How do we engage youth online to counter extremism?

Renee Black & Adel Iskandar explore this question further.


In recent years, violent extremist groups – such as Da’esh (ISIS), Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda, and others – have developed strong online narrative outreach strategies as an essential part of their military capabilities. This outreach, which includes a disproportionately sophisticated digital strategy to radicalize and recruit internationally, across nationalities, ethnicities, languages, and socio-economic conditions, is significantly geared towards exploiting the vulnerabilities of youth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The result of these efforts is that a substantial number of recruits originate from countries outside the current conflict zones, which pose a threat both abroad and at home.


Top 10 sources of Da’esh recruits by country

The tools, instruments, and media used by extremist groups to persuade adherents vary, and include, but are not limited to, mobile apps, elaborate print magazines, high-end videos, documentaries, and extensive social media engagement strategies. The success of extremist groups depends on their ability to develop and deploy compelling messages and narratives that tap into young people’s quashed ambitions as well as their disenchantment with their social, economic and political conditions. Also contributing to intolerance at home is the fact that while western media share stories of Da’esh bloodshed, they rarely give voice to these alternative perspectives or the critique of radicalism that is so pervasive across the Muslim world. This perceived double-standard further entrenches animosities and contributes to the belief that the West is only interested in condemning Islam and Muslims.

Recognizing the potency of these narratives to influence perceptions and action, significant efforts have been launched by governments and donors in recent years to both challenge specific extremist narratives through counter narrative strategies, and to develop alternative narratives that promote a peaceful, tolerant and human rights respecting vision of Islam.


Da’esh Map of the envisioned Caliphate, which includes Spain, North and Central Africa, Eastern Europe, the Gulf and China

Counter and alternative narratives to extremist groups in the MENA region fall into two broad categories: 1) those conceived, commissioned and executed by Western states or regional governments in the form of public service announcements and political news programming; and 2) those conceived and executed by independent individuals and collectives, including filmmakers, artists, musicians, and other producers.

Content produced by governments has largely proven to register limited success in terms of reach and legitimacy. This is due in part to the disproportionately high commitment to the the military and security dimensions of the conflict as opposed to the ideological issues involved. Moreover, governments are rarely perceived as credible messengers, particularly by communities-at-risk. Recent research shows that alternative media strategies’ success in countering violent extremism is anchored on the trust and credibility of information providers. Yet in many cases, these government initiatives have resulted in public alienation, minimal distribution, and limited audience traction. In some instances, these initiatives have directly contributed to the recruitment and narrative-construction of extremist groups. Moreover, these groups have proven themselves to be responsive and nimble, adjusting their digital strategies as conditions change. Governments, of course, are bureaucratic machines that are rarely able to adapt to these changes in a timely and effective manner.


A cartoon of two jihadis asking if they are doing things ‘by the book’ not realizing that the Qu’ran is upside down.

By contrast, minimal attention and resources to date have focused on supporting and amplifying local independent content producers who have a proven track record of success in developing counter and alternative narratives, who have the audience’s trust, and who are seen as credible messengers. Much of the creative anti-extremist content produced by youth is immensely successful, as evidenced by wide viewership and engagement from large segments of society. The success of this content suggests that these producers have been able to tap into the concerns and qualms of local communities because they themselves belong to these very communities. Local discourses via local artists and activists are able to reach larger audiences and resonate with local communities far more successfully than government-produced content. Examples of this are plentiful and include widely popular programs such as Iraqi programs “Albasheer Show” and “Wilayat Albateekh,” Palestinian programs like “Watan Ala Wattar,” Egyptian programs like “Abou Hafeeza,” and Jordanian “Abdurahman Show,” to mention just a few. Yet while there are many demonstrated examples of individual success, there is minimal collaboration and cohesion between these efforts. Moreover, the energies and efforts that have been invested thus far in supporting locally developed initiatives have been inadequate, with the lion’s share of funding going towards national military and security strategies.


A satirical ad for ‘Deak’, the ‘official’ laundry detergent for Da’esh that help to clean the blood and brains off your clothes.

With extremist groups making more sophisticated use of digital and narrative tools than ever before to recruit, radicalize and terrorize, providing the resources to enable producers of alternative narratives that respond to extremism is urgent to both stem the flow of vulnerable youth to conflict zones and to preventing online radicalization before it begins. Investing more resources into civic engagement can also encourage citizens to play more active roles in society on other issues such as education and health.

Yet these are essential but insufficient responses. Even if the efforts are amplified, narratives  do not address factors such as poverty, unemployment, and lack of education, which are just some of the major factors that make youth more susceptible to recruitment. Narratives do not address the history of western imperialism, recent military misadventures, and excessive foreign meddling in the region which has led to serious legitimate grievances. They do not address unaccountable governments who are failing to provide the necessities for their citizens. Narratives have an essential role to play in changing the current of extremism that has taken over many parts of the region. Addressing these systemic issues will be essential for long term peace to endure.

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