By Richard Baffa, Nathan Vest, Wing Yi Chan, and Abby Fanlo

This paper defines Salafi-jihadis are those who undertake armed struggle to impose their Salafi idealization on their societies and worldwide.


The United States has been engaged in a robust counter-terrorism campaign, formerly known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT), since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In the almost 18 years since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military has significantly improved its ability to efficiently find, fix, and finish terrorist targets.

However, there is widespread recognition among policymakers that the United States and its allies cannot simply kill or capture their way out of this difficult problem.

More needs to be done to counter the toxic ideologies and narratives, as well as the legitimate grievances, that have fueled this global phenomenon, particularly with the emerging generation—what sociologists call Generation Z.

To assess the future trends and characteristics of Salafi-jihadism in Generation Z, or Gen Z (known as individuals born between 1997 and 2012), we adopted a multidisciplinary approach incorporating security and terrorism studies, child development, and survey data.

Additionally, framing the study around generational cohorts as a unit of analysis allowed us to examine how different formative experiences, such as world events and technological, economic, and social dynamics, “interact with the life cycle and aging process to shape people’s views of the world.”

Most notably, Gen Z distinguishes itself from previous generations by its uniquely strong familiarity with technology that has profound implications for their social interactions, cognition, psychological development, and worldviews.

Because we have defined our cohort of study, we must also define Salafi-jihadism. As Islamic studies scholar Shiraz Maher states, Salafism is a heterogenous Islamist movement that “believes in progress through regression, where the perfect life is [realized] by reviving the Islam of the first three generations” of the Umma.

However, harkening back to an idealized early Muslim community as a model for reforming its modern counterpart is hardly exclusive to Salafis.

Therefore, we further define Salafis as ultra-conservative Islamists engaging in sociopolitical acts that emphasize the hyper-unity of the early Umma, absolute monotheism (tawhid), and rejection of alternative Islamic views (bid‘a).

Moreover, Salafi-jihadis are those who undertake armed struggle to impose this Salafi idealization on their societies and worldwide.

Life Span Developmental Factors Contributing to Radicalization of Youth

As the first Gen Z members begin to enter adulthood, there are key developmental factors that make youth particularly susceptible to radicalization.

Adolescents and emerging young adults are particularly vulnerable to persuasive messaging from violent extremist organizations.

Adolescence (11 to 17 years old) and young adulthood (18 to 25 years old) are two developmental periods that are characterized by identity explorations, instability, impulsivity, risk-taking, and the perceived need for independence.

Moreover, adolescents and young adults tend to have a higher propensity toward risky behaviors, including gang violence, drug use, and criminal activities.

Decision making is generally a product of two brain networks: socioemotional and cognitive control. The former is sensitive to social and emotional stimuli and responsible for processing rewards.

The socioemotional network is not fully developed until young adulthood, and more importantly, it is activated by hormonal changes triggered during puberty.

On the other hand, the cognitive control network is responsible for self-regulation, thinking ahead, and planning, and it is also less developed during adolescence.

As a result, the socioemotional network is overreacting during adolescence, and the cognitive control network is not mature enough to counteract the emotional responses.

Therefore, youth are more susceptible to sensational materials that induce emotional arousal and promise short-term rewards and to engaging in risky behaviors, such as acts of rebellion or violence.

The Drivers of Violent Extremism

The question of radicalization in past and current generations is a complex one. There are multiple drivers that vary based on demographics, socioeconomic conditions, youth culture, geopolitical setting, and governance.

Our research concluded that the underlying grievances that drove radicalization in past generations of Sunni Muslims remain salient in Gen Z.

Indeed, real and perceived sociopolitical marginalization and Western aggression against the dominance of the Muslim world all drove radicalization decades ago and continue do so now.

Although these drivers remain relevant in Gen Z, such factors as pervasive pessimism after the Arab uprisings in the early 2010s, anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment, the “youth bulge” and high unemployment, and shifting gender dynamics are arguably more salient in the radicalization of Gen Z than in past Salafi-jihadi cohorts.

The manifestation of these grievances differs across unique localities and drives extremism within the context of specific individuals and geographic locations.

Additionally, it is not our intent to suggest that all young Muslims who share these grievances are destined to become terrorists. Indeed, only a minority of the 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide turn to terrorism to address perceived grievances.

Nevertheless, as sociopolitical and economic grievances persist, a small number of Gen Z Sunnis almost certainly will turn to, or at least endorse, terrorism as a means of expressing individual and sociopolitical agency.

The security challenge of Salafi-jihadism is likely to persist at least at the same level as with the millennial generation.

Sociopolitical Grievances

The Arab Spring uprisings spawned widespread hope among Arab youth. However, 56 percent of Arab youth now view the Arab Spring uprisings negatively after disastrous civil wars and political and economic inertia.

Various issues, such as terrorism, political upheavals and instability, corruption, and economic stagnation, are driving the malaise among Arab youth—although none of these issues explicitly portend radicalization.

Additionally, the 2019 ousters of Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Sudan’s Omar Bashir could indicate a renewed drive to enact social change through peaceful demonstrations, akin to the Arab Spring uprisings.

However, should Arab youth continue to perceive social, economic, and political mobility as unobtainable, some almost certainly will see terrorism as the only means of asserting agency and engendering change in a stagnating Arab world.

Moreover, although globalization and increased internet penetration have arguably fostered a positive sense of interconnectedness within the global Muslim community, or Umma, both developments have also facilitated the bonding over shared grievances and the metastasis of in-group versus out-group mentalities.

Increased connectivity, via the internet and social media, among Islam’s 1.8 billion adherents has revealed the diversity of the faith in practice, which has led to clashes between “authentic” and “hybrid” forms of religious practice and between more traditional and moderate currents of Islamic ideology, often driving radicalization.

Gen Z and millennial Muslims have grown accustomed to debates about authentic versus hybrid forms of Islamic life; for youth in conservative Muslim communities, exposure to places where Muslims practice more liberally could spur either a desire to force those communities to return to a more “proper” practice of Islam or to reject their more conservative upbringing.

Additionally, for Muslim youth raised in secular countries, fundamentalist criticism of their political and social structures is only an online connection away.

Gen Z Sunnis can also readily debate the perception of Western aggression toward Muslim communities and opposition to Western military actions, which have long driven extremism and served as a recruiting tool for jihadist groups.

The campaign by the United States and its allies against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) will likely continue to play a role in Salafi-jihadism, particularly compared with perceived inaction by Western powers to curb Muslim suffering perpetrated by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

Tellingly, only 41 percent of Arab Youth Survey 2019 respondents viewed the United States as an ally of the Arab world, whereas 59 percent viewed it as an adversary, a 27-point increase since 2016.

Youth Bulge and High Unemployment in Arab World

Large youth populations mean a higher likelihood of unemployment, decreasing the opportunity costs of joining terrorist organizations.

In the Middle East specifically, the youth bulge is a serious economic challenge—close to 5 million workers are set to enter the job market each year, but employment opportunities are in short supply.

Although there is no consensus that high unemployment directly leads to terrorism, failed expectations can lead to a sense of discontentment, depression, and restlessness that feeds radicalization.

For example, one-third of recent college graduates in Tunisia cannot find work, and educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones.

Regionally, 30 percent of Arab Youth Survey 2018 respondents stated that “creating new, well-paying jobs” is the most important means of steering the Arab world in the right direction.

Continued economic stagnation and a consistently high youth unemployment rate, exacerbated by the Muslim youth bulge, could lead to failed expectations and spur radicalization among disenchanted Gen Z Muslims.

Shifting Gender Dynamics

The MeToo movement has led to increasing recognition of a longstanding culture of harassment and sexual violence and has spurred sister movements, including MosqueMeToo.

Originally intended to share stories of being assaulted on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, MosqueMeToo evolved to include stories of sexual harassment and violence in Islamic religious spaces and practices, bringing more attention to Muslim voices that advocate for women and criticize certain Islamic practices believed to disempower women.

As voices calling for gender equality are amplified, some individuals may perceive significant threats to their ways of life and values, potentially driving people to embrace more fundamentalist views.

Indeed, disapproval of greater social and economic roles for women seems to be common among Tunisian supporters of fundamentalist Islam.

In recent interviews with more than 80 Tunisians imprisoned on terrorism charges, the overwhelming majority said that the place for women was in the home rearing children and that women should wear the niqab.

Moreover, Salafi-jihadi ideologies provide a means for men who are feeling emasculated for losing jobs or social status to women to reclaim their masculinity.

An integral feature that attracted many young Muslim men to ISIS was the hyper-fundamental, strictly enforced gender norms in which men dominated all aspects of the so-called caliphate.

The group lauds the accomplishments of men. It allowed them to marry multiple women and take sabaya (sex slaves). In the Islamic State, the public sphere was strictly the domain of men, and the group’s violence provided a vehicle for men to reclaim their masculinity by taking up arms.

Salafi Ideology

Young Muslims turn to Salafi-jihadism for various sociopolitical and economic reasons. However, Islamic fundamentalism is part and parcel of Salafi ideology, and, regardless of primary drivers, which vary from individual to individual, ideology is often the common denominator.

Therefore, it is no accident that Salafi-jihadi groups consistently present their narratives in religious and historical frameworks, infusing Salafi-jihadi ideology with motifs of injustice, absolute unity within the Umma, tales of Muslim resilience, and religious justifications of violence as a means of defending Islam and achieving their sociopolitical objectives.

Furthermore, the Salafi-jihadi ambition of reverting Islam to their vision of the religion’s early, “pure” form represents the panacea for many drivers of extremism:

(a) corrupt, ineffective rulers;

(b) perceived subservience to the West;

(c) absence of the caliphate;

(d) deterioration of Islamic heritage and morals; and

(e) the increasing emergence of women in the public sphere.

Extremist actors present this ideology as the solution to all perceived ills, which thereby serves as a magnet for disgruntled Sunni youth in a wide variety of circumstances.

Next part: Collapse of the Caliphate and Implications for Future Radicalization






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