THE BLOG

Why Teens Become Terrorists and What Schools Can Do

02/17/2015 11:47 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was nineteen years old when he and his older brother set off the bombs killing three people and injuring over 250 at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Tsarnaev was born in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan in a Chechen Islamic family. He immigrated to the United States with his family when he was eight-years old, attended public schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was captain of his high school wrestling team, worked as a lifeguard at Harvard University, became a United States citizen, earned a college scholarship, and entered college at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the deceased suspects in the murder of eleven people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris were in their early thirties, but had been in trouble with French police since their late teens and early twenties. They supposedly shouted "Allahu Akbar," God is great, while firing their weapons. Chérif was arrested in 2005 at the age of twenty-two when he tried to join Iraqi forces fighting against the United States. He was convicted of terrorism in 2008 and served 18 months in prison. Saïd had trained with Al Qaeda in Yemen been 2009 and 2011. The brothers were French citizens, born in Paris, of Algerian and Islamic background. As children they were orphaned when their mother apparently committed suicide and they were placed in a series of institutions.

Two teenage young women of Bosnian Islamic background aged fifteen and seventeen traveled to Syria from Vienna, Austria planning to marry ISIS fighters. According to police officials, the teenagers were attracted to ISIS by preaching at their local mosque where clerics supposedly told them that the only way to know true peace was to take part in the holy war. Over 150 young people have left Austria to join ISIS Islamic fighters in a "holy war."

In Copenhagen, a twenty-two year old native of Denmark was killed by police in a shoot out after he murdered two people, one at a café and the other at a synagogue. The suspect was of Islamic background, had gang affiliations, and had just been released from prison. His pattern of behavior raises the question whether attraction to groups like ISIS has similar roots as other anti-social behavior such as gang related activity. An estimated one hundred Danes are believed to be on fighting for ISIS.

In May 2014 sixteen year-old British twin sisters traveled to Syria to marry jihadists. In September another sixteen year-old girl was arrested at a French airport suspected of traveling to Syria to join Islamist fighters. According to the BBC, European Union anti-terrorism officials estimate that over 3,000 young people have left homes in Europe to join ISIS, but the number may be as high as 5,000. This is a significant number of young people, but clearly the overwhelming majority of Islamic youth in Europe are not making this decision.

American young people are not immune to the attraction of Islamic fundamentalism and fighters, although the number that have joined ISIS is probably much smaller. In May 2014 a twenty-two year old male college student from Florida was a suicide bomber in Syria. In July, a nineteen year-old young woman from Colorado was charged with planning to travel to Syria to join a man she claimed was fighting for ISIS. Both of these young adults were converts to Islam.

In France, where schools are supposed to instill moral values, an understanding of citizenship responsibilities, and belief in the concept of the rule of law, the Prime Minister and Education Minister jointly announced a new civics curriculum called "Grand Mobilization of Schools for the Values of the Republic." Teachers and students are now engaged in a national conversation intended to prevent future terrorist events. French President François Hollande declared teachers were "in the front line" of the battle against extremist ideologies.

In the United States the Department of Defense maintains an "Education Activity Antiterrorism Awareness" website for students, but there has been greater concern about student-on-student violence ranging from bullying to armed assaults and murder. The focus has generally been on anti-bullying campaigns, conflict resolution training, and identifying and providing support for young people before alienation leads to anti-social behavior. February 24-26, 2015 the White House will host a three-day international summit on combating violent extremism and American Mayors from cities that have addressed some of the issues will participate. One focus will be the use of social media to recruit young people.

What can schools really do about young people who join religious fundamentalist forces or commit terrorist acts? Better curriculum and nationalist propaganda are unlikely by themselves to stop support for terrorist groups amongst some of France and Europe's young people. The problems affecting these teenagers are much deeper.

According to Russell Razzaque, a London-based psychiatrist, there are particular experiences shared by teenagers who participate in terrorist activities. He argues most teenage "suicide bombers lacked a close intimate relationship, particularly with their same-sex parent." In addition, immigrant youngsters from minority racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups often are disconnected from the broader society where they live. While all teenagers are in some stage of rebellion against parental and social authority, the experiences of young people from Islamic immigrant families living in Europe may make them especially susceptible to radical appeals and vulnerable to ideologues who charge that they and their compatriots are victims of unjust social institutions and religious prejudice by the majority population.

An article in The Christian Science Monitor argued that groups like ISIS have been successful in recruiting young people from Western countries "who are disillusioned and have no sense of purpose or belonging" through an "appeal to sense of identity and place." The article compared ISIS to youth or criminal gangs that offer "disaffected teens a chance to join a group that gives them purpose and meaning." This sense of belonging has special meaning to young people who drifted away from belief or were recent converts to Islam.

The causes for this disaffection are not simply teenage psychology. In working-class and poor Parisian suburbs with large North and West African populations schools are under-financed and unemployment rates for working age young adults are about forty percent. According to Pascal Blanchard, a prominent French historian, young people living in these communities have "grandparents who were part of the colonial empire. Now their parents live in the suburbs on the edge of society, in what is basically a continuation of the colonial situation, and they're stuck there with no jobs, no hope. We keep pouring money into urban improvements, talking about new train stations and about restating French values. But the problem is skin color. And you can't change that by changing buildings or getting everybody to sing the 'Marseillaise.'" The situation is exacerbated by government policies that pretend France is color-blind so policy makers ignore conditions faced by Islamic youth in the suburban ghettos.

At the end of the 19th century, a French sociologist named Emile Durkheim identified a growing problem in European society that he called anomie. For Durkheim, anomie was the result of the breakdown of community connections and with them moral guidance and values as traditional society was overwhelmed and transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Durkheim studied the increasing number of fatalistic suicides that he attributed to both a lack of new norms for people to follow and the rigidity of old value systems.

Durkheim's insight does point to a possible role for schools to help address the problem of anomie amongst the young. If Durkheim is correct about the crisis in values brought about by social dislocation, young people in the Western world are turning to cults, irrationality and religious fundamentalism, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist, because they lack a sense of place and community and a sense of purpose for their lives. Schools can make a difference by helping students develop a sense of membership in a broader community and a sense of purpose.

The West has to find a way to copy and compete with groups like ISIS. It will not be through Common Core, close-reading of text, instructional videos, or patriotic lectures. The best way to establish a sense of membership and a sense of purpose for young people is by promoting civic activism, in schools, in communities, in municipalities, and in the broader society.

Of course there is a danger here as well. Historically, in Soweto, South Africa in 1976, Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, in Mexico City and Paris in 1968, at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and during the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, when students were engaged as activists they did not embrace the status quo supported by people in authority. New movements will demand educational equality, immigrant rights, better housing, institutions that respect and respond to their beliefs, and jobs that elevate families out of poverty.

People with power will not be happy with the change. But that is the only way I know to compete with groups like ISIS and stop religious fundamentalists and terrorism from recruiting our young people.