Almaty conference focuses on preventing youth radicalisation

By Ksenia Bondal

Students attend a class at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty December 10. [Marina Mikhtayeva]

Students attend a class at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty December 10. [Marina Mikhtayeva]

ALMATY -- Tried and true methods of countering the various ways extremist recruiters target Central Asian youth, including through online propaganda, were the topic of a regional dialogue organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Almaty.

The event, titled "Youth Involvement and the Prevention of Violent Extremism -- Nexus Analysis", took place December 3-4.

Stakeholders from the United Nations, government agencies, civil society and youth activists from all five Central Asian countries attended.

It was the second of five regional dialogues within a UNDP regional project to prevent in Central Asia violent extremism leading to terrorism .

The $6.4 million project is funded by the government of Japan and implemented by UNDP offices in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, according to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.

Kazakhstan's youth population is inherently heterogeneous as its members live in different provinces, urban and rural areas, have various levels of education, and speak either Kazakh or Russian, Irina Chernykh, chief research fellow at the Astana-based Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, said at the dialogue.

Different elements of that population embrace various values and behavioural models, she said.

"Radicalisation is an individual process, and research shows that someone may become radicalised under certain circumstances, while under the very same circumstances, someone else may try to repair his life and operate within legal bounds," she said.

"The important principle in our work is an individual approach to everyone who is behaving abnormally from society's point of view," Chernykh said.

Mentoring, engaging with youth

Although approaching each case individually is important, some general practices for preventing youth radicalisation have proven to be effective, according to Chernykh.

Germany and Scandinavia have honed the practice of mentoring, she said. The practice involves rehabilitated, formerly extremist mentors who then work with children from vulnerable families.

"Psychologists have proven that young people who are predisposed to an extremist ideology and to aggression come from families with abusive fathers," Chernykh said. "The mentor begins to include such children in various projects and sports and spends time with them."

Kazakhstan delayed implementing this approach because it is labour intensive and expensive, she said.

In Europe, NGOs implement these initiatives on a volunteer basis.

Britain is carrying out efforts to enlist women from NGOs and female police officers to work with girls who have converted to Islam, Chernykh said. They explain these girls' rights to them and work with their parents to monitor whether a radical ideology begins to emerge.

Kyrgyz NGOs are using theatrical productions to engage youth, she added.

The Kyrgyz "are effectively implementing these practices and using them at the local level, especially in a given community ... that has the potential for radicalism to emerge", Chernykh said.

"Schools and local NGOs are involved in the theatre productions," she said, adding that those participants "write the scripts and clearly define the roles ... the children are better able to play those roles. This is time-consuming, cost-intensive work, but it is fruitful."

The "first line of defence" usually refers to police officers who interact with the public and can prevent terrorist activities. However, it can also include mothers and schoolteachers, according to Chernykh.

Acting on early warnings can help prevent radicalisation at a stage when psychologists, or imams and priests in the case of religious families, can still work with the children, she said, adding that early intervention with the help of such trained or concerned adults is highly effective.

Recognising, preventing radicalisation

Almaty resident Maxim Zagrantsev, 18, said that his peers who lack self-esteem can fall into the hands of extremist recruiters easily.

"I know a couple of guys who cut the cuffs off their pants and grew beards," he said. "Now they talk to everyone about God. They used to be regular guys, and now they've changed drastically; they don't even go to parties."

"When one of my friends' nephew was born, he didn't even go to the restaurant to celebrate ... he's nearly stopped talking to his family because he believes they aren't living right," Zagrantsev said.

The tactic extremist recruiters take with girls is different, he said, explaining that it is easier to reel them in with engaging conversations about love, and after that recruiters can indoctrinate them.

Parents say they are extremely concerned about a number of threats facing their children.

Youth are vulnerable to drug trafficking, criminal gangs and extremist organisations, said Almagul Shaikenova, a Shymkent resident and mother of three school-age sons.

"We talk to our children a lot about their studies, problems and the people they hang around with," she told Caravanserai. "I'm most interested in their circles of friends because I'm truly scared for my children."

"Our family isn't religious, and my kids socialise with kids who are like them, but I've read that terrorists don't need religion to sink their hooks into you," she said.

"So my husband and I don't let up, and we stay attentive," Shaikenova said. "We have made a point of signing our sons up for sports; it's a healthy environment, and the coach is good. I think that will also help protect them from the criminal element."

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