New Trends in Youth Radicalisation


New Trends in Youth Radicalisation

09 Dec 2014

A new report from the CPDSI looks at the appeal of extremist discourses for young people in France from a variety of backgrounds. 

In late November 2014, France was shocked by the apparent participation of two of its citizens, Maxime Hauchard and Mickaël Dos Santos – both 22 – in the murder of Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, an American, and 18 Syrian soldiers by ISIS jihadis. In addition to shock at the brutality of the killing, the sense of incomprehension was compounded by the fact that neither of these young men fit into the groups usually considered at risk of indoctrination by extremist groups – both men were successful, well-integrated members of their local communities before they turned to extremism, and both men came from non-Muslim family backgrounds.

A new report released by the Paris-based Centre of Prevention of Sectarian Derivatives linked to Islam ( CPDSI – Centre de prévention contre les dérives sectaires liées à l'islam) entitled The Metamorphosis Brought about in Young People by New Terrorist Discourses (La métamorphose opérée chez le jeune par les nouveaux discours terroristes) aims to shed light on the question of why and how young people can be radically diverted from their families and communities towards acts of injustice and violence, particularly as part of salafi-jihadi groups in Syria. The report, by Dounia Bouzar, Christophe Caupenne and Sulayman Valsan, is based principally on interviews with 160 families affected by Islamist extremism who contacted the CPDSI. While the report acknowledges that these families may not be representative of all families with members affected by extremist Islamist discourses, it is nonetheless noteworthy that in this sample, 80% of families described themselves as 'atheist', 90% were of non-immigrant French backgrounds, and 83% described themselves as middle- or upper-class. All of the radicalised individuals whose families were interviewed were between the ages of 15 and 28.

New extremist discourses use the trappings of Islam to give themselves weight, but promote divergent ideas.

 While previous studies on radicalisation have generated an image of a typical radicalised youth as a second-generation immigrant from a challenging socio-economic background, this study emphasises that new extremist discourse can easily affect any member of society, and suggests alternative risk factors such as depression, a sense of purposeless and disillusionment with modern society, and a susceptibility to online propaganda. The study argues that it is false to see radicalisation as a form of religious conversion, a misconception that has the effect of preventing an effective response to radicalisation, out of a misguided concern for 'respecting the right to free religious expression'. Rather, the report argues that discourses that encourage young people to cut off all those who do not think in the same way, including their families, and encourage violence, are not religious, and should not be seen as such. Instead, new extremist discourses are able to use the trappings of Islam to give themselves weight, while promoting divergent ideas. Some families surveyed reported that their radicalised children never went to the mosque, had no contact with mainstream Muslim society, and did not show any religious practices before departing for Syria.

The report identifies this narrative in many forms, but it is principally an online phenomenon, with the internet identified as the mode of radicalisation in at least 91% of cases sampled in the study. The discourse is propagated by means of videos shared online, static websites, social media profiles and direct interaction between group members. By analysing the social media profiles of extremists, the report's authors identified subtly different trajectories of radicalisation. For example, young people, particularly women, expressing a desire to take part in humanitarian action for the good of mankind are manipulated to encourage them to take part in jihad in Syria on the premise of 'helping oppressed people'. Young men seeking power and strength in a society in which they are frequently left feeling powerless are promised validation as a fighter.

"I got a text message telling me I was no longer his mother."

The testimony of families of young people affected by extremism is particularly poignant in the report. Parents describe their feelings of disaffiliation from children who no longer wish to communicate with them upon becoming radicalised: "I got a text message telling me I was no longer his mother", "She told me that I could no longer say anything to her because I was atheist". Such behaviour demonstrates the nature of the new discourse as one in which every dissenting view is rejected completely, and paves the way for violence against those who do not have exactly the same beliefs.

Key findings:

• The new extremist discourse appeals to those from any background, not just those who are considered 'at risk' from a familial or social point of view.

• The use of conspiracy theories in new extremist discourses is designed to depress and panic young people, but also to galvanise them to action and impart a feeling of uniqueness as members of a small group able to take action. Such conspiracy theories include the idea that the 'world order' is controlled by a satanic secret society, as 'proven' by insignia on an American dollar bill or a French passport. These ideas are principally circulated in online videos in which 'jihad' is posited as the only solution.

• The appropriation of imagery from popular culture is a prominent feature of new radicalisation discourses identified by the report. This feature entails that much of the online content promoting extremist narratives uses characters and images from, or makes references to storylines of popular video games and films such as Grand Theft Auto, Assassins' Creed, The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings. As the report observes, such references "throw young people into a familiar universe, where they know the codes".

• There exist a number of varying discourses which are adapted to the specific insecurities of young people, for example: the discourse of taking part in noble action to help others for those seeking self-validation; the promise of belonging to a group for those in search of identity; and the idea of armed struggle for young men seeking adventure.

• However, these discourses are uniform in the way in which they seek to replace reason and logical argument by homogenous taught thinking in the mind of the young person. As such, the logic of Islamist extremism has much in common with that of other cults, in the way in which it is founded on civilisational rupture, and the rejection of outside influences and independent will. The report found that some young people who had expressed doubts to their families after travelling to Syria had subsequently been cut off from contact.

The full report can be found here (French).

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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