The public’s idea of a modern-day terrorist is of a youthful fanatic. That’s understandable given that so many high-profile terror attacks over the past decade have been led by young people. The Sri Lanka bombings, the Christchurch massacres, the high school slaughter at Parkland, the Charlie Hebdo murders, the atrocities at London Bridge and the Bataclan in Paris; they were all carried out by attackers from the millennial generation.
Yet it’s also the case that young people, who account for many of the victims in these killings, hold many of the answers for countering this global scourge of violent extremism.
It was the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, born in the 1980s and one of the youngest leaders on the world stage, who delivered a masterclass in statesmanship with her calm and compassionate response to the Christchurch attacks.
As chief executive of One Young World, the largest global network of young leaders, I know that young people are taking up the struggle against terrorism at all levels and on every continent, just as they are now at the forefront of the campaign to roll back climate change.
To mark this year’s 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a caucus of young people gathered in the capital, Kigali, to discuss the path to lasting peace. Among those present was Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, who was seven-years-old when he witnessed his father being murdered by once-friendly neighbours. Today, having spoken with and forgiven the killers, he runs the Hyppolite for Peace Foundation, bringing together communities to break down ethnic divisions. His response to violence has been its literal opposite – he decided to forgive and to do something about the cause of the genocide.
In conflict-torn Libya, another of our ambassadors, Hajer Sharief, is confronting the extremists through her Together We Build It network by harnessing the power of young women in striving for peace. Hajer points out that any society can succumb to violence, having seen her own peaceful and comfortable Tripoli neighbourhood descend into bloody fighting in the space of 24 hours.
If these community-based activities are to have the impact and recognition they deserve, they need the support of the media platforms that young people use. Social media too often rewards hate with clicks and likes instead of championing the good that millennials are doing. Its algorithms respond best to emotive language – especially that of hate – driving up user likes and making money for the platforms themselves.
Social media has great capacity for driving positive change and could be made more sensitive to the good that young people are doing to fight violence. The success of the OneLoveManchester hashtag attached to Ariana Grande’s benefit concert for the victims of the 2017 Manchester bombing shows the power of the majority voice on these platforms.
By rewarding the language of polarisation, social media causes alienation which endangers us all. The reaction it generates to terrorist incidents is often a wave of opprobrium directed at a particular community. Young people who find themselves unfairly demonised like this can go one of two ways – they can be driven towards violent extremism or try to fight against it.
One of our young leaders, Mimoun Berrissoun, created his 180° Turn movement in Germany when, after the 9-11 attack, his German classmates claimed that he, a Muslim, was somehow responsible for the atrocity. Another ambassador, Ndugwa Hassan, was inspired to act after the 2010 terror attacks in Uganda, which happened close to where he was watching a televised World Cup football match. After witnessing the carnage he was appalled that Muslims were being blamed for the bombing. His response was to co-found the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum and he is training imams, teachers and young people to challenge the narratives of violent factions.
Kofi Annan, the late former Secretary-General of the United Nations and a passionate supporter of One Young World, understood these patterns. I worked with him in establishing Extremely Together, and we identified a network of outstanding young leaders, like Ndugwa, who are committed to countering violent extremism around the world.
Mainstream media rarely shows such sophisticated insight. Too often it succumbs to the role of fearmongerer; to the point of actually using the propaganda videos of Islamic State as independent, verified news footage or naming the perpetrator of the Christchurch killings. In this way it feeds the craving for notoriety that so many of the terrorists seem to have.
Bjørn Ihler, one of our Extremely Together team, was a survivor of the Utøya Island attack in Norway in 2011. He talks of the shooter’s craving for celebrity. The young people who escaped the Parkland shooting in 2018 share the view that the media should not be naming these killers. The Christchurch shooter chose not to take his own life, expecting to bask in lasting fame and Jacinda Ardern is absolutely right to refuse to say his name. One could reasonably expect news networks to follow suit.
From social platforms to news sites, we must not play into the hands of violent extremists. It is the young people who are fighting terrorism that we should be celebrating, not those who seek notoriety at any cost.
One Young World is the global forum for young leaders. The annual Summit convenes the brightest young talent from every country and sector, working to accelerate social impact. Delegates from 190+ countries are counselled by influential political, business and humanitarian leaders such as Justin Trudeau, Paul Polman and Meghan Markle, among many other global figures. This year, One Young World return to London to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Click here for more details on how to get involved.
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