Last month, according to Google Trends, more Australians searched for information about terrorism than at any point since the 2005 London bombings. Anxiety surged around the time that Prime Minister Tony Abbott introduced the flourish “apocalyptic death cult” to describe Islamic State and its Australian supporters.
By invoking rhetoric of exotic occultism, Abbott laid the groundwork for an ambitious national security agenda. “Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift,” he told an obliging Parliament. The government has moved swiftly to fortify the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, seeking to grant a raft of new powers and privileges commensurate with the urgency of the perceived crisis. Under proposed laws, ASIO will be able to access third party devices under a single warrant, intelligence officers will enjoy limited immunity from prosecution, and journalists could be imprisoned for ten years for the “reckless” disclosure of a special intelligence operation.
Yet the “death cult” brand is as unilluminating as it is compelling. It obscures the root causes of home-grown extremism and their practical, grassroot solutions. “The government has chosen to intercept, act and imprison rather than teach, train and prevent,” complains Sohail Ateem, a Muslim youth leader from Hobart. Kuranda Seyit, Director of the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR), agrees. “The government has not made an effort to understand why young people have these ideas and thoughts,” he tells Honi. Seyit sees this pattern as typical of the post-9/11 era. “They’ve created this invisible war and invisible threat that will continue forever.”
It is not disputed that radicalism is an emerging issue. “We didn’t realise how big the problem was until the Australian Federal Police sat down and showed us some graphics and tape recordings,” says Ateem, 26. “It was bigger than we thought.”
Yet there are a many ways to mend a threat. A Sunni Muslim of Sudanese origin, Ateem undertook two Australian Muslim Youth Leadership and Peer Mentorship programs between 2011 and 2013, organised by the Australian Multicultural Foundation. With funding from the federal Building Community Resilience (BCR) grant scheme, the Foundation sought to prevent radicalisation in Islamic communities by training young Muslims to identify and mentor vulnerable individuals. Originally, the program focussed on the threat posed by Hizb ut-Tahrir. “Now,” says Ateem, “we have Al-Nusra and Islamic State.”
The former Labor government launched the BCR initiative in 2010. Today, some $5 million in grants have been distributed to sixty community-based projects across Australia which resist violent extremism and promote social cohesion. Its website is a graveyard of broken hyperlinks. The Liberal government has terminated the scheme pending the implementation of its own $630 million national security strategy. “That work is done,” reads the new Countering Violent Extremism statement.
As the government escalates its foreign and domestic counterterrorism response, Honi spoke with four programs funded under the BCR scheme. They are a motley collection of initiatives which take a range of creative approaches to countering radicalism. Yet together, they provide a valuable insight into the ways that civil society can divert extremist behaviour before it manifests in violent conduct.
The programs share a common commitment to early detection and prevention in place of investigation and prosecution. Fundamentally, they operate on the principle that radicalisation is a process that begins in the local community. “These are people who feel unwanted at home and unwanted by the community. They want a group to say ‘we value you and we respect you’,” says Ateem, who believes that radicalisation among impressionable young people is no different to other forms of juvenile delinquency. “If they didn’t find imams on YouTube, they would be selling drugs on the street.”
Dr Hass Dellal is Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation and helped to oversee the leadership programs in which Ateem participated. “What we do is encourage the community to be aware of certain behavioural changes – and the intensity of those changes – which can result from grief, loss, unemployment, domestic violence, drug abuse, experiences with alienation or experiences with discrimination,” says Dellal. “It is about intervening and understanding before they become a problem.”
According to Ateem, the programs brought together two individuals from each state and territory. Participants were trained to identify and mentor vulnerable members of the community, with input from the Federal Police, ASIO, and its foreign intelligence counterpart ASIS. “In our first training course, there were three former radicals. These guys were at the point of no return, but the AFP kind of intervened at the right time. The stories we heard from them… well, it was eye-opening to see how far someone could go. The program does help people, and then those people become mentors.” With additional BCR funding last year, alumni from the leadership programs are now delivering resilience training to the general community: a virtuous cycle of education and empowerment.
Football United also works to develop mentor-mentee relationships, but in a range of communities with high concentrations of refugees and migrants. “The whole principle is about enabling people to be together and engage with each other around things that they love,” says Dr Anne Bunde-Birouste, who founded the organisation in 2006 with support from the University of New South Wales. “The asylum seeker debate was raging, as it is again now. The idea was to enable people to feel welcome and help get settled in Australia – to belong and connect.” With a $120,000 grant, Football United has developed football workshops for youths vulnerable to radicalisation, incorporating resilience and communication training. It is one of a number of programs, including an AFL initiative, which support social cohesion through the lens of sport.
Other initiatives address radicalism online, where Islamic State has staged a formidably effective recruitment drive. FAIR secured a BCR grant to produce Islamate, an online portal for information about Islam. Likewise, People against Violent Extremism (PaVE) received a $115,000 grant last year to deliver a social media campaign. “We are the first and only NGO specifically devoted to targeting violent extremism,” says PaVE Program Director Kosta Lucas. PaVE hopes to take leadership of the non-governmental response to violent extremism. The campaign will launch in coming weeks via a Walk Away From Extremism website and a series of short online films.
Yet for all the aspiration and goodwill, community resilience programs face a number of credibility and funding challenges.
Programs affiliated with the government can struggle to earn the trust of local communities. According to Ateem, the Youth Leadership and Peer Mentorship Program faced considerable resistance within the Muslim community. “We were treated like little governments spies giving reports to the AFP. The trust has pretty much gone. That is our biggest challenge.” The PaVE campaign, by comparison, has studiously avoided directing itself to a particular religion or ideology. “We are very carefully branded. Islamic extremism is a hot topic but we have just as much focus on white supremacist ideologies,” says Lucas. “A lot of our marketing represents two faces of radicalism.” As if to underscore the point, the PaVE landing page features a blonde male.
It is also difficult to determine the causes of extremism, and to design a comprehensive community resilience strategy accordingly. BCR grant recipients consisted of organisations as diverse as migrant resource centres for African, Middle Eastern or Subcontinental refugees facing settlement difficulties, groups combating white supremacy, and women’s support centres. At one level, this reflects an unfocussed, pre-Islamic State approach to countering radicalism. At another level, it reflects uncertainty as to the demographics most at risk of radicalisation, and the most effective way to support them. “We still don’t know a lot about why some people radicalise and some people don’t,” explains Lucas. “It’s such a weird mix of circumstances that trigger that behaviour in some people but not others.”
His comments are echoed by US Studies Centre researcher Dr Leah Farrall. “Radicalisation dynamics are changing,” she tells Honi. Farrall notes that there are significant differences between individuals radicalised towards Islamic State compared to Al-Qaeda, as well as the recruitment strategies of each. “The government has recognised some of these differences as they pertain to operational requirements and legislative amendments, but I am less confident that there is a comprehensive understanding of these dynamics,” she adds. “There needs to be a rethinking of how the government treats radicalisation and how it engages with affected communities.”
Sustainability is a third challenge. FAIR Director Seyit is frustrated by a lack of long-term vision from government. “The BCR and other grants are just cosmetic solutions to a very deep and complex issue. We need to look at how to empower our established institutions – identifiable, strong institutions – instead of throwing a few million dollars to organisations across the nation, in bits here and there. Some organisations are getting all this funding and then just preaching to the converted.” After listening to feedback from other programs, Seyit believes that the funds were generally insufficient for more than a year of operations. According to Bunde-Birouste, this makes it difficult for programs to prove their long-term effectiveness. “The longer the program and the more regular the program, the higher the impact,” she says.
Lucas from PaVE is more reflective. “There is not exactly a plethora of funding sources for this type of work,” he says of the online counter-extremism campaign. “Then again, in the context of social issues Australia has faced, this is quite new.”
In such a fragile, myopic funding environment, programs struggle to find ways to build long-term capacity and magnify their impact. This can mean targeting not vulnerable individuals themselves but those around them. As the Australian Muslim Youth Leadership and Peer Mentorship program demonstrates, a cadre of trained mentors like Ateem can circulate skills and knowledge through communities long after the program itself has ended. Ultimately, detecting the embryos of radicalism is a task best suited for those closest to at-risk individuals. “Families are often the first to notice if someone is radicalising,” says Lucas. “We want to enable family and friends to engage with these people and to slow or stop the process – to start a dialogue.”
Lucas is not alone in arguing that families should be a focus for counter-radicalisation efforts. According to Dellal, families do not have the skills to distinguish radical tendencies from other forms of adolescent behaviour. Similarly, Seyit notes that no support services existed for parents like those of Melbourne teen and alleged Islamic State follower, Numan Haider, who was shot dead last month after stabbing counter-terrorism investigators. Haider was known to police prior to his death. Nevertheless, says Seyit, “the parents had no idea what was going on. We could have had an outreach hotline or TV campaigns like those for alcohol and gambling, letting them know that there is support.”
In hindsight, the BCR scheme resembles an improvised social experiment more than a coherent counter-radicalism strategy. It is unclear whether Labor ever intended to gauge the effectiveness of the scheme with a view to expanding it. A number of programs interviewed by Honi report that the former government did not listen to suggestions about how to build long-term capacity. Aware of its poorer community engagement credentials, the Liberal government has promised that future work in this area will involve close consultation with affected communities. In a statement to Honi, the Attorney-General’s department pledged to reinvest part of its $13.4 million community engagement fund in programs which could include youth diversion, counselling and employment support services.
At present, however, none of the BCR recipients interviewed have received any communication from the government about their future status or the future strategy. Few professed any confidence that the government supports community-based approaches to countering violent extremism. The community engagement fund is a meagre two percent of the new national security package, which primarily supports the expansion of law-enforcement and intelligence programs: a measure, perhaps, of the government’s commitment to prosecution over prevention.
Indeed, the national security strategy has done little but throw fuel onto the fires of domestic resentment. Bungled police raids followed by a distracting ‘ban the burqa’ campaign have underdone much of the social cohesion that so many BCR recipients have worked to preserve. “It has been appalling to watch the Abbott government drive this kind of division through Australia,” Senator Christine Milne tells Honi. Those at the coalface of community resilience all agree. “The government has done nothing to quell this rising panic. Being so alarmist and sowing such mistrust is going to make the situation worse,” says Bunde-Birouste. If combating radicalism is a question of belonging, says Ateem, “then young Muslims are not getting it from the media. With ‘Islam this, Islam that,’ young Muslims just feel isolated.”
It is not surprising, then, that many community resilience programs seem to spend as much time dispelling misconceptions and prejudice as they do working with vulnerable individuals themselves.
Whatever the government proposes, any community resilience strategy will face unresolved challenges. Problems with trust, focus, and sustainable impact could be addressed with a less haphazard approach to planning and funding. The Greens, for one, have proposed an Australian Centre for Social Cohesion. According to Senator Milne, the body would be independent of government, drawing together NGOs, government agencies and academics. It would address shortcomings in our understanding of the epidemiology of radicalism, and intervene with the most appropriate form of community or government support.
The proposal bears faint echoes of successful programs overseas, such as the Channel initiative administered by the UK Home Office. Vulnerable individuals there may be referred via the local police to a multi-agency panel comprising representatives from schools, universities, health services, law enforcement authorities or social services. The panel may then develop a support package consisting of anything from substance abuse counselling to anger management therapy, education assistance, mental healthcare, or employment and housing assistance. Since its inception in 2007, the program has taken 4000 referrals for which almost 800 received tailored intervention schemes. If nothing else, programs like these demonstrate that successful precedents exist overseas, and that there is a dire need for their services.
Ultimately, however, quashing extremism will require more than grants and consultations. It requires a cognitive shift in the way we – and the government – choose to interpret and respond to radicalism. To describe something as a monstrous death cult is to place it beyond the realm of rational interrogation. It lends Islamic State and other groups precisely the sort of mystique which these frustrated social workers and community leaders are trying to dispel.
In material respects, radicalism is no different to other forms of delinquency and criminal behaviour. It is the avoidable by-product of alienation and isolation, driven by a set of complex but familiar social issues. Addressing these issues should not be the sole responsibility of plucky social entrepreneurs and cash-strapped NGOs fighting for scraps of funding. It must be an essential part of our counter-terrorism strategy. With a little empathy, it is possible to turn back the lonely, hateful, or corrupted before they embark on a path to war.