This review of factors driving youth vulnerability to recruitment by violent extremist groups in the Indo-Pacific highlights the variety of factors involved, and the importance of looking at each situation individually. It is impossible to generalize: youth recruitment is context-specific. In Bangladesh the political situation has created space for violent groups, with youth recruitment facilitated by the country’s youth bulge, high youth unemployment and targeting of youth on social media. In Indonesia political and economic factors are less significant than the role of traditional Islamic study circles and recruitment through educational institutions as well as online. In the Philippines violent Islamist extremism is deeply rooted in the long-standing Mindanao conflict, Muslim grievances there and disillusionment with the protracted peace process. Perhaps the most significant common factors in the region are, one, that it is predominantly youth who are recruited by violent extremist groups and, two, the role of transnational movements (notably ISIS) in fostering radicalization.
There is considerable literature on factors driving youth vulnerability to violent extremism but much of this is either generic, country-specific or covers smaller regions: this review found little literature looking at the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. A recent article by Gunaratna (2017) gives a useful overview of the challenges with regard to politico-religious extremism in the Asia-Pacific region. Gunaratna traces the first wave of politico-religious conflict back to the 1990s when veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war returned to their home countries re-joining existing violent groups and setting up new ones. He sees the diverse Islamist extremist groups operating in the region against the backdrop of transnational movements, most notably Islamic State (IS):
It has mounted an ambitious propaganda campaign worldwide to spread its ideology. IS has used its sophisticated social media propaganda campaign to recruit, radicalize and raise funds, and to garner the support of hundreds of thousands of Asians. The exploitation of social media technology to spread its narratives and the growth of operational capabilities by IS and likeminded groups have given these groups the capacity to threaten both Muslim and non-Muslim governments and societies in Asia (Gunaratna, 2017).
This review looks at violent extremism in three countries – Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines – and seeks to identify factors driving youth vulnerability to recruitment by extremist groups in each. Government and other initiatives to foster the role of youth in countering such recruitment were beyond the scope of the review. The available literature did not identify other factors acting as bulwarks against youth recruitment. The literature reviewed comprised a mix of academic papers, policy and programme documents, and media articles.
Key findings for the three countries examined are as follows:
- Youth are a key target group for radicalization and recruitment by violent extremist groups: this includes youth from all socioeconomic backgrounds;
- The country’s large proportion of youth in the population, high youth unemployment and high levels of internet and social media use by youth all facilitate radicalization and recruitment. Online radicalization is a major factor in Bangladesh;
- Bitter rivalry between the ruling Awami Party and opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has created the space for violent extremist groups in Bangladesh to operate and expand, and is one reason for the government’s muted response to violent extremism.
- Disillusionment with Indonesia’s democracy, in particular due to corruption, and inequality are seen as factors in youth radicalization in Indonesia;
- Islamic study circles are widespread in Indonesia and a common pathway to joining extremist groups: people could start off in ‘mainstream’ circles but this could lead to them joining more radical groups. The circles allow recruiters to identify and groom potential members;
- The 40-odd pesantren (Islamic schools) affiliated to extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah certainly foster radicalization, but the literature differs on the role of the majority moderate pesantren. Universities, however, are seen as targeted by extremists, with ‘success’ evident from rising conservative ideology among students and the involvement of students/alumni in violent extremism;
Youth Vulnerability to Violent Extremist Groups in the Indo-Pacific
- ‘Inherited jihadism’ is identified as a phenomenon distinct to Indonesia, whereby the involvement of parents/older siblings/relatives in extremist groups pushes young people to follow in their footsteps;
- Online radicalization is significant, particularly as ISIS has targeted Indonesia in its online propaganda, and reinforces radicalization through pesantren and in person contacts. Prisons and returning foreign fighters also promote radicalization and recruitment.
- The roots of violent Islamist extremism in the Philippines lie in the over 40-year insurgency in Muslim Mindanao. Muslim grievances about marginalization by the centre are exploited by violent extremist groups to win support;
- There is also disillusionment with the protracted peace process and anger at the widespread destruction of infrastructure in Marawi city as a result of military operations against extremists;
- Financial incentives are a factor in Mindanao, both motivating some extremist groups and motivating individual membership of violent extremist groups. But financial incentives alone do not account for violent extremism;
- Social ties (family, kin, friends) are important in Mindanao and thus a driver of radicalization. The role of charismatic radical preachers is also significant;
- Violent extremist groups in Mindanao draw on online ISIS propaganda to mobilize support: ISIS has urged its followers to travel to the Philippines to undertake ‘jihad’ there.
The literature considered in this review was largely gender-blind, making extensive use of gender-neutral terms such as youth, jihadists and extremists, and not distinguishing between males and females. One study of violent extremism in Bangladesh made reference to women. In the case of Indonesia the review found a couple of reports focusing on female recruitment. The literature on violent extremism in the Philippines made virtually no reference to women specifically.