VIOLENT EXTREMISM - A PRACTICAL HOW-TO GUIDE



Specifically targeting youth for recruitment is increasingly becoming a key strategy of terrorist groups. Youth are easy to instrumentalize for criminal purposes due to their ability to escape suspicion. More importantly, however, they are easier to manipulate than adults and, once indoctrinated, can make for loyal foot soldiers furthering the groups’ agenda without asking too many questions.[1]


Daesh in particular has been noted for its strategic prowess in attracting children and teenagers. To this end, the group has invested considerable resources into creating its own ‘jihadi cool’ subculture through flashy magazines and videogames promising excitement, fame and comradeship to young people[2]. Especially to socially and economically marginalized youth lacking a sense of belonging and perspective within mainstream society, this ‘jihadi cool’ branding may act as a strong attractor and point of entry from which further radicalization and indoctrination with the groups’ resentful ideology may be pursued by malicious actors.


When working with youth on the basis of personal trust, your efforts in engaging vulnerable children and teenagers and providing them with a sense of self-worth, belonging and purpose may be key for preventing them from seeking achievement of such psycho-social values through engagement with terrorist groups. The present how-to guide sketches some activities suitable to equipping young people with the mental strength as well as cognitive and social capacities to resist the appeal of violent extremism, thereby fostering the resilience of your target group against radicalization and ensuring the wellbeing of your community.


Planning your youth project


Below some activities are sketched out intended to provide guidance. They are based on the author’s experience in project work, as well as a review of a number of already existing projects. Each section provides links to relevant projects from which you may take additional inspiration, though you are encouraged to design your project in a way most feasible and impactful for your target community. The following factors should inform your approach:

  • Availability of resources – most of the activities suggested below do not require substantial material resources for their implementation; nonetheless, you should inform yourself about funding possibilities and draw up a budget plan for your project in order to determine your options.

  • Needs of your target community – where do you see the greatest potential for action within your target community? Where do you see demand for youth engagement, and which types of action are perhaps already being covered by governmental or non-governmental actors? A good strategy to find out about the types of activities that might be most impactful is to partner with civil society or governmental organizations as well as local schools and consult with them.

  • Your own expertise – you do not need to be a professional instrumentalist in order to lead a music ensemble or choir – but some knowledge of music certainly will have an impact on your credibility and the success of the project. If you want to implement a project in a field you are less knowledgeable about, you might consider recruiting volunteers or paid staff with specialized expertise.

  • Expected size and composition of your group – none of the activities described below has an explicit limit in terms of membership. On the contrary, you should make sure no one with an interest in participating is excluded. However, a debate club or a theatre group may require a different design whether it has 5 or 30 members. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, the concrete contents of your project should be adapted to the average age and mix of gender and religious orientation among your participants.

  • Legal framework – restrictions on the right to assembly, the right to association or freedom of speech may restrict your options. Ascertain that you do not act outside of what is legal so as to not put yourself or your protegees at risk.


Religious Activities


Purpose

Being part of a healthy religious community is a highly effective way of bolstering resilience against radicalization in youth. Religion conveys meaning and purpose to life and provides children and adults with a caring and trusting environment where they can express their feelings safely. Furthermore, the religious community can provide youngsters with a positive interpretation of Islam that emphasizes forgiveness, peace and solidarity. Getting to know Islam as a religion of love rather than one of hate and revenge – as preached by violent jihadi hardliners – can strengthen young people’s resilience against the message of terrorists. If you host an inter-faith group, you allow youth to discover different faiths and develop tolerance and respect for each other’s religions.


Requirements

The program of a spiritual meeting group can be put to practice without a large budget but may be more diverse if you have access to financial resources. At a minimum, you will need a space for weekly meetings. If your budget is larger, you may make purchases such as catering and renting a venue for celebrations, transportation for excursions or hiring of guest speakers.


Implementation

The concrete contents of your program depend on budget and time constraints but also on the composition of your group. What is the average age of your participants? Do you host an inter-faith group or only Muslim youth? Activities with religiously oriented groups may include common praying and celebration of festivities as well as educational sessions. However, also non-religious activities such as community service, visiting landmarks or sites, sports or musical activities may be incorporated into the program.


Project examples

Race Equality First runs various interfaith group projects for young people at risk of radicalization. More info available at https://raceequalityfirst.org/past-projects/.


Team Sports


Purpose

Sporting activities such as football, volleyball or hockey are an easy and uncostly way of socially engaging young people, thereby developing their sense for teamwork and collaboration, enhancing their self-confidence and personal satisfaction and conveying values such as fairness and tolerance. Especially for women and girls, engagement in sporting activities may defy the misconception that they are weak or incapable[3] and thereby provide a counter-narrative of the Salafi understanding of women as subservient to men.

Requirements

While specialized knowledge or skills are generally not necessary in order to organize and supervise sporting activities, practitioners should have some understanding of the rules and practices of the game. Additionally, practitioners should have basic medical training and be capable to perform first aid if needed. Organizing sporting activities does not require substantial resources either; proximity of athletic facilities or recreational areas are an advantage, but a makeshift football field can work just as well.


Implementation

Not much effort is needed for the implementation of team sports activities. Make sure everyone knows the rules of the game and establish resolution mechanisms in case rules are violated. In order to foster the team spirit of your protegees, you may organize social events for your sports team such as dinners or excursions. This enables you to bond with the team members, increase the cohesiveness of the group and will give you an avenue to learn about them and their problems.


Project example

The Athletic Club Jeunesse Molenbeek (ACJM) gives football training to boys and girls in Molenbeek, one of Brussel’s poorest neighbourhoods. More info available at https://www.acjm.be.


Outdoor activities

Purpose

Resilience-building through outdoor activities, such as running, hiking, kayaking, cycling or camping can be especially enticing if your community is located close to a nature reserve or mountains. Outdoor activities can empower, allow youth to connect with nature as well as each other, and provide a sense of adventure and thrill.


Requirements

As outdoor activities may come with a risk of injury, you should be able to provide basic medical assistance. You should furthermore be familiar with the area in which you organize your activity, and ideally with the activity itself. Depending on the choice of activity, you should ensure that required resources (tents, bicycles, running shoes, transportation etc) are available to all participants.


Implementation

The way you execute the project depends on the activity you choose. Inform yourself about outdoor activities in your area and consult with your protegees when designing a program.


Project example

Free-to-Run organizes outdoor sports activities for women and girls in Afghanistan and Iraq. More info available at https://freetorun.org.


Musical activities


Purpose

The therapeutic effect of music in overcoming trauma and giving value and meaning to life is well established.[4] Listening to and making music, for example, provenly yields neurological gains such as improvement of one’s cognitive abilities as well as decreased depression and stress levels (Harvard Medical School 2011). Moreover, being part of collaborative musical arrangement has shown to bolster social skills such as patience, cooperation and empathy.[5]


Requirements

The resources required for a music-based project will depend on the type of musical collaboration envisioned, which in turn depends on the cultural context in which you operate. At a minimum, you will need a space where you can practice with your group at least an hour a week, and a venue to publicly perform your pieces. Classical instruments are usually not only expensive, but also require substantial time and commitment to learn. Traditional instruments or vocal ensembles might present more viable options. Depending on the average age of your group, you will furthermore need at least basic musical training in order to lead your music group.


Implementation

In order to ensure that your musical project is successful, it is important to formulate realistic goals. You may encourage your group to at least take part in the decision of what to train and perform. However, make sure that their decision is in line with their skill level. Otherwise, failure to achieve desired results may lead to frustration.


Project example

Aloud charity, based in Wales, UK, offers singing rehearsals for youth and organizes performances and recording sessions. More info available at https://www.hodgefoundation.org.uk/cause/aloud-charity/.


Literary Club


Purpose

A literary club may involve reading and discussing various literary texts as well as composing and reading out own poems or stories. Literature is a means of expressing feelings and communicating across cultural boundaries, can deliver positive messages such as love, solidarity and mutual respect and train critical thinking skills.


Requirements

Apart from a place where youth can feel safe to express their feelings and ideas and consume books or printouts, no specific resources or expertise are needed.


Implementation

Decide on literary texts beforehand and familiarize yourself with them in order to be able to guide and structure the discussion. You may propose texts from different cultural traditions in order to broaden the horizon of your protegees and open their minds. Respect each of your member’s interpretation of literary texts and encourage them to debate different ideas. You may also organize ‘open mic’ evenings, where your protegees can recite poems or tell stories in public. Furthermore, you can invite guest