Teenage Wasteland

Why do so many efforts to stop young people from joining extremist groups fail?


In early 2010, I visited the Swat Valley in Pakistan’s mountainous north, shortly after the Pakistani army retook control of the district from Taliban fighters. I went to try to understand why Maulana Fazlullah — now head of the Pakistani Taliban — had attracted such widespread support among the region’s youth. As I spoke with tribal elders and political leaders in the district capital of Mingora, at first I got the same answer I always get: Young, impoverished, ignorant Pashtuns had joined his movement because they were easily misled by Fazlullah’s fiery rhetoric and could be bought for a little cash. Give these young men a job, the story went, enough to meet their basic needs, and they would no longer support violent extremists.

As I kept digging, though, a more complex story emerged: Many of Fazlullah’s most ardent supporters were young, upwardly mobile, landless Pashtuns. Unable to earn a living in Swat, many had gone to the Gulf and come home with money in their pockets and dreams of making a difference. But they ran headfirst into rigid feudal barriers that only allow landed elites to have a meaningful economic or political life. Fazlullah invited these young people to contribute to their communities — to give support to a madrasa or a mosque, or to provide charity to those in need. And when they did, he praised them on his radio shows. He used their full names, with honorifics, and mentioned their hometowns. He saw their potential and treated them with respect. They ate it up. And why wouldn’t they?

Too often, programs designed to steer young people away from violence don’t fully come to terms with what many militant groups seem to offer: the chance to overturn systems that are holding them back, and to explore what life has to offer beyond what an oppressive state or entrenched elites tell them they can have. Many of the teenagers who fill the ranks of the Islamic State, al-Shabab, and the Pakistani Taliban today want, broadly speaking, the same thing as the ones who surged into Egypt’s Tahrir Square and occupied Wall Street: to tell an older generation that they have had enough. They want to change the world, to fight injustice, to earn respect, and, maybe most of all, to challenge the status quo.

If U.S.-led programs meant to stop young people from joining extremist groups are to have any hope of success, they need to understand what so many recruiters have down pat: You have to give them something they can believe in.

Young people are not adults. Understanding who they really are matters deeply if assistance programs hope to reach them. Research shows that teenage brains undergo a remarkable transformation that lasts well into the early 20s. The areas of the cortex that are responsible for impulse control and planning are still maturing, and brain scans show that teens respond with a greater sense of urgency and intensity to emotional images and situations than either children or adults. For some young people, this means that if they see injustice, they will act. If they see a wrong, they want to address it, right now, with force if necessary. Outreach efforts can dismiss their dreams as idealistic or dangerous, but then programs will not reach them.

As long as the answers to the problem of radicalized youth are primarily focused on priorities such as finding a job or staying in school — sensible, adult concerns that ignore the emotional, black-and-white way many teenagers see the world — assistance is likely to miss the mark or even make things worse.

In Pakistan, for instance, a huge amount of the international assistance that flowed into the Swat Valley in the immediate aftermath of Fazlullah’s military campaign focused on generating quick jobs through cash-for-work projects. The jobs were collecting garbage, repairing war-damaged buildings, clearing sewage ditches — that kind of thing. They were necessary tasks, for sure, but to an upwardly mobile young Pashtun man, they could make it feel like the international community thought he was fit for nothing better than dirty, backbreaking manual labor, much like the landed elites he had dealt with all his life had told him.

Instead, aid efforts should harness the natural idealism of youth. Young people need jobs, certainly, but they want what they do to mean something. In Pakistan, that could mean bringing landed and landless Pashtuns together to lead social movements that question age-old patterns of feudalism and discrimination, or implementing joint business ventures that challenge traditional models of economic dominance or respond to the devastation of floods and natural disasters. In short, programs should focus on anything that taps into that youthful impulse to change the world.


Violence alters the fabric of a country in ways that disproportionately affect young people, and the lessons of wartime are not easily left behind. That the resultant challenges and opportunities are vastly different than what youth face in stable settings may seem as obvious as saying that teenagers are not the same as adults, but it is surprising how rarely foreign assistance programs grapple with these differences in a meaningful way.

A recent finding on adolescent brain development shows that lessons and habits formed during the teen years can have an enduring impact. After an "exuberant" period of growth, young people’s brains undergo a process of synaptic pruning, where the cells and connections that are used survive and flourish, and those that are not wither away. This "use it or lose it" hypothesis means that the less visible consequences of violence — mistrust, short time horizons, zero-sum competition, the primacy of violence as a tool for success — may become hard-wired, making it very difficult, although certainly not impossible, for them to be unlearned.

These less obvious consequences of violence distort markets and politics in profound ways, making it harder for young people to find their way into adult lives. In the Niger Delta, for example, decades of violence have destroyed the trust that markets need to function. The private sector won’t invest. Local communities compete over the limited investments that exist. And some young Nigerians, with no other options, have turned to kidnapping or protection rackets, essentially driving up the cost of doing business and forcing away the jobs they desperately want.

For these young people, traditional job creation programs are unlikely to do the trick. Even if programs can get around the challenge of building trust between local business leaders and their erstwhile kidnappers, young people who are incapacitated by trauma or think violence is a perfectly acceptable way to address customer complaints are going to need more than job skills and help with their résumé to succeed.

Similarly, in many violent environments, political elites often see youth as weapons and have no interest in letting international or other actors help young people become financially independent, politically savvy, or willing to question the dictates of their elders. As a result, those who participate in youth leadership or employment programs can be exposed to enormous levels of intimidation and risk, pressures that are absent in stable settings and that even seasoned adults would be hard-pressed to manage.

In violent contexts, youth programs that only focus on the "technical" skills needed for employment or political participation but do not specifically address issues such as rebuilding trust, dealing with trauma, and gaining skills to deal with conflict, frustration, and intimidation are missing an important part of the picture. Most practitioners understand that youth employment programs need to be based on market principles, or that programs to encourage political participation must teach the basics of a democratic system. What is lacking is a clear understanding of how young people, markets, and politics are fundamentally different in conflict environments, and how U.S. foreign assistance programs need to change as a result.


If youth programs truly want to compete with militant groups, they need to grasp what young people want and then help them get there. It is much easier to provide a short-term job digging ditches than it is to figure out how to engage smart, ambitious young people who think the real problem is state oppression, or corrupt clan elders, or feudal barriers. They are not wrong. These are profound problems in many parts of the world. And the solutions are not easy to achieve. Organizations that implement youth programs need to learn from al-Nusra Front in Syria or Boko Haram in Nigeria — and then offer something better.

The international community is spending billions on the Syrian refugee crisis. In addition to jobs and school programs, assistance programs need to help young people deliver humanitarian assistance to widows and orphans or intern with organizations that provide emergency medical support, so they can be heroes in their communities and gain recognition and respect. Programs need to give young people leadership and conflict-management skills so they can stand up to the bullies from local host communities, resolve disputes between their peers in the camps, or stop sexual violence against adolescent girls.

Young people have shown again and again what they’re capable of when they’re inspired, even, or perhaps especially, in oppressive and war-torn countries. In Serbia, a disciplined youth movement toppled Slobodan Milosevic, the "Butcher of Belgrade." In East Timor the Clandestine Front, which started as a local youth movement, launched a nonviolent campaign that led to the withdrawal of Indonesian troops, something an earlier armed movement could not accomplish. And the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, while led by senior statesman Nelson Mandela, was fueled by the peaceful protests of millions of young people in South Africa and their allies around the world. Right now, foreign assistance programs are effectively ignoring one of the most promising assets available to them, and the solution is all but staring them in the face.

What extremist groups succeed at — and where foreign assistance often fails — is offering a cause, with the promise of excitement, possibility, and a new future. Though this is what assistance programs deployed by the United States are meant to offer young people, if they don’t speak to youthful idealism and the desire to change the world, they’ll never compete. When you want to change the world, digging ditches just won’t cut it.

<p> Sharon Morris is a Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, where her research focuses on developing new assistance models in fragile states and conflict-affected countries. </p>