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The Pandemic’s Double-Edged Sword

Violent extremists are using this opportunity to increase youth recruitment.

Words: Tamara Laine and Dean Piedmont
Pictures: Jorge Fernández

As the world and governments react to the existential threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the diversion of foreign assistance puts at risk gains made countering violent extremism over the last several years. Meaning, violent extremist groups are seeing prime opportunities for viral recruitment. With this unprecedented challenge comes a vital opportunity to engage with those most at risk of being recruited by extremists: young men and women. Building a new model for youth engagement, one that reorients them as partners, not threats, could lead to a substantial shift that promotes countering and preventing violent extremism (P/CVE), while filling a void in crippled healthcare and governance systems. There is a potential to develop a new cadre of peacebuilders in the fight to combat terrorism through this crisis, but it is going to take a major paradigm shift from policymakers and practitioners alike.

A new public-health model for preventing and countering violent extremist, would prioritize youth engagement as a tool to avoid so-called second-order effects and prevent today’s at-risk youth from becoming tomorrow’s combatants. We know that drivers of radicalization towards violence include push/pull factors of isolation, economic and social disenfranchised, and collective grievances stemming from perceived victimization and foreign intervention. All of which is exacerbated by the lifesaving measures governments and health officials take to stem the spread of this deadly virus.

In addition to the direct health and financial impact Covid-19 has on communities, so-called second-order effects are contributing to increased food insecurity, disruption of vital value chains, causing refugees to flee camps back into danger, constraining peace support operations and limiting humanitarian aid. Vulnerabilities that violent extremist organizations are seizing upon.

Not only have groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda associated al-Shabab engaged in conspiracy propaganda alleging that the coronavirus is spread by “foreign invaders,” disinformation includes telling followers that infected persons are bad Muslims. These groups also capitalize on the current state of lockdowns to intensify online recruitment efforts by targeting ideal youth, who have increasingly found themselves ‘socially distancing’ with unsupervised screen time.

These groups also capitalize on the current state of lockdowns to intensify online recruitment efforts by targeting ideal youth, who have increasingly found themselves ‘socially distancing’ with unsupervised screen time.

As opposed to being reactive to these groups attempts to influence youth, a new public-health P/CVE doctrine will integrate counterterrorism strategic communications (Strat. Comms.) with public health service messaging that serve as a counter-messaging tool to violent extremist organizations and their use of disinformation and propaganda on COVID-19 to advance recruitment efforts. What would seem like an obvious concept has so far been underutilized, if not overlooked!

There are contemporary examples exist of national and regional security concerns marrying public health crises. The Obama Administration’s Ebola response and support to ECOWAS for successes and shortcomings could provide helpful lessons learned. In fact, among the legacies of the Obama Administration is support to an ECOWAS Early Warning Directorate charged with gathering information and developing responses to violent extremism and health pandemics. It is telling that the Obama administration’s Ebola coordinator was a counterterrorism expert.

A targeted strategy to address the concerns of today’s recruitment landscape is lacking. The stark reality is that aid workers and practitioners laboring to combat violent extremists already work under tenuous conditions. Current Strat. Comms. targeting counter-terrorism are not designed to integrate with public health and pandemic issues, however; they are well suited to do so – to create synergies that aid in the mitigation and prevention of the pandemic, and prevent and counter violent extremism.

What can be done? Below are practical recommendations that can be taken by policymakers and practitioners alike. Minimally, youth should be considered, trained, and prepared as ‘front line’ and first responders in efforts to prevent and mitigate COVID-19. They can prevent disinformation by being both violent extremism and disinformation monitors and information providers within their communities.

Prioritizing youth engagement should be a pillar of this new model for two key reasons. First, they can be an invaluable asset in counter massaging narratives that degrade violent extremist recruitment capabilities by fighting fake news, neutralizing stigmatization and dispelling myths using technology to spread key messages and helping their governments and healthcare workers. With their knowledge of social media and other communication tools, youth can take up the mantle of political leadership often held primarily by community elders who rely on face to face communication that is inappropriate in the COVID-19 era.

Second, emerging reports are signaling that youth are less susceptible to the more severe or life-threatening symptoms from the virus, which means this particular demographic can engage in activities that more vulnerable demographics should not if they choose. It doesn’t hurt that youth influence is disproportionally peer-based.

The significant impact of engaging youth cannot be overstated. Young people aged 10-29 represent the largest youth population in history, making up the majority of almost every society in the developing world. Currently, nearly half of the global population is under the age of 25 and the numbers increase when looking at areas affected by conflict. A recent study by Save the Children found the number of children living in areas affected by armed conflict has increased by more than 75% since the 1990s, with an estimated 420 million children — nearly one in five — living in conflict-affected areas.

Considering the state of youth globally, it is unrealistic to assume youth will remain in stasis — they will engage. With this in mind, the recruitment of vulnerable youth has the potential to go two ways: enlisted by a terrorist organization or mobilized as community leaders and frontline responders to help stop the speed of the virus and build resilience. Which direction they pursue depends on our next steps.

As a mitigation response, governments’ aid agencies can work with youth groups to increase their digital footprint. Youth can spearhead COVID-19 ‘positive-disruption’ campaigns to tackle the longer-term consequences and impact of living with COVID-19. This may be particularly effective for issues of re-occurrence and/or seasonal re-occurrence. Training youth to be online ‘positive-disruptors’ of violent extremist groups campaigns, the private sector can become a partner with the development community in use of IT for Strat. Comms. and COVID-19 outreach.

The immediate and long-term economic impact of COVID-19 cannot be dismissed. Millions will be left unemployed or unable to find a good-paying job. For youth who make up a considerable percentage of population demographics, the consequences are dire. However, this model offers opportunity to move away from oft-applied supply side to vocational training, towards a demand-driven model. Engagement with the private sector is a must. Working with youth, the private sector should advise governments of their emerging market needs, and where possible, offer vocational training courses corresponding to market realities. An increasing number of jobs will likely be available in the IT and health sectors. These should be explored.

A staple of youth development programs, traditional (in person) vocational training programs can be augmented with online offerings. Both options can include counter-messaging on P/CVE interspersed with information on COVID-19 and public health prevention and mitigation. The production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, community, and security providers provides short-term economic opportunities. Youth could engage in outreach and PPE distribution. This will enhance their image as ‘frontline responders’ in view of affected communities.

In Tunisia, youth provide PPE to police who are short on equipment. This has led to increased trust between the police and youth, police and communities, and youth and communities. Where the use of excessive force by security actors feeds violent extremist narratives, Tunisia offers a counterexample for replication.

Utilizing youth to catalyze change is not new, the UN prioritizes youth engagement to reach Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030, estimating 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 could be agents of change.

The Kofi Annan Foundation recognized the power of youth engagement in CVE advocacy, launching the program Extremely Together, a peer-to-peer initiative led by young leaders who advance efforts on P/CVE in their communities. While the impact has not been officially measured, the concept of seeing youth as opportunities not as a threat is a prime example of the P/CVE in action.

Lessons from epidemics like HIV and Ebola should be conveyed to our professional youth cadre and focus on issues of stigmatization with COVID-19 second-order effects being a central theme. These should be central themes in Strat. Comm. efforts with youth saturating social media platforms and engaging in communities social distancing notwithstanding. Stressing the centrality of social cohesion and community to fight terrorism and the pandemic, youth who are resilient to the pandemic’s morbidity could deliver awareness and sensitization training, supporting communities where persons are increasingly affected. Watching over stores, shopping for the elderly and related ‘community service positions’ could be created by community committees. Integrated with vocational training, youth can receive ‘honorariums,’ rather than stipends for service commitments.

While it is important to stress that youth are not out of the woods, and are susceptible to COVID-19, strategic pivot in communications and youth engagement could prevent the pandemic from being a double-edged sword as a threat to both health and national security. The moment is now to engage in new tactics and lift up the next generation of peacebuilders.

Tamara Laine is a news correspondent and policy analyst in New York City, developing in-depth content exploring how events and policies affect communities and human rights. Her analysis can be seen in Foreign Policy Magazine, The Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, 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.

Dean Piedmont is a senior advisor on security sector engagement for Creative Associates International. He is a seasoned program and policy expert in conflict prevention, security governance and reintegration for 20-years.

Tamara Laine and Dean Piedmont

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