public diplomacy

Guarding Our Children: Strategies for Protecting Youth From the Lure of ISIS

Terrorist organizations know no boundaries. This becomes especially evident in the recruitment of children. Deemed “cubs of the caliphate,” child soldiers are integrated into the same military ranks as adults. Their recruitment happens with and without parent involvement, but frequently ends in an untimely death. As seen in Malaysia, ISIS utilizes social media to persuade young children to join their jihadi movement in acts that include suicide bombing missions and targeted attacks. ISIS appeals to the utopian fantasies of young people and offers an escape from Western frustrations, but also from the turmoil of the Middle East, meaning that they have multiple narratives that need to be countered.

One program designed to counter violent extremism is Peer to Peer (P2P).  P2P is a partnership supported by the Department of State which seeks to encourage young people to become actively involved in the global CVE effort. P2P is structured as a competition between student groups from universities and colleges around the world. The program’s key strength lies in its flexibility in providing the student groups loose guidelines, but allowing creativity to direct the CVE initiatives. The program partners, EdVenture and Facebook, each supply an initial grant to help initiate the campaigns. All projects are 100% driven and created by passionate students. The winners receive additional grant money to continue their campaign, though all participants are encouraged to develop their campaigns beyond the P2P program. The participants measure the varying success of the outreach by documenting participant actions and noting how many people are drawn to their websites, social media platforms, and other digital medium. Because college students are the ones developing the outreach and media campaigns, their target audiences are generally their peers or adults with whom they can relate as opposed to younger generations who also need greater exposure to CVE messaging. . Where P2P needs further cultivation, is in the appeals and focus on young children in elementary through high schools.


One P2P program did develop a counter terrorism curriculum for use in elementary school classrooms. A team from MSU, created a united campaign encouraging multi-ethnic collaboration within Generation Z to fight terrorism. The team noticed that even young children were susceptible to targeting by extremist groups and responded to the need for CVE education in the classroom. The campaign included lessons, games, and videos which seek to educate youth on the dangers of terrorism and how to be safe online. The brand is known as One95 and has continued to be developed after the initial P2P success. The Center Extremism Project has adopted the One95 brand and is continuing and modifying the brand in addition to the original platforms which are still operational.

Possibly one of the best examples of a campaign aimed at children that counters the alluring images and narratives created by terrorist organizations, is Burka Avenger. Burka Avenger is a Pakistani television program created to direct children away from becoming radical terrorists, by pointing out the hypocrisies and dangers of terrorism. The protagonist is introduced as having suffered through a terrorist attack in which she lost her family—the reason for her current campaign against terrorism. Burka Avenger fights with books, and pens, symbolizing the way that education is the key to combatting terrorism, and the alter ego of the hero is a female school teacher. The terrorists are portrayed as foolish, stupid, and corrupt, and the societal issues mentioned in the show, such as the role of women and attacks on girl’s schools are very blatant. These types of images, along with the cultural norms presented, resonate with the Pakistani community who face these issues every day. To reinforce the importance of all members of society in the CVE effort, the show has a very diverse cast. The overall message of faith and hope are very uplifting and can speak to the larger CVE narrative of simply staying hopeful and not turning to terrorism. The very first episode ends with a powerful message about how education is the best defense against adversity, regardless of whether you are a boy or a girl. To support the messages of the show, there are various Burka Avenger apps, games, and apparel.

Prevention is an important defense measure against terrorism and one of the best ways to implement a prevention strategy, is to protect the young generations from the messaging that will seek to corrupt them. Following in the example of One95 and Burka Avenger, CVE education for children should teach safe practices online and on social media to keep children out of the clutches of violent extremists. Moreover, there should be a greater push to expose children to programs like Burka Avenger and start a dialogue regarding the content. Teachers and parents should lead discussions on the ways in which a young person can avoid being misled, how they can stay safe, and what the alternatives are. By elucidating the dangers and hypocrisies of terrorism like Burka Avenger, youth CVE messaging can counter the false narratives put forth by organizations like ISIS. CVE messaging also needs to follow the example of The Truth anti-smoking campaign which produces and disseminates images created by young people for their peers. The Best Buddies alliance program is perhaps an ideal model for a school based advocacy program that involves students lead campaigns directed at high school students.



6 thoughts on “Guarding Our Children: Strategies for Protecting Youth From the Lure of ISIS

  1. The program you reported on, P2P, is a very interesting topic. It is an engaging way to get young adults to combat the extremism internally, as well as help others being influenced by ISIS propaganda. I agree that a similar program should also be applicable to high school students, as it provides a different perspective to those that are slightly younger or haven’t yet/won’t go to college.

    Posted by kirstenzee | May 1, 2017, 12:12 am
  2. I think a great addition to this piece would be a note about what earlier school programs could do, like primary or elementary school programs. The following guardian piece talks about the recruitment of yourh soldiers, and they discuss children as young as 10 ( You piece definitely delves into this, but I would like to read your thoughts on what schools can do independent of funded programs.

    Posted by Anna Pokrovsky | April 29, 2017, 7:04 pm
  3. I thought your argument that P2P should expand to elementary and high school aged children was particularly interesting. Your use of examples helped to reinforce your argument, and helped the reader see how your suggestions could be operationalized at a base level. VICE News also highlighted the value of the P2P program and how it is being operationalized in colleges across the country:

    Posted by Allison Crowe | April 29, 2017, 4:10 pm
  4. I think it would be interesting to examine the extent to which these CVE efforts are effective. In theory, they are long-running devices that will hypothetically pay off as these children enter adolescence. It’s similar to asking an American child the extent to which Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood taught them manners or sympathy.

    Posted by brettm17 | April 29, 2017, 2:10 pm
  5. Because we know that ISIS looks for recruits who are young, isolated, and looking for a community, it would be interesting to know if P2P programs are doing anything specifically to reach out to those marked populations. Furthermore, these programs could one day take the shape of school social workers and advisers being trained in how to spot a child at risk for radicalization – here’s an article on the psychology of youth radicalization

    Posted by melissaholzberg | April 28, 2017, 4:50 pm


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