So Australia could have between 2,000 and 3,000 people in ideological sleeper cells in our largest city. That's the message from federal government-funded research that shows there are more young Muslims per capita who are vulnerable to the influence of radical Islam than in any other country.
The apparent Queensland connection to the latest attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, carried out not by Muslims brought up in Britain, but a group arriving from abroad, adds underlining and an exclamation point.
After the high-profile Operation Pendennis police raids in late 2005, terrorism-related charges have been laid against Australian Muslims in Sydney and Melbourne. Clearly, some of our youth have been at least mentally preparing for violent jihad.
The reality is that people can grow up in a peaceful domestic setting but gradually separate from their host society and go on to pursue global goals violently. Alienation can occur because of poverty or discrimination but, more often than not, jihadists in Western societies are above average in terms of educational attainment. The recently exposed network of healthcare professionals in Britain is an obvious example, which raises the question of why such individuals would find jihadism an attractive ideal.
As any politician could tell you, simple messages are powerful. In Australia, some Islamic preachers have spread the message that believers should oppose principles of democracy and that salvation lies in destruction. Islam is under attack is the diagnosis they give for all earthly problems. They urge a transnational, anti-Western identity stretching from Glasgow to the Gold Coast.
Despite educational success, those open to radicalisation feel isolated from the broad social mainstream. The suggestion that they are connected to a wide, powerful and righteous global community of true believers is attractive. It explains and indeed encourages isolation from their host society. The narrative inverts their feelings of inferior social acceptance into a moral superiority.
Some local commentators have played down the idea that young Muslims are open to recruitment for violent jihad and that radicals in Sydney could seek martyrdom here. From what we've seen in Madrid and London, however, it's clear that young extremists chasing a twisted idea of glory could emerge from Australian society and strike targets at home.
Unfortunately, too many Australian Islamic leaders don't recognise that there is a problem and are not prepared to do anything about it. Strong leadership from all corners of the community is needed and we should be hearing moderate imams condemn violent jihad and shahid (martyrdom). Only after Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono publicly declared that Islamic extremism would never be tolerated were the authorities able to make headway in undermining Jemaah Islamiah.
There have always been alienated groups in our society. To get to grips with the nature of the present threat, we need to understand the processes of Islamist radicalisation and de-radicalisation.
Friendships and kinship are at least as important as personal history in moving someone from alienation to radicalisation. Radicalisation by peer pressure and introduction to a firebrand preacher are better predictors of violent extremism than education, unemployment, mental illness or wealth. Self-radicalisation also seems to be occurring, although individuals ultimately need training and a support network to undertake large attacks.
The Internet is good at bringing like-minded people together and jihadists are no different. Their websites vary by level of extremism, but they introduce and reinforce a sense of alienation and a justification for violence. However, the beauty of these forums is that their participants are identifying themselves as targets for de-radicalisation simply by being there. One way to support mainstream imams in addressing violent ideologies is to encourage and facilitate their engagement online, bringing religious knowledge to bear on issues being debated in extremists' virtual study groups.
The importance of network-driven radicalisation, both physically and electronically, suggests that counter-radicalisation should respond accordingly. It should move progressively through these networks, including those centred on radical preachers, open to the possibility of uncovering members plotting attacks. The people best-placed to perform counter-radicalisation are already related to those at risk. They are in positions of influence by virtue of being friends, family or spiritual guides.
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