In Sydney, two teenagers try to board a plane to the Middle East to fight for Islamic State. In Melbourne, friends and family of Jake Bilardi, the teenager suspected of carrying out a suicide bombing in Iraq, try to come to terms with his actions.
In a week that has seen high-profile examples of young Australians becoming swept up in violent extremism, we spoke to key players about what’s luring young people to the militant group and what can be done to stop it happening.
The community leader
A few months ago, a young Brisbane man came to see Ali Kadri, who works with the Holland Park Mosque in Brisbane, and told him he wanted to make something of his life — that he was a qualified panel beater before he joined a rebel motorcycle gang.
Mr Kadri took the man to Centrelink; he helped him through a certificate IV in book keeping.
“He likes accounting,” says Mr Kadri, who also runs an accounting firm and works with the Islamic Council of Queensland.
“So he is going to do that, and I am going to employ him, and train him while he is working for me.”
In targeting the roots of violent extremism, Mr Kadri says a key factor is the knock-on effect that can occur when you help a young, marginalised member of the Muslim community — those most susceptible to the lure of extremist ideology, according to Mr Kadri.
“These people go out and then say ‘You know what, Ali’s not all that bad, he can help us get job, we’ll have a career, we’ll have a life, blah blah blah’,” he says.
“But Government doesn’t want to do this; the Government wants to do it their own way, they don’t it see it being effective this way. Government is saying: we will tell you who to help. And I’m saying: no, the community knows who to help.”
For Mr Kadri, the Government’s recently announced Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, in which community organisations specialising in education or counselling can apply for extra funding and become “service providers”, is misguided.
“Employment is a problem, alienation is a problem, marginalisation is a problem. So you create a program which attracts people like this. And they will come to you,” he says.
The local expert
Associate Professor Anne Aly, the founding chair of People Against Violent Extremism, also says she is “cautious of” an approach whereby the Government identifies who is at risk of radicalisation and pushes them towards so-called service providers.
“There is so much resistance to any kind of government-designed ideas, or policy concepts … of radicalisation — these kids are going to resist it,” she says. “They need to be done by the people who are more likely to have success in engaging young people.”
Like Ali Kadri, she says the “ripple effect” of getting through to one well-connected, at-risk young person cannot be underestimated. She mentors young Somali men in Perth, where she is based, and gets them involved in her research work at Curtin University.
“These three young men have all seen their friends become radicalised. They have been targeted by radical preachers at one point in their lives. And they have all come into contact with a radicalising influence or a radicalising environment,” she says.
“They have now gone back out there saying, ‘We are doing all this really cool stuff, I’m working in an office’. Now, other young Somali men are saying, ‘Wow, that sounds really good, how can I get involved?’
“You don’t go out and say, ‘Right, you, you’re radicalised, you need deradicalisation, come here, go to this training program, go to this education program, go see this counsellor’. It doesn’t work.”
Associate Professor Aly says while there is a point at which intelligence and monitoring are important, in combating initial radicalisation, the Government should not be taking such a stringent national security-style approach.
“Because it is only ever seen as a national security issue, and the response is only ever going to be a national security response,” she says.
“If you want to do prevention, you are working with young people who haven’t committed any crime and who shouldn’t be on any watch list. But you should be able to engage them in ways that stop them engaging with radicalising influences.
“I understand that people within the Government are well-intentioned, but I think one of the biggest mistakes they are making is assuming that they can drive this, and that they should.”
The international expert
“Some of them are pious, others are not,” says Peter Neumann, director of London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, of the roughly 100 men and women his organisation has spoken to who have left Western Europe to fight for Islamic State.
“Many have troubled histories — but some would have had great prospects had they stayed in their countries.”
Mr Neumann, speaking last month at the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, touched on a somewhat overlooked aspect of the debate about radicalisation: while marginalisation and a lack of employment or education are common factors among young Western extremists, they are not always present.
“And because their personalities, backgrounds, motivations and indeed experiences in Syria and Iraq are so different, as governments, you should expect that the people who may at some point come back to your countries will pose very different types of challenges,” he said.
Mr Neumann, who worked on the latest UN Security Council resolution on foreign terrorist fighters, says prevention should be a priority in countering the threat of terrorism.
“We know that wannabe fighters have arguments with their parents, and we’ve seen — in a number of cases — that parents have succeeded in making their sons or daughters stay,” he says.
“Parents are our strongest allies; they need to be helped and empowered.”
In regards to the social media approach, Mr Neumann says “there’s a lot of talk about taking content off the internet”, which he regards as worthwhile.
“But we need to spend a lot more time, energy, effort and creative brains to think about ways in which we can engage and challenge extremist ideas online.”
He says the internet is the most powerful tool ever created for the dissemination of ideas — and that we have “handed that tool to the terrorists”.
The integration of communities in Western countries is another important part of prevention, Mr Neumann says.
“They sometimes felt that, because of who they are, how they look and where they come from, they weren’t part of us, that they’d never succeed,” he says.
“That didn’t turn them into terrorists by osmosis, but it made them open [to] an ideology which says that the West is at war with you and that you can’t be European and Muslim at the same time.
“If we’re serious about wanting to reduce the pool of people who are susceptible to the messages and narratives of violent extremists, that’s where we need to start.”
Dr Clarke Jones, a former government national security official and now visiting fellow at ANU, says the Government should set up a centre for expertise to liaise with the proposed community service providers.
“The way it has been going, there has been a lot of money being thrown at these small, individual programs, and I don’t think there’s been enough assessment — firstly whether they are appealing to the right people, whether the money is going to right place, what is the effectiveness of those programs.”
Last month, a report into Australia’s counter-terrorism strategies recommended “significantly boosting” the Government’s CVE program, with a focus on expanding “community and public-private partnerships to better reach at-risk or radicalised individuals”.
It followed new funding in August last year for community groups to take on these service provider roles.
Given social media is a key method of recruitment for Islamic State and similar militant groups, part of the Government’s program is tailored towards helping people “develop the digital skills to critically assess terrorists’ claims”.
In the US, the State Department has several social media accounts that disseminate anti-propaganda — calling out the hypocrisy of IS, for example, using images and Arabic text.
Last month, Attorney-General George Brandis flagged $18 million in funding for “real-time social media monitoring”, saying the Government must move beyond the idea that the internet was a lawless space.
“[Those measures] will include an active takedown of terrorist websites and terrorist postings, and also funding of civil society organisations to establish counter-narratives to combat and contest terrorist narratives that are being mediated online.”
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s department said the new measures would include a report online extremism tool and would see the Government work with the Australian Communication and Media Authority and others to get extremist propaganda removed from the internet.
The Government also plans to work with the states and territories to focus on prison radicalisation, whereby those behind bars are introduced to extremist views by their fellow inmates.
Dr Clarke Jones says Australians convicted of travelling to fight with IS should not be incarcerated in maximum security prisons, provided they have not committed serious acts of “barbaric” violence.
That may just further radicalise them, he says, suggesting a diversionary course with a focus on reform and rehabilitation — particularly if the offender is young — would be better.
“I disagree with the Government that they should be thrown into maximum security prison. And I say that on good grounds — I am probably the only one that has done empirical research in this area,” he says.
“I think the way we put [offenders] into Goulburn Supermax or Barwon Prison, it doesn’t leave much avenue for rehabilitation. So we need to revisit that because they will come out, and they will come out worse.
“The focus is on punishment, and with the political rhetoric that is going around at the moment I don’t think that’s likely to change in the short term.”
The former terrorism suspect
Zaky Mallah, 31, says he knows how these young Australians being drawn to the Middle East are feeling.
As a disaffected 19-year-old, he filmed a video of himself authorities said contained threats to carry out an attack on government offices in Sydney and was charged under counter-terrorism laws.
He was kept in Goulbourn Supermax for two years before being acquitted and now regularly meets with government and ASIO officials to offer his insight.
“I had my passport refused by ASIO back in 2002 … I was very angry, very emotional,” he says.
“Lucky I didn’t become a lone wolf. I was a very, very passionate, angry young man because my freedom was taken away.”
Mr Mallah, from Parramatta, says one of the reasons young men find IS attractive is because it is a “war machine”.
“People love guns, they love armies, they love tanks … it’s like a game,” he says.
“Except that this is a reality now. It’s no longer PlayStation or Xbox now – this is now the real thing.”
Mr Mallah says trying convince a young person on the path to radicalisation that going to Syria to fight for IS is a bad idea is extremely difficult.
“In our faith, the caliphate must be established,” he says, referring to Sunni Islam.
“Now, I am a big believer in the Muslim caliphate [being] established, after the Ottoman empire, however I don’t believe that the caliphate of ISIS is a legitimate one.”
Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic political party, also supports the establishment of a caliphate — and has come in for staunch criticism from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who calls it “un-Australian” for “making excuses for terrorist organisations”.
In a heated interview with the ABC last year, the group’s spokesman, Wassim Doureihi, refused to condemn the actions of Islamic State.
But Mr Mallah says the Government, by seeking to designate Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist group, is shooting itself in the foot.
“A lot of these youth look up to Hizb ut-Tahrir as a way to say, ‘look, we don’t have to go overseas and join ISIS, we can call for the establishment of the caliphate from Australia’. Not that we want one here, but at least we can join a party that has those same views … and call for a caliphate while living in peace in Australia.”
“But when we do that, the Government cracks down and says, ‘we want to ban this and label it a terrorist organisation’. That further subjugates, isolates, segregates many of us in the Muslim community.
“I believe Hizb ut-Tahrir is the last line of defence [to stop] many of these youths who want to travel overseas to join ISIS.”
The Australian Federal Police established its first Islamic Liaison Team in Melbourne in 2007, and that model is continuing to spread to other cities.
The aim is to strengthen ties between the Islamic community and law enforcement and build trust, something Ali Kadri says gets eroded when politicians make strong-armed statements about the threat of Islamic extremism “for [their] own political gain”.
The AFP says better relationships mean any tensions that arise from police operations, such as anti-terrorism raids, can be worked through.
The AFP hosts events like dinners to celebrate the end of Ramadan, allowing local Islamic community members to meet with AFP officials, and tries to counter the online propaganda of foreign groups like Islamic State by providing “alternative narratives” to the ones that appear in its dogma.
A youth forum in Sydney, which aimed to improve the image of the police among young Muslims, will also be run in Brisbane, where a spokesperson said it would “engage identified at-risk youth and influential persons to build confidence in the relationships between the community and law enforcement”.
Dr Jones from ANU says some of the law enforcement programs being used are doing good work.
“Not all police programs are going to turn people away — it will suit some and not others,” he says.
“When police, whether it’s state or federal, have this sharp end or hard edge to their activities … if I can use the analogy, it’s very hard to punch someone in the face and then shake their hand,” he says.
“If they are doing raids, because they are unsure exactly of the activity that is going on, and police raids are increasing, then it is very hard to also be the softie and the good guy.”
Published on the ABC News website in March, 2015. Illustration by Lucy Fahey.