In its very brief existence, and owing to a vast, sophisticated social media marketing apparatus, ISIS has succeeded in attracting fighters from far corners of the earth. There are at least 43,000 active pro-ISIS Twitter accounts operating today, endlessly amplifying and repeating ISIS’s messages of hate, violence and terror. The more than 30,000 people who have joined ISIS from more than 100 countries is a testament to the power of social media.
But there is another side to this depressing story of how a group driven to murder, rape and enslave millions based on an extreme ideology could attract so many impressionable young people. The story involves another group of young people, also from all parts of the world, who are standing up to hate, intolerance and violent extremism. They are working their communities every day to offer positive alternatives to their peers, while identifying and understanding the factors that motivates participation in violence.
On September 28, 2015, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), with support from the White House, the State Department and Search for Common Ground, hosted about 100 of these youth activists, government officials and private sector experts from dozens of countries at the first Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism in New York City. Instead of solely attacking radicalization from the top down, the Global Youth Summit served as an opportunity for young people to engage with peers in developing locally-sourced solutions to address the challenges posed by extremism.
To see video highlights and learn more about the from the Global Youth Summit, click here.
The young, grassroots practitioners came from as far away as Australia to share their enthusiasm, exciting ideas and meet their counterparts, who are committed to countering hate and violence. They were people like:
Ilwad Elman of Somalia, Director of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, who helps to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth and adults disassociated from armed groups and works to counter violent extremism in the Horn and East Africa;
Achaleke Leke, a victim of radicalization and violence growing up in Cameroon, who became an ambassador of peace and for more than eight years has been a youth civil society peace activist inspiring others;
Daouda Zalle of Burkina Faso, a freelance film producer who trains young people to use basic film equipment to produce films on issues related to violent extremism;
Yousef Assidiq of Norway, a former extremist who co-founded JustUnity, an organization that is successfully working to prevent extremism and youth radicalization;
Essma Bengabsia, a college student from New Jersey who said she was campaigning to “counter violence in all its forms,” and planned to launch a series of social media hashtag campaigns against ISIS online recruitment; and
Widyan Fares of Australia, a reporter for The Point, an online youth-focused magazine covering issues affecting community harmony and cohesion. She presented a multi-platform concept to create global networks and partnerships to combat radicalization.
With more than 400 total attendees, the Summit’s success reflected a key CEP goal—the recognition that youth, with government and private sector support, must play an important role in responding to the growing threat posed by extremist propaganda and radicalization strategies. We want the summit to be an annual event because youth commitment is one of the key elements in a long-term strategy to reverse the lure of extremism, hatred and intolerance.
The Summit produced the Global Youth Action Agenda to Prevent Violent Extremism and Promote Peace, which was presented to President Obama at the U.N. Leaders’ Summit the next day. And it also initiated CEP’s One95 counter-narrative campaign, which includes a new website that will provide young activists a year-round platform for discussion and idea-sharing, and access to a counter extremism based educational curriculum that can be widely adapted and shared.
One of the innovate elements of the day was a centrally located and continually humming Youth CVE Marketplace, designed as an expo-style showcase of youth-driven concepts and proposals. The space highlighted the innovative work that young people around the world are doing to build resilience and social cohesion within their respective communities. It also served as a gathering place where young activists could connect with one another, share ideas and meet with government and private sector representatives interested in furthering their projects and ideas.
In an exciting segment where judges and the audience asked questions and provided constructive commentary, some of the youth activists previewed new impactful proposals. CEP has committed $100,000 to advance promising youth generated initiatives to counter extremism and up to $100,000 in grants from the U.S. State Department were announced as well for ideas judged promising or ready to scale.
Microsoft Corp. and Facebook both participated in the Summit, leading discussions focused on improving employment prospects for vulnerable youth and how technology can be used to support community-based efforts to counter radicalization.
CEP CEO Ambassador Mark D. Wallace captured the sense of optimism and hope that defined the spirit of the Summit. “We hope that we can look back on this day, this first Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism, and be able to say this was a turning point in the fight for peace, tolerance and pluralism.”