When we studied radicalisation to violence at CSIS in the 2000s, we found out that while anyone could engage in violent ideologies, the vast majority were young – ish. The age range tended to be 18-28. This is not to say that older, or on rare occasions younger, people did not get involved. This finding corresponds in general with criminal activity, although I am not at all equating the two phenomena.
But we are seeing a worrisome development of late: a lowering of the radicalisation age. Recent reporting has shown that individuals as young as 14 are seen to be radicalised. The National Post just wrote of an 18-year old subjected to a peace bond for his on-line activity in support of the Islamic State and who was in touch with another Canadian arrested in June, Aaron Driver (see story here).
Other cases in Canada underscore this trend. Three teens from Mississauga were stopped in Turkey in early 2015 on their way to Syria. In a previous blog I mentioned the 14-year old from Montreal who robbed a depanneur to get funds to travel (Signs of the Times – 2). A Danish girl who was fascinated with IS stabbed her mother to death – she was 15!
What is it about these young people? At an age where their friends are on the basketball team, or in the band, or dating, or playing on-line games or going to movies, they are keen to join a terrorist group? What gives?
As I have noted on several occasions, the pathway to violence is an individual one and there is no set pattern. But I suspect that there are a few things to do with the Islamic State that are playing a role in encouraging younger and younger kids to get involved. These include:
- the incredibly effective use of social media. The Islamic State is really the first to exploit this communications conduit. It seems to know that young people are always on-line and so it merely follows suit.
- IS has established a Caliphate. Even if the claim is bogus and supported by very few, it does constitute “facts on the ground”. No other group in recent history has controlled so much territory. This is a pull factor.
- IS has tried to present its state as both Islamic and “normal”. Pictures of kids in bumper cars and at fairs paint a picture of a functioning society. Another pull factor.
- More people promote and recruit for the Islamic State than other groups. There is obviously strength in numbers.
Young people are in a seeking phase of life: identity, purpose, calling, career path, excitement. The Islamic State seems to provide an answer for some of these seekers. There is little sign that the wave will crest soon.
But I think there is a silver lining. The younger the radical the greater the chance of diversion. Maybe. A 14-year old, with few exceptions, has not fully formed his or her mind and it may be possible to get that person off the track to violent extremism if the right people intervene (there are no guarantees however). As the radicals get older, the opportunities for success are smaller.
There are other challenges too. How do you investigate a 14-year old on national security issues? Should they be treated the same as young offenders in other crimes (theft, assault, drugs, etc.)? What do criminal charges at this age mean?
I fear that we will see other cases of this type. It will take a joint effort on behalf of all (families, communities, law enforcement, etc.) to manage these young, misguided people.