Why do young people go to war zones – especially if their parents brought them to the United States for a new start? To stop adolescents from being lured to places such as Syria, Iraq, or Somalia, we need answers to that question.
One answer we hear from Somali Americans is, “We are the generation that was supposed to fix Somalia.” They were not presented with good options for doing so in a peaceful way, however, and this has made it relatively easy for terrorist organizations to exploit their passion. In 2007 and 2008, at least 17 Somali American adolescent boys and young men living in Minneapolis–St. Paul secretly left their homes and flew to Somalia to join militant extremist training camps run by Al Shabaab ( Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict 2009;2:181-200).
To better understand why this happened and how it can be prevented, we conducted a research study of Somali Americans funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. We interviewed 57 people in Minneapolis–St. Paul who were either Somali American males aged 16-30 years, Somali American parents or adult family members, or service providers who worked within that community.
Multiple risks found
What we found is that no single risk factor explains violent radicalization. Instead, a combination of multiple risks at the individual, family, community, and societal levels are implicated.
To explain how to address these risks, we built a model called Diminishing Opportunities for Violent Extremism, or DOVE. This model shows that building community resilience to violent extremism depends on sustaining and strengthening (or in some cases initiating) protective resources through collaborations between family and youth, community, and government.
According to the DOVE model, these protective resources should focus on three risk levels:
• Diminishing youth’s unaccountable times and unobserved spaces (the times when adolescents and young adults are not answerable to parents or other adults and are in spaces where they are out of the sight of adults).
• Diminishing the perceived social legitimacy of violent extremism (perceptions of the appropriateness and necessity of violent extremist ideology and actions).
• Diminishing contact with recruiters or associates (adolescents and young adults interacting directly with either recruiters or companions who facilitate their increased involvement in violent extremism).
The U.S. government, state and local law enforcement, and local communities have been trying to organize prevention activities to address these and other risks. In Pres. Barack Obama’s Sept. 24, 2014, address to the United Nations, he stated: “There is no military solution to the problem of misguided individuals seeking to join terrorist organizations.” He supported a strategy called countering violent extremism, or CVE. This strategy is concerned with preventing violent ideologies from taking hold of people in the first place, and intervening and dissuading people from crossing the line toward actual violence.
The DOVE model supports the basic claim of CVE that government can’t do it alone, and it is going to require changes in communities. Meaningful preventive responses to radicalization must originate from within communities. One promising example is the Safe Spaces Initiative , a community-led preventive intervention developed by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Safe Spaces leaves it up to communities to intervene with young people who might be getting involved with radicalization but have not yet entered into criminal space. It calls for communities to form Critical Inquiry Teams that include the participation of mental health professionals.
Role of mental health professionals
Incorporating mental health into CVE holds significant potential for enhancing both intervention and prevention capabilities with adolescents and young adults. In the United Kingdom, a national strategy called Prevent includes Channel , a multiagency program aimed at providing support to people at risk of being drawn into radicalization. One key component of Channel is for mental health professionals to be involved in assessment and support, but in order for mental health, law enforcement, and communities to be able to work together on radicalization and recruitment in the United States, we are going to have to invest in developing, implementing, and evaluating new collaborative models.
The threat of recruitment and radicalization has heightened significantly with the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). ISIS uses propaganda videos and social media messages to appeal to a range of audiences, including would-be violent avengers, humanitarians, immigrants and refugees, and converts – males and females. Hundreds of U.S. foreign fighters reportedly have gone to ISIS. U.S. law enforcement agencies are concerned that more Americans will join ISIS, and that those foreign fighters who have joined and traveled abroad might pose security threats here at home.
To compete with ISIS to prevent more young people from going to Syria and Iraq, implementing CVE programs and policies is a national priority. This could be an opportunity for psychiatry and other mental health professionals to contribute to national and local response strategies.
One new initiative is a project recently begun by our team that is funded by the Science and Technology Directorate of the Homeland Security Dept. as part of a broader research portfolio on CVE conducted by the START Consortium, which aims to better understand how to integrate mental health professionals into countering violent extremism. This project presents an opportunity for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to contribute to national and local response strategies to radicalization and recruitment.
Dr. Weine is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He will address the issue of radicalization and recruitment to violence among Muslim-American teens at the upcoming joint meeting between the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry (ASAP) and the Internal Society for Adolescent Psychiatry March 26-29 in New York. The meeting, which is themed “The Art and Science of Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy,” also will include resumption of ASAP’s Certification Examination in Adolescent Psychiatry.