An Australian Perspective on Identity, Social Media, and Ideology as Drivers for Violent Extremism

An Australian Perspective on Identity, Social Media, and Ideology as Drivers for Violent Extremism
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Kate McNair has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology from Macquarie University and is currently pursuing her a Master’s Degree in Security Studies and Terrorism at Charles Sturt University.  You can follow her on Twitter @kate_amc .  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Title:  An Australian Perspective on Identity, Social Media, and Ideology as Drivers for Violent Extremism

Date Originally Written:  December 2, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  January 8, 2018.

Summary:  Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is a leading initiative by many western sovereigns to reduce home-grown terrorism and extremism.  Social media, ideology, and identity are just some of the issues that fuel violent extremism for various individuals and groups and are thus areas that CVE must be prepared to address.

Text:  On March 7, 2015, two brothers aged 16 and 17 were arrested after they were suspected of leaving Australia through Sydney Airport to fight for the Islamic State[1].  The young boys fouled their parents and forged school letters.  Then they presented themselves to Australian Immigration and Border Protection shortly after purchasing tickets to an unknown middle eastern country with a small amount of funds and claimed to be on their way to visit family for three months.  Later, they were arrested for admitting to intending to become foreign fighters for the Islamic State.  October 2, 2015, Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, 15 years old, approached Parramatta police station in Sydney’s West, and shot civilian police accountant Curtis Cheng in the back[2].  Later it was discovered that Jabar was inspired and influenced by two older men aged 18 and 22, who manipulated him into becoming a lone wolf attacker, and supplied him the gun he used to kill the civilian worker.

In November 2016 Parliament passed the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2016 and stated that “Keeping Australians safe is the first priority of the Turnbull Government, which committed to ensuring Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the tools they need to fight terrorism[3].”  More recently, the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act of 2002 was extensively amended to become the Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Police Powers and Parole) Act of 2017 which allows police to have more powers during investigations and puts stronger restrictions and requirements on parolees when integrating back into society.  Although these governing documents aim at honing in on law enforcement and the investigation side of terrorism efforts, in 2014 the Tony Abbot Government implemented a nation-wide initiative called Living Safe Together[4].  Living Safe Together opposed a law enforcement-centric approach and instead focused on community-based initiatives to address the growing appeal of violent extremist ideologies in young people.

Levi West, a well-known academic in the field of terrorism in Australia highlighted that, in the cases of the aforementioned individuals, they have lived there entire lives in a world where the war of terror has existed.  These young men were part of a Muslim minority and have grown up witnessing a war that has been painted by some as the West vs Islam.  These young men were influenced by many voices between school, work, social events, and at home[5].  This leads to the question on whether these young individuals are driven to violent extremism by the ideology or are they trying to find their identity and their purpose in this world.

For young adults in Australia, social media is a strong driver for violent extremism.  Young adults are vulnerable and uncertain about various things in their life.  When people feel uncertain about who they are, the accuracy of their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes, they seek out people who are similar to them in order to make comparisons that largely confirm the veracity and appropriateness of their own attitudes.  Social media is being weaponised by violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State.  Social media, and other communicative Peer-to-Peer sharing platforms, are ideal to facilitate virtual learning and virtual interactions between young adults and violent extremists.  While young adults who interact within these online forums may be less likely to engage in a lone wolf attack, these forums can reinforce prior beliefs and slowly manipulate people over time.

Is it violent extremist ideology that is inspiring young individuals to become violent extremists and participate in terrorism and political violence?  Decentralized command and control within violent extremist organizations, also referred to as leaderless resistance, is a technique to inspire young individuals to take it upon themselves, with no leadership, to commit attacks against western governments and communities[6].  In the case of the Islamic State and its use of this strategy, its ideology is already known to be extreme and violent, therefore its interpretation and influence of leaderless resistance is nothing less.  Decentralization has been implemented internationally as the Islamic State continues to provide information, through sites such as Insider, on how to acquire the materiel needed to conduct attacks.  Not only does the Islamic State provide training and skill information, they encourage others to spread the their ideology through the conduct of lone wolf attacks and glorify these acts as a divine right.  Together with the vulnerability of young individuals, the strategy of decentralized command and control with the extreme ideology, has been successful thus far.  Based upon this success, CVE’s effectiveness is likely tied to it being equally focused on combating identity as a driver for violent extremism, in addition to an extreme ideology, and the strategies and initiative that can prevent individuals to becoming violent extremists.

The leading strategies in CVE have been social media, social cohesion, and identity focused.  Policy leaders and academics have identified that young individuals are struggling with the social constraints of labels and identity, therefore need to take a community-based approach when countering violent extremism.  The 2015 CVE Regional Summit reveled various recommendations and findings that relate to the use of social media and the effects it has on young, vulnerable individuals and the realities that Australia must face as a country, and as a society.  With the growing threat of homegrown violent extremism and the returning of foreign fighters from fighting with the Islamic State, without programs that address individual identity and social cohesion, violent extremism will continue to be a problem.  The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have designated Community Liaison Team members whose role is to develop partnerships with community leaders to tackle the threat of violent extremism and enhance community relations, with the AFP also adopting strategies to improve dialogue with Muslim communities. The AFP’s efforts, combined with the participation of young local leaders, is paramount to the success of these strategies and initiatives to counter the violent extremism narrative.


Endnotes:

[1] Nick Ralston, ‘Parramatta shooting: Curtis Cheng was on his way home when shot dead’ October 3rd 2015 http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/parramatta-shooting-curtis-cheng-was-on-his-way-home-when-shot-dead-20151003-gk0ibk.html Accessed December 1, 2017.

[2] Lanai Scarr, ‘Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said two teenage brothers arrested while trying to leave Australia to fight with ISIS were ‘saved’’ March 8th 2015 http://www.news.com.au/national/immigration-minister-peter-dutton-said-two-teenage-brothers-arrested-while-trying-to-leave-australia-to-fight-with-isis-were-saved/news-story/90b542528076cbdd02ed34aa8a78d33a Accessed December 1, 2017.

[3] Australian Government media release, Parliament passes Counter Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill No 1 2016. https://www.attorneygeneral.gov.au/Mediareleases/Pages/2016/FourthQuarter/Parliament-passes-Counter-Terrorism-Legislation-Amendment-Bill-No1-2016.aspx Accessed December 1, 2017.

[4] Australian Government, Living Safer Together Building community resilience to violent extremism. https://www.livingsafetogether.gov.au/pages/home.aspx Accessed December 1, 2017.

[5] John W. Little, Episode 77 Australian Approaches to Counterterrorism Podcast, Covert Contact. October 2, 2017.

[6] West, L. 2016. ‘#jihad: Understanding social media as a weapon’, Security Challenges 12 (2): pp. 9-26.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.



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