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How Young Canadians Become Jihadists

10/17/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST
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by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

To his friends, Collin Gordon was a "mellow dude" who played volleyball, studied business and threw the best parties at B.C.'s Thompson Rivers University.

With the income he earned as a carpenter, Somali immigrant Ali Dirie, 18, he was considering a college education and a career as an x-ray technician.

Chris Boudreau describes her son, Damian Clairmont, as "athletic" and "brilliant." When the 22-year-old Calgarian converted to Islam, she hoped he might finally overcome the chronic depression that haunted him.

Despite starting off on different roads, all three young Canadians arrived at a similar destination: in the ranks of the jihadis. They are among the estimated 130 Canadians, many who once had promising futures, who have joined overseas terrorist organizations.

So many young Canadians are looking to make their mark on the world. Some pick up a shovel to build a school or a ladle in soup kitchens to serve the homeless. A small number choose a different way, traveling to Syria to pick up an AK-47.

Where does the road diverge between the youth who choose the path of helping and those on the path of harm? And for those on the road toward extremism, are there points along their journey where they might be set on a positive path?

For answers, we turned to two Canadian experts who have spent years studying radicalization and terrorism--Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo sociologist, and Michael Zekulin, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. Both are regularly sought by media, and the RCMP and CSIS have on numerous occasions asked Dawson to share his expertise.

Although there is still little hard data--extremist guerrillas don't tend to volunteer for sociological studies--Dawson said researchers "can start to glean some patterns" using public information on known extremists, such as their age and level of education.

The most disturbing pattern Dawson has observed: "The age at which people are radicalizing is becoming younger and younger."

One popular theory, Dawson said, is that our celebrity-obsessed culture pushes youth to define who they are, to find significance in their lives, at ever earlier ages. "There is this onus on kids to create themselves, to be somebody. They're trying to figure out 'how can I be someone special?'"

During this time, Dawson said, young people are open to outside influences telling them how they can achieve that significance. "It's all about who gets to them first. Timing is everything."

Zekulin offered some other theories on why young people are attracted to extremist viewpoints: "Some suggest it has to do with disillusionment, a sense of not belonging. Others suggest the idea of 'jihadi cool'--it's an adventure."

The "jihadi cool" was very much in evidence in the U.K. recently, where internet images surfaced showing U.K.-born Islamic fighters lounging in a well-appointed home with laptops and game systems. The so-called "5-star jihad" message was clearly intended to attract new recruits with images of a glamorous life.

It has fascinated us that, so very often, friends and family describe these young radicals, not as bad eggs but as good kids--smart, high achievers with strong values. Dawson isn't surprised. "The kids who are good kids, who take values seriously--they're the vulnerable ones. They get angry that no one is doing anything to stop the injustices they see in the world."

Can we prevent youth from being influenced by and drawn into violent radical movements?

Zekulin notes that some countries like the U.K., Denmark and Germany have developed radicalization prevention programs that reach out to at-risk youth and provide a "counter narrative"--alternatives to radicalism. As Dawson explained: "We have to get these young people to see more positive ways to impact the world."

"It's like being the switchman on the railway track. We want to be there to put them on the right track."

Unfortunately, in the end we are still dealing with theories. And as Zekulin was careful to note, "There are no easy answers."

But we must keep asking the questions, for the sake of young Canadians like Dirie and Clairmont. The road they followed led only to death on Syria's bloody battlefields.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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