At­tack­ers united by youth

Ex­trem­ism can tempt those in their teens and twen­ties re­gard­less of gen­der, race or re­li­gion

The Observer - - FRONT PAGE - by Emma Graham-Har­ri­son

Di­vided by ge­og­ra­phy, ide­ol­ogy and method, the ma­jor­ity of ter­ror at­tack­ers and their rad­i­calised net­works nev­er­the­less usu­ally have one thing in com­mon – their age.

Ex­trem­ist be­liefs ap­peal to peo­ple across gen­der and class, re­li­gion and race, and where there are or­gan­ised groups their lead­ers and key re­cruiters may be older. But the large ma­jor­ity of their sup­port­ers, foot­sol­diers and lone killers tend to be united by youth.

From far-right at­tack­ers such as Dy­lann Roof, who had re­cently turned 21 when he killed nine peo­ple in a Charleston at­tack, to Is­lamist mil­i­tants such as the Manch­ester Arena bomber Sal­man Abedi, aged 22 when he blew him­self up out­side a con­cert and killed 22 peo­ple, per­pe­tra­tors are, again and again, in their teens or twen­ties.

It is not yet clear what con­nec­tion an 18-year-old ar­rested in Dover is sus­pected of hav­ing to Fri­day’s at­tack in Par­sons Green or its prepa­ra­tion.

But de­tec­tives hunt­ing for the bomber, and any­one else be­hind the mak­ing of the de­vice, are likely to have fo­cused on younger peo­ple. Young peo­ple tend to be more open to risk than their el­ders, a ten­dency high­lighted by a range of data from ev­ery­day life; ado­les­cents are more likely to be in­volved in a car ac­ci­dent and much more likely to com­mit a crime.

Sci­en­tists are still ar­gu­ing about rea­sons for this be­hav­iour, which may be driven by the chem­istry of still ma­tur­ing brains, or out­side fac­tors in­clud­ing lack of ex­pe­ri­ence needed to eval­u­ate risk. But the same fac­tors that in­flu­ence some young peo­ple to hit the ac­cel­er­a­tor may make oth­ers more likely to pre­pare an at­tack or travel to com­bat zones. They are also more likely to be search­ing for mean­ing and pur­pose in life, some­thing that ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy and hate groups can of­fer, usu­ally through their dark, but sim­ple, world view.

“It’s es­pe­cially young peo­ple who we see in­volv­ing them­selves in far-right groups, just as we have seen young peo­ple turn to Is­lamic ex­trem­ism,” Ben­jamin Ab­tan, pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Grass­roots An­tiracist Move­ment, has writ­ten.

“(They) bring a mean­ing that tran­scends the in­di­vid­ual, that al­lows one to raise their head, to re­dis­cover their dig­nity, to make sense of the suf­fer­ing around them, and to feel rein­vig­o­rated with hope for the fu­ture. For young peo­ple and oth­ers alike, this is an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion.”

The in­ter­net can fa­cil­i­tate rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, al­low­ing young peo­ple to re­treat into a vir­tual com­mu­nity with a re­in­forc­ing sense of fel­low­ship. Fight­ing and at­tacks also of­fer a chance to travel, the sug­ges­tion that they are help­ing oth­ers.

Testos­terone, so­cial con­di­tion­ing and ide­ol­ogy may make men more sus­cep­ti­ble to re­cruit­ment by some groups or to cer­tain causes. In re­cent years there has been a fo­cus on the men drawn to far-right and mil­i­tant Is­lamist groups, but his­tor­i­cally young women have also signed up for vi­o­lence, play­ing a prom­i­nent role in guer­rilla groups from Ger­many’s Baader-Mein­hof Gang group, with its epony­mous founder Ul­rike Mein­hof, to Colom­bia’s M-19.

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