Drivers for Violent Extremism

Here's how government and youth can work together in addressing violent extremism at the national and local level, recognizing youth as partners in peace and agents of positive change. Reasons why some young people join violent extremist organizations are unique to each person and to each place, and the most effective prevention initiatives create alternative pathways for them to live out those motives in constructive ways. Factors that drive young people towards extremist organizations vary dramatically, however some patterns have emerged and are seen around the world:

  • Desire to belong to something. Youth who are drawn to join radicalized groups often feel marginalized from their society and cut out of opportunities for advancement.  This may come from a lifetime of discrimination based on being from a minority religious or ethnic group, but it may also come from the rejection of family identity and expectations.  Youth who join armed groups often do so out of a desire to belong to something larger than them and to have a brotherhood or sisterhood with their peers.
  • Political and religious beliefs.  Many who are drawn into extremist groups have strong and radicalized beliefs, are convinced by the cause and the organization’s core grievances, and see that membership creates a chance for them to act on their viewpoints and the injustice done. Effective armed groups exploit the idealism of youth by creating outlets for those idealized belief systems.
  • Opportunity for expression and leadership. Many young people are deeply motivated by the desire to express their own views and act upon their potential for leadership. In most cultures and communities, the space for this is limited; politics and community decision making is dominated by elders and the views of youth are hardly considered. Extremist groups offer opportunities for young people to emerge as leaders and use their talents on a global stage, creating for their ranks a sense of importance and contributing to something larger than them.
  • Identity.  Many youth join armed groups as part of a search for identity. Religious extremist groups exploit internal struggles that many young people have. They, and many other armed groups such as gangs, offer youth a sense of how to define themselves and feel proud in a religious, ethnic, or geographic identity.
  • Economic livelihood and status. Many young people join armed groups because they believe that it will create economic opportunities, which strengthens their sense of power and purpose. Sometimes they join because their traditional vocations are disrupted by armed conflict.
  • Celebrity Status and Power. Young people have reported ideas of masculinity and violence linked to increase in power and status as well as cases of suicide terrorists achieve celebrity status for themselves and family in community.

These findings are based on a report, Working Together to Address Violent Extremism: A Strategy for Youth-Government Partnerships, which draws on research in 14 countries across 3 continents, interviewing 122 individuals, to provide some fascinating analysis on young people’s motives to join extremist groups, which emerge from the conditions of their lives and from a broader context where terrorism can take hold. 

Williams, M., Prelis, S. and Taza R.W., Working Together to Address Violent Extremism: A Strategy for Youth-Government Partnerships, Search for Common Ground (2016, Washington DC) (