American teenagers are among the key recruits targeted by propaganda from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The group’s rise is in part fueled by its marketing savvy, selling its cause not simply on ideological and political grounds but as a hip counterculture. Across Europe, Canada, Australia and increasingly the United States, teenagers from diverse backgrounds — including Jews, Christians, atheists and even Shiites — have followed the siren song of ISIS’s narrative.
In the latest headline case, a 17-year old high school student from Virginiapleaded guilty to supporting ISIS by acting as a travel agent to help a friend from school join the group in Syria. A few weeks prior, a 16-year-old in South Carolina “lured by the ideology of ISIS” was convicted on gun charges. A few months earlier, three teenagers from Denver were stopped in transit to Turkey en route to ISIS in Syria. If not for a last-minute intervention of U.S. and German officials, who scrambled to act after frantic calls from one of the girls’ fathers, the teenagers likely would have joined the wave of minors drawn to terrorist organizations.
FBI Washington Field Office Assistant Director in Charge Andrew McCabe called the recent case of the Virginia teenager a “tragedy.” Indeed, the young man will likely spend the next 15 years behind bars, as his family now struggles to pick up the pieces of a misspent adolescence.
However, the steady stream of teenage recruits to ISIS is not simply a tragedy but also a particular challenge for U.S. officials, who cannot easily charge minors with terror support. Law enforcement officials, who have a responsibility to stop illegal activity, would prefer to concentrate limited resources on violent radicals who pose an imminent threat. While 17-year-olds can be moved from juvenile to adult court, there is a reluctance to charge minors for material support for terrorism.
The solution is an alternative to simply arresting minors: a targeted intervention with at-risk youth that, if properly implemented, can help sway young people from militancy…