Attackers united by youth
Extremism can tempt those in their teens and twenties regardless of gender, race or religion
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.