What is the role of young people in the fight against terror?

Millennials were both the perpetrators and victims of the terror attacks in the French capital

November 22, 2015
The atrocities in Paris have galvanised young people into taking action to fight the terror threat © Guillaume Payen via ZUMA Wire
The atrocities in Paris have galvanised young people into taking action to fight the terror threat © Guillaume Payen via ZUMA Wire

Call them Millennials. Call them Generation Y. Call them whatever you like, but please don’t call them the future until they take responsibility for the present. That was the message delivered by Bob Geldof at the opening ceremony of the One Young World summit—a global gathering of future world leaders that took place this week in Thailand. “This generation, your generation is already stained with blood. Your age group are the killers of Syria,” he said in a solemn speech that called on young people to take a more active role in the fight against terror.

He has a point.The average age of a male Jihadi foreign fighter is between 18 and 29 years old, according to a study by US-based security and intelligence consultants, the Soufan Group. Those suspected of waging war against their contemporaries in Paris on 13th November were all in their mid to late 20s, the attacker who opened fire on the train from Amsterdam to Paris in August was 25, the gunman who killed two people in Copenhagen after a shooting spree at a free speech debate and a synagogue was just 22. Around 6,000 Europeans have so far left the liberal societies they grew up in and joined Islamic State, which Majid Nawaz, the founder of the Quillam Foundation—the world’s first counter terrorism think tank—described in a speech to the summit as “the worst terrorist group in history.”

Despite living in the digital age, with all the potential for collaboration and connection it engenders, Millennials are largely failing to forge an interfaith narrative to counter the doctrine of al-Baghdadi’s death cult. But, there are a few young voices fighting to be heard. Among them is the French activist, François Reyes, 19, who set up the innovative think thank, Réveil Citoyen (Citizens Awakening), in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo atrocities. Dedicated to promoting dialogue between different cultures and faiths, the work of Reyes and his growing team of volunteers has won plaudits from politicians across France including President Hollande.

Speaking at One Young World, which welcomes 1,500 representatives from 196 countries, Reyes said: “Terrorists have guns and bombs, we use words and actions. We read, we educate ourselves and confront opposite views peacefully.” He recounted an encounter with a member of the National Front who attended a Réveil Citoyen debate purely to express "his hatred for foreign communities”. His curiosity piqued by the debate, he then visited a mosque with one of the group's Muslim members.

A few days later, he called Reyes to say; "Muslims aren’t as bad as the press makes us believe." "He had become more tolerant, at that moment, I knew that, even if Reveil Citoyen was to end tomorrow, we would have achieved something,” said Reyes.

This vision of a more tolerant society is shared by many people worldwide, both young and old, but few are confident and courageous enough to take action. One Young World's co-founder Kate Robertson, is committed to using this annual summit to counteract the tendency among the peace-loving majority to stay silent. “Desmond Tutu often said ‘it only takes for evil to triumph for the good to do nothing'", she said. "As the mother of a millennial, I look at the stuff that teenagers get gripped by like anorexia and self harm— what’s cool about that? These are terrible illnesses. When I was a teenager in the Sixties the anti-war movement was the hip thing to be part of. Nobody who was cool picked up a gun, they had a spliff instead. Now, in certain parts of the world, joining [Islamic State] is the cool thing to do… In order to counter it we need a more powerful idea with a better narrative.”

What shape that opposition should take is still unclear, but at least the debate over what role young people can take in the global fight against terrorism has begun. Other inspiring ideas showcased at the youth summit included a library-building project in the Philippines—ranked as the 11th worst country in the Global Terrorism Index—which offers scholarships to children of all religions and aims to help eradicate interfaith conflict through education. Half Jewish, Half Iranian delegate, Noam Shouster, also spoke passionately about the need for a more integrated approach to the peace process in Israel.

While tears were shed, especially when Reyes shared his grief over the Paris atrocities which claimed the lives of two of his friends, there was a shared sense of defiance— a recognition that closing your eyes and hoping the terrorist threat will go away is no longer acceptable, and that changing your Facebook profile picture does not count as taking action. “I will go home and tell them that we will fight intolerance,” said Reyes “we will fight intolerance peacefully and never ever give up.”