Why are so many young people, especially young Muslims, the target of terrorist attacks? The latest example is the Taliban attack at Bacha Khan University in the Pakistani city of Charsadda on Jan. 20. It follows a similar Taliban attack on an Army-run school for Pakistani children in 2014. Last April, Al Shabab militants killed more than 100 students at a Kenyan university. And nearly two years ago, Boko Haram in Nigeria abducted more than 200 girls from the town of Chinook.
“Over and over, we see young people bearing the brunt of violent extremism,” said Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, at a UN conference last year on youth and extremism.
Youth, said the UN chief, must “represent promise, not peril.”
Perhaps terrorists target children mainly to evoke maximum fear. In some cases, an attack on a school with Western-style education is a statement against certain values, such as equality for girls and secular governance. After a Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, began to stand up for the right of Muslim girls to an education, the Taliban shot her in 2012. Two years later, however, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her courage in continuing her campaign.
The award was a signal that youth themselves must be enlisted in the struggle against terrorism. They are the main target for recruitment by terrorist groups, and thus most effective in delegitimizing the message of nihilist violence.
That point must be remembered on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring, which was a massive youth-led movement driven by frustrations over dictatorships, injustice, and lack of jobs. Those frustrations still abound, even in the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story, Tunisia. Youth unemployment among its young people remains one of the highest in the world (more than 30 percent). Many young Tunisians have traveled to Syria to join Islamic State.
With its mastery of social media, IS has found it easy to recruit thousands of young people. A 2004 document captured from Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to IS, laid out a strategy to use savage attacks on crowds to draw people to its cause – “particularly the youth.” Perhaps IS understands youth vulnerability better than most governments, especially in the Middle East.
Scott Atran, a terrorism expert at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, says the international community must learn to transform the Arab world’s “youth bulge into a youth boom by unleashing youth’s inherent energy and idealism.”