Opinion: How to engage youths to counter COVID-19 extremist recruitment

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Artists with Anataban, a group of young creatives, work on a mural at the former headquarters of a disbanded local gang as part of a COVID-19 messaging campaign in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by: Anataban via Facebook

As a result of COVID-19, the national and global security threats posed by violent extremist organizations, or VEOs, and their recruitment efforts are reportedly increasing, according to the United Nations.

Youths are particularly susceptible to many of the secondary effects created by the pandemic-related lockdown policies, such as the isolation of people particularly at risk of recruitment, while weakened economies and rising unemployment can compound drivers of extremism.

In turn, youths who are unemployed and underemployed, as well as generationally disenfranchised, experience an amplification of their real or perceived grievances. This combination of push, pull, and proximate factors places them at increased risk of recruitment by VEOs.

Such extremist organizations are capitalizing on COVID-19’s collateral damage by spreading conspiracy theories that merge health care messaging with ideological propaganda. Often, information technology-savvy youths experiencing the alienating effects of social distancing and isolation are the ones who have increasing access to online platforms and, with this, sources of disinformation.

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This, combined with misinformation spread in communities, appears to be finding success as a new wave of fragility erupts across Africa.

In Nigeria, Somalia, and the Lake Chad region, VEOs are spreading disinformation to advance their agendas, leveraging the pandemic to extend their rhetorical and physical authority as weakened governance systems — including health care infrastructure — lack the resiliencies needed to combat the multidirectional attacks. These are potentially compounded by disinformation campaigns from Russia, China, and Iran.

New public health messaging needed

It is imperative to broaden the scope of options for practitioners in preventing and countering violent extremism, or P/CVE.

Focusing on health messaging addresses two immediate crises. Just as COVID-19 requires a robust public health response, violence — when treated as a disease — can be mitigated by identifying risk factors, responses, and interventions for those “infected.” A coordinated, multisectoral, targeted intervention can interrupt transmission of both COVID-19 and VEO recruitment, with youths at the helm of programming.

As funds are diverted to health care-related efforts, there is an opportunity to integrate P/CVE measures into the pandemic response by developing a P/CVE model that centers public health. By designing such programming at the nexus of positive youth development approaches, strategic communications, and at-risk communities, we could amplify the impact of communications campaigns in the pandemic landscape.

Though there is precedent for engaging youths in P/CVE programs, merging health care messaging and counterterrorism strategy is a relatively new approach. As highlighted by a recent study, practical terrorism prevention efforts have severely limited options, other than arrest and prosecution, in terms of tools available to prevent and counter radicalization and terroristic engagement.

Innovative ways forward: Engaging youth ambassadors

Now is the time to engage new tactics and lift up the next generation of peace builders. By directly investing in youth programs, youths who might otherwise be vulnerable to recruitment will be intercepted and redirected for skills development and training contributing to community growth.

Cultivating opportunities for youths to be the bearers of fact-based information campaigns is primary to countering misinformation and disinformation.

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Youths make up the largest segment of the population in many communities in Africa, Asia, and low- and middle-income countries, making them essential in any future agenda. This youth bulge could be viewed in two ways: either as an inherent problem with the risk of a massive, pending surge of combatants or as a source of partners in strategic communication and efforts to counter radicalization toward violence and recruitment into VEOs.

One innovative way forward could be by employing a model that integrates P/CVE methodologies, starting with community health ambassador and resilience messaging — or CHARM — measures that are youth-oriented. A community-driven communications campaign combines culturally targeted approaches and fact-based health care messaging with alternative narratives that identify influential youth ambassadors to enhance public safety and resilience.

The foundation of the approach calls for a multisectoral strategy fostering coordination between youths, governance, public health infrastructure, national and local agencies, civil society organizations, and NGOs. And by putting community first, this model offers an offline and online organizational framework that builds upon community trust and influence.

Giving youths agency through social media training to identify false messaging and to develop content for alternative narratives and methods for dissemination, reinforced with community outreach skills, would serve as a considerable COVID-19 mitigation and P/CVE tool. Building ambassador programs gives young people agency and training, while also enhancing peer-to-peer coronavirus-awareness messaging campaigns.

People in conflict states bear highest cost of terrorism, report says

Conflict is the primary driver of terrorist activity, which cost the global economy $33 billion in 2018, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace's "Global Terrorism Index 2019" report.

Programs designed and implemented for youth engagement could use honorariums in lieu of stipends to help instill a sense of leadership for youths. And as these programs build influence and potential economic opportunity for young people, they will enhance community resilience.

Youths have already begun to counter misinformation in conflict-affected communities. In South Sudan, for example, a largely youth-led community of civic groups is organizing creative public health messaging campaigns that also aim to dispel misinformation.

While the impact of a CHARM approach will take time to assess, it is evident that a shift in policy is underway to address the long-term consequences that COVID-19 will have on these drivers of radicalization toward violent extremism.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Dean Piedmont

    Dean Piedmont is a senior adviser on countering violent extremism and armed actor engagement for Creative Associates, specializing in designated terrorist organization and foreign terrorist fighters, as well as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration issues. He is a seasoned program and policy expert in conflict prevention, peace building, and livelihoods, specializing in child and youth protection and security governance for 20 years.
  • Tamara Laine

    Tamara Laine is a news correspondent and policy analyst in New York City, developing in-depth content that explores how events and policies affect communities and human rights. She has provided analysis for Fox News, Foreign Policy magazine, the Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, Inkstick Media, and a recent report for the World Bank to examine best practices for human rights organizations and government programs on engagement with violent extremists in conflict.