Teenage Terrorists and Thinking Beyond the Church Youth Group

No, I’m not talking about ordinary adolescent angst, but actual terrorists. This is a global phenomenon affecting Hindu extremists, anti-Semitic extremists, Trump supporters, racists, homophobes, and every other kind of nationalist or hate group you can imagine. ALL of them are recruiting teens.

Why is this happening?

For two reasons: First, teens are emotionally vulnerable and highly susceptible to peer approval and influence. One teenager’s opinion is worth more to another teenager than a hundred Nobel laureates. Teenagers trust people their age and instinctively distrust anyone outside their cohort. Secondly, today’s teenagers have never known any information source that was not based upon a computer or cell phone. These two factors mean that it is incredibly cost effective for extremist groups to radicalize teenagers. In the United States, a culture of toxic individualism only serves to further isolate vulnerable teens making it easy for recruiters to radicalize them around their desire for recognition.

Here are some examples of teenage extremists caught before they caused real harm. October, 2020, a 14-year-old German youth was arrested for plotting violence against a synagogue and a mosque. The same month, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protesters in Kenosha, WI. In England, a 15-year-old leads a far-right extremist group called the “British Hand” and a 17-year-old in the midwestern United States led recruitment for a group of teens plotting to take out high voltage power lines should President Trump lose the 2020 election. A 13-year-old was arrested in Estonia for leading a violent nationalist terror group. Seventeen teenagers as young as 13 have been arrested in the last year and a half.

Increasingly, violent groups target young teens to carry out “lone wolf” attacks giving the teen a sense of purpose, strength and identity versus the bullying experienced at school. Today, there are one billion Muslims under the age of 30. ISIS is using online recruitment to draw hundreds of youth out of villages worldwide. “Jihad” which has come to imply violent, armed struggle, has been linked with “cool” in the minds of Muslim youth. Recently, three female high school students left their homes in London to join ISIS fighters in Syria.

Generation Z, those born between the 1990s and 2010s, are referred to as “digital natives” because they have never known a life without the internet. ISIS abroad and far right extremists at home have taken advantage of the pandemic isolation to reach thousands of struggling teens and pull them into a fantasy world of violence and destruction.

What can the church do?

It is clear that Gen Z kids do not pay attention to anyone over 30. Peer-level influencers are needed to promote values of inclusion and shared humanity. Tired-old church strategies focusing on messages about sin, guilt, forgiveness, and Jesus will have little impact because today’s youth discredit all religions. (ISIS, by the way, is not selling a religion, it sells a utopian political dream of a global caliphate. Never mind that their utopian vision is run by ultraconservative Muslims.) The church could reach out to other non-religious organizations to share a message of diversity, inclusion, shared human values, and dignity.

I am concerned that those of us in older generations will cling to models of church membership, ideology and culture wars over transgendered people and bathrooms. Our old models of organizations and membership offer absolutely nothing of value to Gen Z teens. We need to find the peer-level influencers and support them. We need alternative places for disaffected youth to go. Church youth groups just won’t do the job anymore. There is even some evidence to the contrary that church youth groups exacerbate in-groups, isolation, and bullying. We need to build a positive vision of an inter-religious and inter-governmental world that eschews violence, lies, and manipulation in favor of togetherness, love, and mutual support.

Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists would have a difficult time with this because it does not hard sell Jesus. Conservatives might not like this because it does not stress individualism and places too much emphasis on community. The question boils down to whether you want the youth pulled into groups of violent extremists that offer our youth a sense of identity, strength and purpose in exchange for their allegiance to a dangerous set of lies? Or do you want to build positive “influencers” (roll models) and groups that will create a better future?

As songwriter, Bob Dylan, once said, “The old world is rapidly fadin’ … for the times, they are a changin’.”

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