Solidly middle-class, better educated than average, likely to be in a stable relationship and either studying or employed: that’s the face of an Islamic State convert.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently released a report titled The American Face of ISIS, which it commissioned in the hope of better understanding terror converts in Australia.
The larger number of converts in America charged with an Islamic State-related incident or travelling to the Middle East in order to fight with the terrorist group provided more statistical certainty than could be achieved using Australian data only. The report is to be followed with a study of the societal traits of Australians charged with terror-related incidents.
The evidence roundly contradicts Australian government messaging on Countering Violent Extremism which has painted converts to Islamic State as impoverished, lonely outsiders with little education and low job prospects.
The study examined 112 cases of individuals who perpetrated ISIS-related offences. The majority were US citizens.
The report found that Islamic State videos, well known for their high production values and cinematic qualities, played a central role in radicalisation and all offenders were likely to have watched execution videos, including the infamous burning alive of a Jordanian pilot.
The ultra-violence of the videos, including crucifixions, stonings, graphic beheadings and ritualised mass shootings, attracted recruits worldwide.
Walker Gunning, the executive director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats which conducted the research, told The New Daily those charged with terrorist activities looked much like average Americans, including frequently having spouses and families.
The research confirms the Australian experience: 18-year-old suicide bomber Jake Bilardi left behind a blog showing him to be thoughtful and highly intelligent; the 17-year-old son of a doctor was among an affluent group of teens arrested in 2015 for plotting a Mother’s Day massacre.
“While it is common to claim that terrorists are societal outcasts, we didn’t find that to be the case,” Mr Gunning said. “This information is important because without knowing who is attracted to ISIS, the US or Australian governments cannot effectively craft counter-messages.
“Stopping online propaganda represents an unprecedented challenge for law enforcement. Whereas before, Al-Qaeda had to recruit members face to face, American ISIS supporters are self-radicalising through viewing videos in the privacy of their own homes, sometimes with small groups of friends or family.”
Jacinta Carroll, head of the Counter-Terrorism Policy Centre at ASPI, who contributed to the report, told The New Daily she expected the American findings would hold true for Australia.
“The appropriate targeting of Countering Violent Extremism programs is challenging for both the Australian government and those delivering programs, and a number of organisations are approaching this new data with great interest,” she said.
“Australian and American converts are often attracted by online propaganda, while association with other radicals remains an important part of the story.
“As in America, cases in Australia to date demonstrate a feeling of being associated with a larger cause, the establishment of a ‘so-called’ caliphate and establishing a particular, narrow, form of Islam.
Ms Carroll said blocking Islamic State propaganda was difficult.
“Rather than playing whack-a-mole with extremist videos, in the current environment we need to focus in particular on our own messaging … the terrible experience of Muslim societies have experienced living under ISIS, and the real and extremely positive benefits of liberal democracies, including human rights-based law and respect.”
Dr Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University who has worked extensively with Muslim communities, told The New Daily those involved in so-called plots such as the Christmas Day terror plot targeting Federation Square and St Paul’s Cathedral often came from strong family backgrounds.
“Without a doubt, many involved in these types of activities are remarkably normal,” he said. “They can be both lovely and misguided kids. It is a real shame they go and do stupid things.
“It is going to get worse, particularly with the current rise of the extreme right of politics. Whether we like it or not, we have to place greater effort on understanding and then addressing what is making these kids feel the way they do.
“Even with a good job, or a school, they are feeling they are not part of society because they are Muslim.
“Having a sense of belonging and connectedness is the key factor to countering violent extremism and crime in general.
“It’s getting to the point that many community groups won’t have a bar of government or police.
“Western governments play a part in the rise of the popularity of Islamic State because the more they whip up the terrorist threat, the more it increases the terrorist threat. The government really needs to reassess the dimensions of the threat and look for long-term solutions.”