Understanding Youth Who Become Radicalized to Violent Extremism

2. November 2011 0

Book Review on Kathryn Seifert: Youth Violence

Dr. Seifert’s newest book Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention, builds on more than thirty years of clinical experience working with the most violent and high risk youth imaginable. Two colleagues also contribute to this work – Dr. Karen Ray and Robert Schmidt. I was drawn to Dr. Seifert’s first book How Children Become Violent: Keeping Your Kids Out of Gangs, Terrorist Organizations and Cults because she addresses the question “How” rather than the “Why”. “How” stresses a dynamic process, where there are a series of factors which come into play such as genetics, biochemistry, nurturing environment, early trauma and so on. How Children Become Violent did not disappoint for it specifically focused on disrupted attachment patterns in children and how such patterns can become detrimentally engrained in the character of a child early on lingering for the rest of his or her life as they mature. The author has also created and put into place an excellent evaluation methodology in CARE-2 (Child and Adolescent Risk/Needs Evaluation). One can also visit her website.


Kathryn Seifert (2011): Youth Violence. Theory, Prevention and Intervention. Springer. 256 p. 34.99 Euro. Buy at Amazon.

Once again, Seifert deftly develops the contours of violence but this time in a more holistic, comprehensive way offering prevention and treatment modalities for adolescents in Youth Violence. The topic is perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our time when we stop to think about Columbine, Virginia Tech or even adolescent suicide bombers. Finally, someone has linked violence perpetrated by youth as a major red flag and concern for counter terrorist experts to pay more attention. Seifert understands the mind of the gang or group mentality and how youths are especially prone to and inclined to identify with paternal like charismatic leaders who offer some hope or give meaning to their lives in these cult like groups. Yet she stresses the early roots to this gang social bonding by raising the issue of maternal attachment and that of caregivers.

Even the allegedly self-radicalized terrorist is particularly susceptible to coming under the influence of violent ideologies to fend of personal impotence and vulnerability. While this aspect of radicalization is known, the devil is in the details and the willingness to explore the psychology of youth violence in a nuanced manner has not been well developed in terrorism studies. It is exciting to come across a practitioner of psychology who has taken the time to map out the tough terrain of adolescence and the potential for violence. It should be of great concern to all and especially to policy makers. Youths are at considerable risk to lose control over their mounting aggression if appropriate boundaries have not been set by authority figures. Otherwise like heat seeking missiles these youths who are full of rage gravitate to a leader who taps into this preexisting reservoir of rage to harness it and thereby enacts their aggression and rage. The leader does not have to even be “present”, the very image or fantasy of what he represents is enough to empower these allegedly self radicalizing youth.

The book is divided into sections with an overview of the problem vis a vis prevention, trends, demographics, classification issues and theories. It then shifts into a discussion of dynamics of youth – both individual and environmental, followed by a section on special issues – bullying and suicide – with a final section on assessment, prevention and intervention.

It also serves as a most useful handbook or guide in conceptualizing youth violence from a multifaceted perspective. Dr. Seifert has done an admirable job integrating a wide range of theories, citing the pluses and minuses as well as pinpointing areas that need to be explored further through research. The section on special issues – bullying and suicide, are particularly applicable to the study of terrorism. Throughout the world there is growing concern about “self-radicalization.” Seifert’s work points to the need to delve deeper into the neuroscience, biology, educational and well as environmental stressors which prime the pump for youth to be swept up in murderous violence which is often categorized in a limited manner as political violence, thereby inadvertently permitting counter terrorist experts to dismiss the nascent formation of the personality or what is referred to as characterological psychopathology, the armor of the personality so to speak which is used to protect the fragile traumatized self from what is perceived to be an inherently hostile world. Many psychiatrists and a wide range of mental health professionals belief that serious violent psychiatric disorders are in place by age two. That is why this more covert period tends to be overlooked in counter terrorism work because it is multifaceted, complex, let alone the influence of the female caregiver.

Thus, while the book does not deal directly with Islamic suicide terrorism, it certainly has applicability by casting light on the escalation of youths involved in political violence linking it back to early childhood. The author notes in passing that Yassir Arafat is a good example of this. Besides being an abandoned orphan he was raised by terrorists and was forced to become a child soldier who in turn recruited other children into terrorism, tragically perpetuating the cycle of violence and its intergenerational transmission of trauma. In a way one can understand how Palestinian culture has developed a fixation and obsession with children shahids as Arafat became their venerated father. Seifert also cites the important and interesting recent research of Ez-Elarab Sabbour, Gadallah and Assad from Cairo (2007) in which they studied aggressive elementary school children. To quote Seifert:

“They found the following risk factors: absence of attachment figure, single parent, use of corporal punishment by caregivers, preference for violent video games, exposure to verbal aggression, aggressive peers, and victimization.”

It is most impressive how she is of the few who stresses maternal attachment coupled with the paternal which sets a template for social attachment and bonding experiences later in life. Seifert reminds us of the crucial role that neuroscience plays in this attachment, interpersonal relationship bonding to people.

“There is a neurological component to secure attachment. A caregiver who smiles and coos at a baby, for example, supports the development of mirror neurons in the infant’s brain, which are necessary for building the initial relationship…”

Mirror neurons are essential to the development of empathy. Children who do not feel safe in their early childhood will have difficult in their youth. Trauma plays a key role. This is not to say that everyone who experiences a parental deficit in the early attachment experience will become violent or a terrorist, yet there is much to learn about the linkage of these experiences for those who grow up and tragically inscribe their projected rage, envy and attacking written in blood, destruction, murder, etc. In my analysis this is the time frame which holds the key to early signals decoding violent mental states of terrorists.

Given how devastating and tiring such perpetrated violence becomes, this book is most inspiring. It left me with a feeling of wanting to create a subfield concerning early childhood development within terrorism studies. And if I had my druthers, I would invite Dr. Seifert to participate in such a project. With her newest endeavor, Youth Violence, she has succeeded to write an invaluable book which can be extrapolated specifically to understanding youth who become radicalized to violent extremism. While this was not her specific aim I am grateful to Dr. Seifert who unwittingly offered her insights in understanding the bare roots of such violence – it is a very precious gift.

Kathryn Seifert (2011): Youth Violence. Theory, Prevention and Intervention. Springer. 256 p. 34.99 Euro. Buy at Amazon.

Leave A Response »