Young people are a vital source of support for many terrorist groups, with roles ranging from cooks to armed fighters. But the ways young people are recruited vary widely across contexts. In many cases, young people join terrorist groups because they are duped, trafficked, kidnapped, or forcibly recruited. Others join terrorist groups voluntarily owing to the appeal of a group-based identity; perceptions of exclusion, grievances, or cultural threats; the promise of economic stability; prospects of fame, glory, or respect; and personal connections, including family and friendship networks.
The vulnerability of youth to terrorist recruitment can be affected by a multitude of factors, including their geographic proximity to a terrorist group, economic vulnerability, perceptions of social or political marginalization, exposure to permissive social networks, and exposure to extremist propaganda. However, the relative importance of these factors varies individually and according to the local context.
Youth, both male and female, are frequently employed in support, recruitment, and combat roles in terrorist groups, though a significantly higher proportion of youth combatants are male. In Salafi-jihadist groups, such as ISIS and al Shabaab, ideology often constrains the roles available to young women to that of wives and mothers. Boko Haram is a significant exception for its extensive use of young women and girls as suicide bombers. Nevertheless, female terrorist members play essential and under-recognized roles in advancing their group’s mission.
To improve the US government’s response to the exploitation of youth by terrorist groups, the report recommends (1) adopting clear criteria to be used in weighing young peoples’ vulnerability to radicalization and recruitment and in creating and targeting terrorism prevention programs, (2) fostering both attitudinal and behavioral change to build youth resilience to recruitment, (3) moving beyond a traditional focus on young men to confront the radicalization and recruitment of girls and young women, and (4) engaging the family as a potential site of radicalization and recruitment.