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Time to Empower and Engage Youth on Countering Violent Extremism

Over the past two decades the violent extremism became an issue of discussion and emerged as a critical threat to many governments. The Horn of Africa has witnessed an increase in deadly terror attacks mainly affecting the people of Somalia and also targeting neighbouring countries.

Al-Shabaab initially emerged as a component within the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which, in 2006, was engaged in a conflict with a coalition of warlords more formally known as the, ‘Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism’. It was in the aftermath of the defeat of the ICU and the involvement of the Ethiopian army in Somalia that allowed Al-Shabaab a golden opportunity to recruit youth using the lure of defending Somalia from the alleged Ethiopian invasion. Many youth both in Somalia and from the Somali diaspora were lured into the conflict and participated in the so called ‘holy war’ in the process strengthening the Al-Shabaab and shoring up its legitimacy.

The absence of a consensus regarding terrorism and violent extremism, has not prevented violent extremism from emerging as a priority for decision-makers’ in East Africa and the Horn of Africa under the embryonic Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) approach. Violent extremism and conflict have generated immense suffering for the peoples of the Horn and poses an existential threat to the stability of states and governance in the Horn of Africa. Violent extremism may also exacerbate intra- and inter-religious tensions in the region. In this article, I will elaborate how youth empowerment and engagement will contribute the prevention and countering violent extremism in the region.

Why Youth?

The Horn of Africa has an unprecedented number of young, vibrant, and energetic people who, although economically productive, have little to no power or say on issues of importance to them or their families.  The countries in the region has number of challenges in common including high rates of illiteracy and limited access to formal education and skills development, poverty and mass unemployment, youth migration, socioeconomic and political exclusion. The region also experienced bouts of inter-state and intra-state conflicts. In the Horn of Africa region countering youth radicalization and violent extremism have emerged as top priorities to stabilize the region and ensure peaceful co-existence of peoples in this region.

In the past three years during my travels around the region, I have carried out a range of discussions with youth on violent extremism and youth perspectives on CVE.  The discussions revealed a rich and interesting diversity of views and opinions– in Somalia (mainly Mogadishu), the issues of terrorism, CVE, and Al-Shabab are often perceived as taboo that youth feel little inclination in exploring unless interlocutors and ‘spaces’ are perceived as trustworthy or familiar. In Kenya the situation was more mixed with some youth expressing themselves freely while others preferred to remain silent. On the other hand, youth in Uganda and Somaliland were willing to openly discuss violent extremism and CVE. In Djibouti, it seemed that youth were less informed on issues such as violent extremism and CVE but still expressed feelings of incomprehension and opposition to violence perpetrated by organizations such as the Al-Shabab.

The results and takeaways from the series of discussions with youth from several countries from the Horn seem to show that many youth have limited information regarding the threat posed by violent extremism in the Horn. Therefore, I piloted an activity of visiting universities in Hargeisa (University of Hargeisa, Golis University and New Generation University) to deliver series of lectures on youth empowerment (motivational speech), CVE informational talks and concluding with a question of what youth can contribute to the CVE effort. The outcome was positive and number of students requested to voluntarily take the floor and share something.

The youth has more energy that will be exploited and they are the largest age groups in the regions’ population. If not guided well they will fall the trap of peace spoilers as religious terrorism, politically motivated spoilers, organized criminal syndicates (smugglers, human traffickers, drug dealers), and insurgencies. Emphasis and attention to youth concerns will ensure that youth will contribute to national and regional development and will furthermore protect them from violent ideologies.

Why Countering Violent Extremism?

The Horn of Africa has been affected by attacks from groups such as the Al-Shabaab based in parts of Somalia. Al-Shabaab has carried out hundreds of attacks in Somalia and also neighboring countries in the region – Kenya, Uganda, Somaliland and Djibouti. Al-Shabaab an Arabic term which means “Youth”– suggests the saliency of CVE approaches that foreground youth and youth issues.

The challenge posed by violent extremism —and the instability  it produces—is a major global and regional concern due to the recognition that development is unlikely to take root in countries experiencing conflict and where violent extremist groups possess a foothold. The process of countering violent extremism and terrorism should address the long-term social and economic impact on communities with an emphasis on youth. This process must put the community at the centre of the P/CVE.

According to the panellists of my two round Delphi method survey in 2016, a number of factors facilitate youth radicalization in the Horn of Africa. The survey results suggest that internal  and regional factors such as– the inability of governments’ to improve social and economic conditions for youth; unemployment and economic grievances; the socio-cultural impact of decades of fighting and warlordism; and poor quality of education and the misinterpretations of Islamic religion guidelines, all play a role in youth recruitment into violent extremist organizations. The survey results also pointed to the saliency of external factors such as online radicalization through social media platforms that targets diaspora youth; and more specifically foreign intervention in Somalia.[1]

CVE projects and programs should avoid ‘one-off’ interventions but instead adopt a long term process approach that targets both the ideological arguments and the structural dynamics that create a conducive environment for violent extremism. Radicalization and recruitment often occurs in local social spheres, such as universities, schools, social media platforms, and among disadvantaged youth groups who are unemployed, vulnerable to drug addiction, schools drop-outs and so on. In other words, CVE should adopt a more explicitly youth focus and more specifically target the different spaces and phases involved in radicalization.

It is also clear that CVE programs and projects should exercise caution in terms of stigmatizing communities and exacerbating the very conditions that give rise to violent extremism. According to one study, In Somalia, the global counter-terror agenda has excused a range of counter-productive behaviour by national, regional and western actors that have undermined efforts to build lasting peace and the focus on terrorism has oversimplified Somalia’s conflict, and obscured the complex reasons why individuals choose to affiliate with or join the Al-Shabaab group.[2]  Another study argues that the lessons from Africa on terrorism and CVE suggest that state responses to terrorism risk making the problem worse.[3] Policies that are guided by fear will not solve the problem, but only long-term policy responses based on a human security approach that addresses the conditions that drive people to terrorism, is the only viable option.[4]

Davies argued that, “three linked problems need surfacing – definitions, causes and targets. First are the difficulties of definition in our wicked problem. Given the multiplicity of types of extremism (political, ethnic, sectarian, separatist, criminal), there are no internationally agreed definitions of extremism, nor of violent extremism, nor therefore of what CVE or preventing violent extremism (PVE) actually targets”.[5] Davies’ argument suggests the pitfalls associated with conventional CVE practice where any and all interventions are tagged as CVE. We need to think site, region or country specific approaches to CVE.

Mahmood argues that one of the biggest gaps in contemporary CVE efforts centres on the absence of ideological and religious systematic knowledge before formulating counter radicalization policies. The author goes on to argue that policy makers must possess a knowledge of religion, intra-religious polemics and disputes and their role in facilitating or obstructing violent extremism.[6] Radicalization is a complex, time dependent and dynamic process with affected youth going through several distinct stages.

Why empower and engage youth on CVE?

To better define the significance of the problem, a question to ask is: Why is it important to empower/invest in the youth? Young people are a major human resource for development, often acting as key agents for social change, economic growth and innovation. Their imagination, ideals, energy and vision are essential for the future prosperity and stability of the Horn. Setting up an appropriate framework to support young people and equip them with quality education, skills, and resources will first and foremost result in their empowerment.

The participation of youth and their perspectives are important to the success of not only CVE programming but also broader processes of conflict transformation and sustaining peace. Youth have to be the central focus of CVE if governments and civil society desire to halt recruitment into violent extremist groups. Youth are linked with the violent extremism as targets, drivers, menders, and change makers for solidarity and resilience.

From personal experience, I had witnessed how youth are affected by violent extremism – I became a target, victim (professionally, travel and physically), mentor (as a CVE activist and reach youth to be informed and inspired to contribute), and dream to contribute building networks of youth on CVE in the region to play the role as change maker for solidarity and resilience.

It is time to act!
Between July and September 2017, I conducted a field research on youth empowerment and engagement on CVE. A central objective of the research project was to explore and understanding the varied meanings of violent extremism and CVE from the perspectives of different social groups and sectors. I interviewed 63 research participants from Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Somaliland. The categories of the interviewees included: youth 35%, development worker 21%, security professional 17%, religious figure 6%, teacher 6%, elder 5%, policy maker 5%, family member 3%, victim of terrorist 2%.

In order to establish context for respondents’ attitudes towards empowerment the first question asked participants to define what youth empowerment meant to them. All the respondents mentioned the importance of youth empowerment.  A summarized overview of the findings of the research findings grouped under thematic areas is presented below.

Attitudes towards empowerment
Respondents identified three issues as opportunities to empower and engage youth – education, economic development and participation. Most of the respondents spoke about the need for empowering and engaging the youth on diverse national issues and the positive impact that this will have on the efforts to counter violent extremism. They also emphasized the importance of strengthening and improving the education system for empowering and engaging youth.

Attitudes towards the threat (Al-Shabaab)
Respondents’ attitudes towards the threat of Al-Shabaab coalesced around three main issues: Radicalization/Spiritual persuasion – youth with little knowledge of their religion are susceptible to be radicalized; Recruitment of youthExploiting the vulnerabilities of the youth such as unemployment, the lack of channels for participation, diverse forms of exclusion, and social media.; OperationsCivilian casualties – Killing innocent civilians and transforming youth into suicide bombers.

Some interviewees particularly the security professionals and development workers were more sensitive to the threat posed by violent extremist groups using religious means to persuade youth. More specifically these respondents in their responses highlighted how poverty, lack of proper education and lawlessness in some regions in Somalia assisted the Al-Shabaab in their ostensible goals of bringing justice, rule of law and security allowing it to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the youth. Another view point in the responses argued that since groups such as the Al-Shabaab use religion i.e. ideological arguments, as a tool for recruitment, therefore CVE programming should also explore utilizing ideology instead of relying on military means.

Social and cross-cutting issues
According to the respondents on the social and other cross-cutting issues two areas received more attention; The Role of Religious Leaders Religious figures should take on a leading role in preaching to prevent radicalization; Sensitization of the threat of (Youth Radicalization and Violent Extremism). Responses also addressed the importance of raising mass awareness about the dangers of violent extremism, and also poverty reduction efforts to reduce youth vulnerability.

Al-Shabaab and similar  groups such as ISIS use graphic violence intentionally. The media gives huge coverage to these atrocities and amplifies this threat. A number of respondents raised the need for religious leaders’ intervention for counter violent extremism and the role of media coverage on their efforts.

Countering Violent Extremism
The research participants expressed a desire of collective actions on countering violent extremisms. Regardless of the existing focus on countering violent extremism activities as the primary preventive method to fight terrorism, yet the understanding of what is effective is still an open question. The recommendations raised include: Awareness raising campaigns led by religious leaders; Protection and promotion of human security; Governments should devote more resources to raise public awareness about the dangers of violent extremism and develop policies and plans on CVE; Strengthening education system and establishment of recreation centres for the youth; and employment creation opportunities.


Contemporary CVE programming while emphasizing poverty reduction, employment creation, counter-messaging and rehabilitation and re-education, has not completely ruled out relying on force. During the designing and CVE programming the voices of the grassroots are not heard by the policy makers as well as the implementing organizations. To defeat violent extremism, a paradigm shift is necessary which entails a focus not on the  symptoms but the ‘virus’ itself. Terrorism itself is not an ideology but a tactic used by a group with motive and agenda. It is a complex challenge deserving a complex and variegated set of response.

Tackling violent extremism requires a comprehensive and dynamic grasp of the process or processes associated that give rise to it, which would then point to the most appropriate solution. Youth empowerment and engagement is crucial because it will enhance participation and involve one of the most vulnerable groups susceptible to violent extremism. Our youth will never be safe as long as they are not well informed, not empowered and not engaged in CVE activities in their localities because they are far more susceptible to radicalization than adults.


Abdishakur Hassan-Kayd is a senior consultant for CEPRAD Consultancy firm. He is a CVE activist in the Horn of Africa and his research interests include CVE, peace-building, community change and regional security. He can be at


[1] Hassan-kayd, Abdishakur. 2016. The Role of the youth empowerment and engagement in countering violent extremism and terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Delphi method survey, Future Generations Graduate School.

[2] Saferworld. 2016. (accessed April 22, 2017).

[3] Institute of Security Studies. 2017. September 18, 2017. (accessed September 21, 2017). Press Release. Institute of Security Studies.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Davies, Lynn. 2016. ‘Wicked Problems: How Complexity Science Helps Direct Education Responses to Prevent Violent Extremism.’ Journal of Strategic Security, 2016: 32-52.

[6] Mahmood, Tahir.July 9, 2015. Gap Analysis – Theory of Religious Deviation.

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