Understanding Youth Radicalization in the Age of ISIS: A Psychosocial Analysis

Boy with gun

This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 11 February 2016.

In December 2015, Malaysian police reported that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had set up camps in Kazakhstan and Syria to train and indoctrinate children as young as two years old to become militants. It was alleged that the camps were training children from all over the world in the use of firearms, as well as immersing them in what one senior Malaysian police officer called a ‘ false jihad’.

While the Kazakh ambassador in Singapore swiftly issued a rebuttal of the Malaysian claim, it is worth noting nevertheless that news is available – including apparently video evidence produced by ISIS itself- of Kazakh children being trained by ISIS. More generally, terrorism researchers have confirmed that ISIS ‘actively recruits children’ to engage in ‘combat, including suicide missions’ (Stern and Berger 2015: 210). In any case, Southeast Asian authorities were hardly surprised at the latest allegations of ISIS targeting youth for Islamist indoctrination. Since September 2014, it has been known that ISIS has set up a Southeast Asian unit of Malay-speaking militants, drawn from mainly Indonesia but also Malaysia. According to some estimates, the unit called Katibah Nusantara (KN), or the Malay Archipelago Unit, held sway amongst 450 Indonesian and Malaysian fighters and their families in the Syrian/Iraq region, as of November 2015 (Arianti and Singh, 2015).

The Evolution of Jihadism in Italy: Rise in Homegrown Radicals

'Jihad' graffiti
‘Jihad’ graffiti. Photo: laughing spinning dancing/flickr.

Jihadist terrorism in Italy has recently undergone significant demographic and operational changes. The first generation of foreign-born militants with ties to various jihadist groups outside Europe is still active in Italy, albeit with less intensity than in the past. During the last few years, however, Italian authorities have increasingly noticed a shift toward forms of homegrown radicalization similar to that experienced in other Western European countries. Two recent incidents highlighted this trend: the conviction of a young man from Brescia who, without any connection to established jihadist groups, formed an

online network of jihadist enthusiasts; and a Genoa-born convert to Islam who was killed in Syria. These two incidents marked some of the first cases of homegrown jihadist radicalization in Italy.[1]

This article looks at the first generation of jihadists in Italy, and then shows how the jihadist scene in Italy has progressively changed with the formation of a new generation of homegrown radicals. It finds that although the recent instances of homegrown jihadist radicalization are worrisome, it still remains a small phenomenon in Italy compared to some other European countries.

Keyword in Focus

From Pop Star to Jihadist?

Bali memorial, photo: crater/flickr

Now, this would certainly make for an unlikely path in life.

Rumours abound in Indonesia that jailed pop star Nasir “Ariel” Irham (jailed for his involvement in a sex scandal under the controversial 2008 anti-pornography law) has had contact with Abu Bakar Bashir, the notorious Indonesian jihadist and founding member of the notorious but increasingly weak Jemaah Islamiyah group, while in prison.

Although Bashir allegedly castigated the young man for his un-Islamic ways, the former heartthrob has reportedly been attending mass  prayer held my Bashir in prison and may have sought out advice from the radical cleric.

The fact that this information comes from Bashir’s personal assistant hardly makes it all that credible. The old man is probably just seeking some street cred among the increasingly non-Jemaah Islamiyah oriented young jihadists in Southeast Asia and ‘converting’ a young, ‘broken’ pop star to their cause might be good PR for the ailing demagogue.

Whatever the reality of the situation in this specific case, the story highlights some very important dilemmas: How a multicultural and tolerant Indonesia will deal with fundamentalist and religiously conservative pressures in the future and how young people, eager to embrace many aspects of more liberal western lifestyles (including pop stars), will deal with these pressures from below and above.

And perhaps more universally: How do you prevent and discourage radicalization in prisons, where psychological and physical conditions make young men particularly susceptible to a message that preaches power to those that are bound to feel powerless?

Our Digital Library offers a wealth of resources on the keywords psychology of terrorism and terrorism recruitment. Make sure to check out:

  • A USIP report on why young people join Al-Qaida
  • An RSIS commentary on the recruitment tactics of Indonesian jihadists
  • An RSIS paper examining the patterns of radicalization in Southeast Asia and the Jemaah Islamiyah group
  • An International Crisis Group briefing on the growing attractiveness of a jihadi narrative in the wake of the floods and worsening IDP crisis in Pakistan
  • An Elcano Royal Institute working paper on radicalization in the Muslim diaspora in Europe
  • A recent ISN Podcast on the Europeanization of jihad and the challenge this poses to counterradicalization efforts on the continent