Focusing on the family to prevent violent extremism

By Evelyn Rupert

August 27, 2018

The push and pull factors that drive youth to join a violent group can be seen playing out across continents, religions and cultures, whether that group is a gang in Central America or a violent extremist organization in North Africa.

An 18-month pilot program called ETTYSAL, which means “reaching out” in Arabic, sought to adapt a methodology for reducing youth risk factors of engaging with gangs to the context of Tunisia and build resilience to violent extremist groups. The project was funded by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Creative Associates International.

Enrique Roig, Director of Creative’s Citizen Security Practice Area, said the intention of ETTYSAL was to field test an approach on strengthening family protective factors to reduce likelihood of young people getting involved with groups prone to violence. ETTYSAL worked with 100 youth and their families in two communities to change behaviors that indicate high risk. Youth were evaluated for vulnerability to extremist organizations based on a series of risk factors, and their risk factors were then measured again after six months and at the end of the program.

“We wanted to determine if ideology and religion were as determinant in influencing youth involvement in extremist groups, and the evidence bore out that they are not,” Roig said. “Other individual factors like critical life events, drug use, negative peer influence and lack of family involvement are more critical to a youth’s susceptibility to recruitment.”

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From left: Dr. Slim Masmoudi of the University of Tunis; Dr. Mongia Souahi of the University of Ez-Zitouna; ETTYSAL Chief of Party Halima Mrad; and Dr. Mohamed Jouili of the University of Tunis.

This data-driven model, at work in Los Angeles and Central America, is centered on individualized family counseling and strengthening the entire family system.

It follows an overarching public health, place-based approach to violence prevention, in which violence is treated like a disease. Creative’s programs around the world seek to treat those “infected” and keep violence from spreading further through holistic interventions.

Halima Mrad, ETTYSAL Chief of Party, says the program’s results show that an approach designed with gangs in mind is equally effective in reducing youth risk for joining violent extremist organizations.

The context is different, she says, but many behaviors and risk factors are the same.

In this Q&A, Mrad explains how the program worked and shares some of its successes.

What are some of the challenges that Tunisian youth face that can make them vulnerable to violet extremism?

Mrad: The context in which these youth live has a lot to do with the risk factors and the challenges they face. In Kasserine, one of the ETTYSAL communities, there are neighborhoods that are adjacent to the mountain of Chaambi, where there is actually a base of violent extremist organizations near the Algerian border. Those groups sometimes come down to these highly populated neighborhoods and recruit youth directly.

“These groups come to the youth offering a sense of purpose, identity, belonging.”

Halima Mrad

And our other community Manouba is the base of a violent extremist organization called Ansar Sharia, so there you have youth who have family links to these violent groups.

In addition to this type of contact with these groups, youth often feel marginalized and desperate and do not have job opportunities or safe spaces for them to spend their time. There is also a lot of resentment toward local authorities, and in some cases, there has been abuse or harassment by police or security forces. There is a high level of drug use in many places.

These groups come to the youth offering a sense of purpose, identity, belonging. We also found that most youth are looking for a material reward when they engage with violent extremist organizations. These are the push and pull factors that make youth vulnerable to recruitment.

How did ETTYSAL determine whether youth were experiencing these push and pull factors?

Mrad: In the ETTYSAL model, we are looking specifically at the behaviors of youth, not his or her identity. We evaluate each youth on individual, family-related and peer-related risk factors, and we also look at the context. Individual risk factors include neutralization of guilt, impulsive risk-taking and critical life events such as the death of a family member.

Family risk factors include weak parental supervision and family radicalization, if for example, a father or someone else in the family has been radicalized. Negative influence can also come from peers.

This is a model that was adapted from the Youth Services Eligibility Tool (YSET), which has been used in Los Angeles and in Central America to measure youth risk of engaging with gangs. Under YSET, there are nine risk factors. When we applied this idea to the Tunisian context and to violent extremist organizations, we added additional risk factors for religious extremism, which we actually found to be very low in the youth we worked with.

We also added a social vulnerability factor. This is related more to the context, such as lack of job opportunities, relationships between the youth and the local government and the police. Eighty-seven percent of the youth we worked with showed this risk factor.

So, the overall approach is a model that recognizes and addresses the combination of risk factors that can lead a youth to join a violent extremist organization. For this pilot program, which was implemented in partnership with the University of Tunis, we determined that if a youth is showing six or more of the 12 total risk factors, they are high risk and eligible for intervention.

Once this data is collected, how does intervention begin?

Mrad: Once the data is compiled and analyzed by the University of Tunis team, the youth and his family consent to be engaged in the program and are paired with a trained family counselor. We worked with about 100 total youth and had 12 family counselors in the two target areas.

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Halima Mrad

Counselors and staff first get together for a strategic meeting in which they look closely at each youth’s profile and determine the priorities. Then the counselor begins working with the family and the youth in the home. They identify problem behaviors, not just as seen by the counselor, but as seen by the family and the individual. Counselors meet with the family in a group setting and also work with youth one-on-one to try to find solutions to change these risky behaviors.

We also worked with local associations to organize group activities for the youth. For example, to address the common feeling of not belonging, not identifying strongly as Tunisians, not knowing anything about our history, they would visit historical sites. And these activities would complement the work of the counselors in the home, allowing them to feel part of society and be introduced to positive peers.

Why focus on the entire family?

Mrad: For one, the family itself could be a root of the problem. The youth could be living in a violent family or a radicalized extremist family, so the influence is direct.

We also found that mothers are the ones who can see the early stages of her son engaging with violent extremism. We had cases, for example, when a youth starts being attracted to extremist ideology, one day he comes home and forbids his mother from watching TV.

The model also emphasizes that we identify not just the risk factors, but the strengths of the youth. And who can reinforce those strengths if not the mother and father?

ETTYSAL was successful in part because of the role of the family in Tunisia in the youths’ life. We live in a conservative society where a young person doesn’t leave home until he or she gets married. So it’s extremely important that we work with those connections between the youth and his family and address factors with the family as a whole, not isolating the youth.

What were some of the results of the program?

Mrad: We had tremendous results in a short period of time. First, we were very happy to see that 95 percent of the youth reduced their number of risk factors to below six, meaning essentially they are no longer eligible for counseling and no longer at high risk for radicalization to a violent extremist organization.

We identify not just the risk factors, but the strengths of the youth. And who can reinforce those strengths if not the mother and father?”

Halima Mrad

If we look at one risk factor in particular, family radicalization was decreased by 84 percent. And with that I have to stress the importance of our partner the University of Zitouna. We had an excellent doctor of Islamic studies who facilitated discussion about religious culture, exploring topics such as what is the role of the father toward his son in Islam? What does the prophet say about jihad? She met with youth and their families, and her roundtables gave a lot of clarification and brought light to certain incorrect perceptions.

We also saw a significant drop in the impulsive risk-taking factor, which was reduced by 45 percent. I credit that to the family counselors who worked with the youth so that they can better control their actions and overcome violent feelings.

Each youth also developed an exit plan based on their strengths. That could mean engaging in a job, small project or civil society work. We still have family counselors who call and say that this young woman got microfinancing to pursue a project, or that young man got a job as a mechanic.

After the counseling, we have families who are better established, and the relationship among the family members has improved tremendously. The youth now is occupied and constructively spending his time, and he’s not being driven by an attraction to violent extremism. We ended up providing him with a positive alternative.

What are some of your biggest takeaways after a year?

Mrad: I can confirm 100 percent that this public health model works. And that the results show enormous similarities in the risk factors of youth for engaging with a violent extremist organization or a violent gang.

We’ll need to do this with more youth to scientifically validate the model, but I can say that after the pilot, we proved that the public health model is applicable in this context.

Throughout the program, the counseling team was looking at youth not as a problem, but as part of the solution. It’s extremely important that the youth were heard and had an opportunity to express themselves.

We did not treat them like something was wrong with their identity; we were looking at behaviors and working specifically on improving those behaviors, but there’s a huge respect to that youth and he is part of the solution.

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