Iraq has the potential to harness youth in countering violent extremism and the establishment of future peaceful coexistence.
With the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq announced in December 2017, the country faces critical questions about how it will emerge from and address the drivers and effects of violent extremism. Serious concerns remain about the dynamics and causes that enabled and allowed for the spread of IS and its ideology in Iraqi communities. Despite these concerns, it is clear that Iraq, which has one of the world’s youngest populations, has the potential to harness youth in countering violent extremism and the establishment of future peaceful coexistence.
Violent extremism (VE) is by no means an issue unique to Iraq. Although it comes in many forms, VE can be defined as “advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic or political objectives.” Countering violent extremism (CVE) can be described as, “a realm of policy, programs, and interventions designed to prevent individuals from engaging in violence associated with radical political, social, cultural, and religious ideologies and groups.”
Due to the many forms of violent extremism and a wide array of those who engage in it, there is no simplistic list of violent extremism drivers. Rather, the causes of violent extremism in each context are multifarious and fluid and are unique to the setting and to each individual. In general, drivers of violent extremism in a specific context can be considered as either push factors or a pull factors. Push factors, also called root or underlying causes, consist of negative political, social and cultural characteristics that can create the impetus for violent extremism. Push factors can include elements such as poverty, illiteracy, weak governance and marginalization. Conversely, pull factors include positive factors such as “charismatic recruiters, appealing communications, and material benefits.” CVE strategies may, therefore, be broad and include counteractions to both push and pull factors or may focus on one or a few specific factors.
The Art of Recruiting
Violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State often seek to recruit youth both locally and online due young people’s vulnerability and ideological malleability. In Iraq, IS has used local recruiters and sophisticated online strategies to recruit children and youth, whom it refers to as “cubs of the caliphate.” It was estimated in February 2016 that IS had at least 1,500 child fighters.
Since its inception, IS has employed detailed and diverse online strategies to recruit members. It has relied on platforms such as YouTube and Twitter to spread and glamorize violent imagery. One of the core components of IS youth recruitment strategy is the use of an Arabic app similar to Twitter called The Dawn of Glad Tidings. Dawn, as it is colloquially called, is advertised by IS as an official news tool. When downloaded, the app requests personal information from the user and provides Twitter content selected by the Islamic State’s social media team.
The group has also been known to initiate hashtag campaigns. A 2015 study by Brookings found that between September and December 2014, there were a conservatively estimated 46,000 IS supporter Twitter accounts, with typical users located largely in Iraq and Syria.
Examinations of IS online activities have demonstrated a number of detailed strategies used to recruit youth. Such strategies are often referred to as grooming, or the process of befriending and exploiting an emotional relationship with youth online for malevolent purposes. J.M. Berger, an expert on terrorism and extremism, recently outlined several elements used by IS to recruit members online. In the first stage, IS members seek out individuals and responds to those who have sought contact with them by monitoring online platforms for people they believe will be sympathetic to their messaging. They further try to make themselves both visible and available for communication. Such platforms include forums where individuals may express anti-Western sentiments or are religiously conservative.
In a vein similar to marketing strategies used by businesses, extremist groups implement a method known as narrowcasting. Narrowcasting allows recruiters to adapt and modify their personal information, such as name and picture, to suit the dynamic of a particular online community.
In the next stage, IS maintains frequent communication with targeted individuals and encourages them to separate themselves from others. In this phase, recruiters are in constant communication with the target and are available at all times of the day. In their communication with potential recruits, Islamic State members or supporters may discourage the target from associating or interacting with both non-Muslims and non-radicalized Muslims.
Next, extremist groups and the recruited individuals begin to communicate in a private sphere. A Course in the Art of Recruiting, a recruitment manual developed by al-Qaeda, offers insights into how this isolation is exploited. The document, which outlines recruitment stages, provides scoring surveys, outlines of daily and weekly activities, and detailed explanations of who to recruit and how, defines this phase as “Getting Close (or Approaching).” The manual defines this stage as lasting for three weeks and ends once the target has passed the survey included within the manual. Here, the recruiter aims to understand all of the daily activities of the target and begins to talk about Islamic topics. Recruiters are known to use encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp, Kik, Telegram and ChatSecure.
In the fourth phase defined by Berger, the recruiter encourages the target to take action. A Course in the Art of Recruiting encourages recruiters to emphasize, through Islamic literature and frequent discussion, “the Pleasure of Allah” and paradise as well as “the Fear of the Punishments of Hellfire.” The manual states that “the virtues of Jihad and Martyrdom” are “the goals of this stage” and that this stage continues “until he desires and hopes for this.”
Local recruitment generally seems to follow a strategy similar to that used online. A Course in the Art of Recruiting outlines specific groups to be targeted for recruitment, including non-religious Muslims, Muslims who newly returned to the faith, “generally religious people,” “people who convert from one movement to the Salafi movement,” “youths who live far from the cities,” “foundation members (i.e. the average member) of Islamic groups in general,” university and high school students, “people who have corrupted ideas (i.e. un-Islamic ideas), Salafis, and “memorizers of the Qur’an.” In discussing the recruitment of university students, the manual writes, “The university is like a place of isolation for a period of four, five, or six years and is full of youths (full of zeal, vigor, and anti-government sentiments). However, you should be careful because it is also full of spies.”
As for high school students, it adds that they “have pure minds” and that it is “very safe to deal with them because they are not likely to be spies.” Recruiters are also encouraged to provide targets with lecture CDs and Islamic books, bring them to graveyards to discuss the afterlife, pray together and even go on picnics.
In Mosul, IS used local information centers set up around the city to recruit youth. At these centers, IS members distributed “leaflets, videos and CDs about their operations to men and boys.” According to CNN, pictures reportedly posted by IS online showed “men and young boys gathered in front of the centers, watching videos purporting to show IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on giant flat-screen televisions.”
With one of the youngest populations on the planet, Iraq has both a unique opportunity and considerable obstacles when it comes to countering extremism. Iraq has a population of 34 million people — nearly 60% of whom are under the age of 24. This youth bulge will remain in the future as the population is expected to reach 50 million by 2030.
While statistics surrounding youth recruitment to violent extremist groups and support for violent extremism are lacking, a number of indicators help shed light on the youth climate in Iraq. In 2009, UNFPA found that 62% of Iraqi youth aged 10 to 30 did not support the use of violence to solve problems, and 48% reported having friends from different religions; 62% agreed with using dialogue with others who are different from themselves, and 50% highlighted the importance of civil society in the development of youth. However, it is unclear how much youth perceptions have changed since the IS invasion in June 2014. Moreover, these figures show that there are portions of the youth population are at risk of spreading and adopting of violent extremist ideology.
In order for CVE processes targeting youth to be effective in Iraq, they must include a wide set of actors working in collaboration to address push and pull factors ranging from the local community level to the national level. Key sectors required for effective CVE processes include local governments, civil society and NGOs, community leaders, security institutions, academics and young people themselves.
First, local governments can play a key role in enhancing political representation in order to prevent exclusion of certain segments of society from the political process. As the perception of marginalization is a key driver of violent extremism, this is critical in addressing community concerns and isolation. Local governments can also support the implementation of trust-building programs between the community and security institutions, with a particular focus on programs at universities and schools. This can help address overall community concerns regarding security and overall safety.
Moreover, local governments are encouraged to establish fair and transparent compensation mechanisms for those affected by terrorist operations. The safe and voluntary returns of internally displaced persons (IDPs) continues to be a top priority in Iraq. Ensuring that processes are transparent will establish greater trust between affected communities and the government. Finally, local governments are encouraged to activate mechanisms of accountability for corrupt individuals and practices. As the recent elections in Iraq highlighted, corruption has been seen as a top priority among communities across Iraq and is often cited as a key driver of violent extremism.
Second, depending on the target area and capacity of civil society organizations, their roles will vary greatly and should be catered to a particular community or area. In general, organizations can play a critical role through the identification and assessment of local VE drivers amongst youth and can develop district-level or governorate-level CVE strategies through collaboration with government, security, religious and community actors.
Furthermore, NGOs are encouraged to implement grassroots CVE activities, such as community-level violent extremism awareness events, activities aimed at strengthening communication between security forces and the public and early intervention programs that target at-risk youth. Finally, civil society actors can be instrumental in developing counter-messaging, which can be spread both in the community and online.
Third, one of the key contributions of community, religious and tribal leaders is to raise awareness about the dangers of extremism and violence. This can be further strengthened by creating dialogue within tribal and religious communities to facilitate IDP returns, achieve justice for victims and to support peaceful coexistence. Support of tribal leaders for the adapting and adjusting of customs to uphold the rule of law can result in a better application of the law itself, as recent efforts show.
Fourth, security institutions can play a vital role in CVE by strengthening intelligence efforts to prevent people who are trying to mobilize citizens in favor of terrorist organizations. Furthermore, they can review current mechanisms of investigation, arrest, conviction and trial procedures within the judicial framework. They are also encouraged to qualify security services to ensure their efficiency and sound performance.
Fifth, the academic community serves as a critical component of CVE processes as they can develop qualitative and quantitative research focusing on the drivers of violent extremism. The academic community can enhance the role of universities serving as neutral and inclusive platforms for youth. Academics can play a role in providing educational, awareness and recreational courses for various sectors of the community.
Lastly, as youth are one of the major groups targeted by violent extremist organizations, their inclusion in a CVE strategy is paramount to its success. Effective strategies should seek to promote the spirit of volunteer work and implement projects funded by international organizations in order to promote youth participation in society. Strategies should aim to establish youth groups within schools and universities to carry out awareness campaigns against extremist ideologies and promote peaceful coexistence. As unemployment and feelings of lack of purpose can also be drivers of violent extremism, particularly amongst youth, capacity building programs, especially within the field of civil society, also play an important role.
Despite the fall of IS in Iraq, the same push and pull factors that enabled the group’s rise and spread are still present in communities across Iraq. It is clear that preventive and mitigating mechanisms to counter violent extremism are a collaborative responsibility of the community, governmental institutions and local and international organizations. Without effective CVE strategies and mechanisms that help integrate different sectors and communities, Iraq will remain at great risk for the reemergence of violent extremist groups.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.