Scary new crop of young terrorists
THE radicalisation of homegrown would-be terrorists occurs more frequently in Australia than in most other Western countries, a leading researcher said.
Police in Melbourne on Tuesday arrested three men for allegedly plotting to commit an act of terror in order to "kill as many people as possible".
The major counter-terrorism operation that foiled their alleged plot was carried out on the same day hundreds of mourners gathered to farewell beloved restaurateur Sisto Malaspina.
The 74-year-old was killed in a lone-wolf attack on Bourke St in Melbourne's CBD on November 9 by Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, who crashed his four-wheel drive, set it alight in a failed explosion attempt and then brutally stabbed three people.
In many ways, the terrorist fits the profile of other men who are radicalised to commit extreme jihadist acts.
Andrew Zammit from the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University carried out groundbreaking analysis of the backgrounds of 33 individuals who have been prosecuted in Australia for alleged jihadist acts.
While their motivations for planning to commit violence differed, they shared a number of common traits that could give insight into who is radicalised and how, Mr Zammit found.
His findings can build an indicative profile of a homegrown radical terrorist.
Perpetrators of jihadi attacks in Europe were 49 per cent locally born, while the figure in the United States was 51 per cent, Mr Zammit said.
But worryingly, Mr Zammit found that the figure in Australia is higher.
His analysis found 55 per cent were born in Australia and another 30 per cent immigrated here before adulthood - most before they were 10 years old.
"The overwhelming majority of this sample grew up in Australia," Mr Zammit said.
Of those 33 prosecuted, all of them were men, tended to be young with an average age of 27, and almost all were married and had one or more children.
They overwhelmingly had a low educational status, with only a small number completing tertiary education and the majority having not finished high school.
While not universal across the group, socio-economic disadvantage was a common theme.
Despite public perception, he said most of those radicalised were not particularly religious in their youth and didn't have a devoutly Muslim upbringing.
"Three members of the sample were clearly converts, Anglo-Australians with non-Muslim upbringings who converted to Islam," Ms Zammit said.
"Another four may have been born nominally Muslim but have been reportedly variously as born-agains or converts. Only another four could definitely be said to have had devout Muslim upbringings."
But the remaining 22 showed little indication of a strong association with their faith prior to being radicalised.
A number even had even experienced lengthy periods of alcohol and drug use, which is strictly against the teachings of Islam.
Ironically, this trait could make the men easier to be radicalised by sophisticated terrorist organisations.
Farhad Khosrokhavar, who has researched radicalisation extensively, wrote that jihadis in the West are "more easily radicalised as their knowledge of Islam and its traditions is sketchy".
The conflict between extreme terrorist ideology and the fundamentals of Islam aren't as obvious or glaring, he argued.
Professor Greg Barton is the Chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University and specialises in extremist movements in Australia and the process of radicalisation.
Those who seek to radicalise would-be terrorists almost always target men who fit a certain profile, Professor Barton said.
"They're often vulnerable young people. They might lonely, they might lack strong role models or a father figure and they yearn for someone to make them feel welcome.
"People can quite quickly end up doing things that they wouldn't have imagined doing when it's what the group does."
On the least extreme end of the spectrum, those who associate with radical movements might become disaffected and angry. But as has been seen in recent years, things can escalate.
Ali, the Bourke St attacker, was the "worst-case scenario" of radicalisation and the most dangerous kind of individual, Professor Barton said.
"The worst-case is one where someone, out of frustration, gets to a point in life where a whole bunch of things go wrong and they decide to go out in a glaze of glory.
"In a sense, a lot of these events can be described as suicide by police. They seek a confrontation that inflicts violence and results in their certain death."
Ali had been stopped from travelling overseas - to Syria to fight with local groups, it's believed - and had come into contact with Islamic State.
He experienced a marriage breakdown, had a history of criminal problems and suspected drug use, and his life had "gone off the rails".
"These types of individuals see (an attack) as a way of doing one last thing in life to be recognised as a hero. The propaganda of ISIL very much reinforces this idea of going out as a hero. That is very, very dangerous."
Terror groups of the September 11 era tended to be purist in nature - extremists who adhered to a fundamentalist world view shaped by their faith and who tended to be quite selective about who they allowed into their ranks, he said.
Islamic State is almost the exact opposite and will enlist just about anyone who is willing to advance the cause at any cost.
As a result, Mr Zammit said the kinds of plots planned and carried out on Australian soil have changed from "chain-of-command" attacks to more do-it-yourself incidents of violence.
The Bourke St attack, the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney and a number of other foiled plots all had this characteristic - unsophisticated and dangerously easy acts of violence to perpetrate.
Mr Zammit said the plots may have international links with groups like Islamic State, but they are largely individual initiatives.
Outside of the individuals who have planned or carried out attacks at home, Professor Barton said some 250 people are known to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with terrorist groups.
While there, they have been exposed to radical ideology and individuals who work at senior levels of terrorist organisations.
"We've had more than that number be stopped from travelling, but many remain part of those networks and remain with those ideas," he said.
Of the 33 cases that Mr Zammit examined, most of the individuals were convicted of terrorism offences while seven were acquitted in the end.
Two more were had their terrorism charges dropped but were instead convicted of related offences, while one had a conviction overturned on appeal.
But each of the men had undergone at least a partial process of jihadist radicalisation, Mr Zammit found.
Countering that is a difficult and nuanced process.
Professor Barton said there was no single psychological profile for men at risk of being radicalised and instead it was often a "perfect storm … (and) a cocktail of problems".
"One of the key findings is that we're dealing with a social process," he said.
"People generally don't get into an extremist movement because they've convinced at the outset by the end goal.
"Generally, they find someone who listens to them and who values them or affirms their sense of longing. This happens all the time in lots of social groups."
Like with all communities across Australia, vulnerable young people are at risk of falling in with the wrong crowd and this can have a range of negative social outcomes," he said.
And just as with dangers like drugs and alcohol, violence and crime, it's crucial to engage early to have the best chance of preventing those young men from becoming radicalised and potentially carrying out acts of terror.
"We need to work much further upstream and much earlier. The so-called soft approaches, ways of countering violent extremism, are essential," Professor Barton said.