As the war on ISIS wanes in the Middle East, military commanders seeking to prevent the spread of violent extremism face a potential threat they can’t fight or kill away: the youth population boom.
They also have a powerful weapon in the fight against extremism: once again, youth.
As national security experts are consumed by immediate threats like the ISIS war and North Korea, we risk missing one of the biggest strategic disruptions the United States and its allies have faced in decades: More people between the ages of 15 and 24 live in the world today than ever before in human history, and that age cohort is likely to grow steadily for the next generation or more.
These young people are concentrated in the world’s most volatile and conflict-prone regions, which are also among the most fertile recruiting grounds for transnational terrorist groups. How these young people transition into adulthood could transform not only their own societies but also the global security landscape, for good or for ill. The question is whether we will try to influence the outcome and seize the opportunity to transcend costly whack-a-mole approaches to fighting terrorism and instability, or sit back, wait and see.
For most countries, youth booms present a welcome but all-too-rare opportunity. If governments can harness their potential, large populations of young people offer a demographic dividend of creative energy, productivity, and economic prosperity. They offer a once-in-a-generation chance for large-scale, positive change.
But for too many developing countries, the youth boom represents an overwhelming and seemingly insoluble problem. It drives dangerously high youth unemployment, stresses overstretched or insufficient public services, feeds global migration and social instability, and boosts the ranks of violent extremists.
To us here in the U.S., these problems may seem distant and unimportant against the backdrop of more urgent threats. But to head off a much more severe potential challenge before it consumes lives and undermines prosperity, neither the United States nor our allies in Europe, the Arab world, or elsewhere, can afford to ignore this demographic youth wave.
Surging youth populations are especially apparent in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, for example, more than half the labor force is younger than age 30. An equal proportion of the 167 million inhabitants of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, are between the ages of 15 and 34. In countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia, and Uganda, more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. In Mali, more than half of the population is under the age of 18.
Countries like these lack capacity to educate, employ, and provide sufficient human services to rapidly growing youth populations. The National Intelligence Council noted earlier this year in its quadrennial “Global Trends” report that “youthful states” tend to be “ill-equipped to meet the demands of sustained high fertility, rapid urban growth… and an underemployed young-adult population, potentially contributing to instability.”
The problem is acutely obvious when it comes to youth unemployment. The International Labor Organization, or ILO, estimated in a 2016 report that, after years of slow improvement, unemployment for 15 to 24 year olds around the world swelled to just above 13 percent in 2016, or 71 million people, nearly its historic peak. Not coincidentally, a large proportion of these unemployed young people live in lower-income, developing countries facing youth booms.
Without work now or good future prospects, these young people resort to migration within and beyond country borders, sometimes stirring social unrest and straining host governments’ ability to accommodate their basic needs. For a small minority of these young people, their mounting frustration risks sending them into the willing arms of extremist groups, either in their communities or on-line.
U.S. military leaders have long recognized the impact of the youth boom global security. And to their credit, they have been among the most articulate voices warning against relying disproportionately on military solutions to combat extremism.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that new recruits enlist with terror groups not for ideological reasons but because they sorely need jobs. Far too many will do almost anything to survive.
“We could knock off all of ISIL and Boko Haram this afternoon; but by the end week, so to speak, those ranks would be filled,” he said.
Last month at the Pentagon, Sgt. Maj. Anthony A. Spadaro, the senior enlisted leader for U.S. Pacific Command, said his top concern about ISIS spreading was “primarily the youth bulge in Africa.”
AFRICOM’s own senior enlisted leader, Chief Master Sgt. Ramón Colon-Lopez, said, “If you look at Africa right now, there’s 1.2 billion people there. By 2050, it’s estimated that it’s going to double to 2.4 [billion], and what happens when you have 600 million youth right now without any opportunities for education or jobs?” Colon-Lopez indicated he expected those youth will migrate somewhere else or potentially join terrorist organizations. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen. So from a national security perspective, I think it’s imperative that we stare at the African problem, because it can potentially be hot bed for terrorists in the future, and that is just on — based on facts and data.”
So how should countries like the United States respond? How can we seize the opportunity to influence tectonic social shifts that will impact global peace and prosperity for decades?
Developing countries need help meeting the basic needs of their growing youth populations, which are insufficiently prepared for the 21st century economy. In many countries, that means providing schooling for the large numbers of children who are not even attending primary through secondary school (more than 264 million children worldwide as of 2015) or not completing those basic studies.
Solving that complex challenge also includes preparing enough skilled teachers to help their students learn. That’s the aim of an IREX program called Teaching Excellence and Achievement, which brings secondary school teachers from developing countries to the U.S. to learn about new teaching methodologies that de-emphasize rote learning — or memorization through repetition — and develop more of the critical thinking, teamwork, and “soft” skills demanded by modern economies.
Developing countries also need help aligning educational institutions with the labor market, as IREX has done in Iraq and Morocco. And young people need help growing and expanding enterprises to help them become engines of employment — instead of expanding the ranks of job-seekers.
But a job may not be enough, according to a 2015 report by Mercy Corps based on its work with Afghan, Somali, and Colombian youth, who have been historically vulnerable to recruitment into extremism movements. In Somalia, researchers found “no relationship between job status and support for — or willingness to participate in — political violence.” In Afghanistan, they learned that increases in employment and income did not significantly diminish youth support for armed opposition groups. “Violence,” the report notes, “makes people poor, but poverty doesn’t appear to make them violent.”
The biggest driver toward violence is injustice and marginalization many young people feel when they witness corruption, preferential treatment for elites, and distant, seemingly ineffective government.
A UN Development Programme study published this year also found that those who joined violent extremist groups were most likely to share a deep distrust of government. To youth, many government leaders appear to look only after the interests of a few. Moreover, the UNDP said among youths surveyed “a striking 71 percent pointed to government action’, including ‘killing of a family member or friend’ or ‘arrest of a family member or friend’, as the incident that prompted them to join.” How their own government security forces treated them, “is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment, rather than the reverse.”
It’s different in Tunisia, where the government, with support from the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, engage youth in building a more responsive and participatory democracy. If such efforts reached a broader cross-section of Tunisia’s young people, would Tunisia remain a top exporter of fighters to ISIS?
Yet another Mercy Corps report found that in Somalia a combination of secondary education and civic engagement reduced the likelihood of youth participating in (by 13 percent) and supporting (by 20 percent) political violence.
The point is this: traditional tools of human development – education, job training and other supportive services – remain essential to giving young people opportunities and the tools to avoid involvement in violent extremism. But they’re not enough. Such intervention must be accompanied by opportunities for them to engage productively in their communities and, ideally, contribute to ensuring just and reliable governance. As for the many youth-led movements that already exist to counter violence and create positive change, many would benefit from support to help them further scale up their impact.
That means the U.S. should help our developing country partners overcome corruption and fragility, strengthen democratic institutions, and limit harsh military and police enforcement approaches to countering extremism.
It also means that the U.S. and its allies should rethink its own overreliance on military responses to extremism. As a recent Bipartisan Policy Center report marking the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks stresses, in spite of prodigious U.S. effort and expense on intelligence, law enforcement, and military actions against terrorist group and leadership, “it is impossible to conclude that the enemy has been defeated. Rather, the threat of terrorism has metastasized.”
It’s a cycle that seems as unstoppable as the growing ranks of marching brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To end it, we need to follow a different path. That begins with understanding the immense impact of the youth boom and finding ways to tap its potential and promise.