Monday 26 Feb 2018 | 08:57 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Feb 2018 | 08:57 | SYDNEY

Radicalisation, lone wolves and terrorism: An Interpreter backgrounder



7 October 2015 18:19

With four arrests made this morning, the police investigation into the shooting of New South Wales Police employee Curtis Cheng is gathering pace. The debate about how such a tragedy could have occurred is also being revived, and this morning we published a piece by David Wells warning that it would be premature to immediately re-examine Australia's counter-terrorism laws in light of this tragedy.

For more background on the issues raised by last Friday's shooting, here are some extracts from earlier Interpreter pieces on the subject of 'lone wolf' attacks, radicalisation and counter-terrorism. 

Back in June, David Wells looked at the difficulty national security agencies have in balancing risk when investigating possible terrorism suspects, particularly when it requires them to 'prove a negative': 

Unfortunately, this is difficult in the current counter-terrorism context. The primary issue, given ISIS's calls for 'lone wolf' attacks against the West, is the ease with which a small-scale unsophisticated attack can be carried out. Assessing that an individual does not have the capability to conduct this type of attack is next to impossible. Even in the absence of identifiable extremist activity or behaviour indicating intent, how do you weigh that against intelligence of extremist beliefs? The absence of corroboratory intelligence doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't or won't exist. Should you stop looking, or look harder? And how long do you wait before you move on? Days? Weeks? Months?

This is where it is important to have a rigorous risk assessment process. Based on what we know, can we categorically rule out this person as posing a threat? How do you prove a negative?

A piece from Hassain Nadim from July caused discussion on social media because Nadim argued that ISIS's strategy in radicalising young Muslims in the West is to cause a backlash against Muslim communities, uniting them against a common enemy:

The major purpose of radicalising young Muslims in the West is to inspire attacks on Western soil. But the real target is not Western society or its people. Attacks in Western cities may on the surface appear to be targeted against Western culture and ideology, but in reality these attacks are directed at the Muslim communities living in the Western world. ISIS understands that such attacks will spur a backlash against Muslims, thus alienating and isolating them in Western societies. If Muslims living in the West are alienated by both Western governments and their people, radical anti-Western discourse will start making sense to them.

The ultimate goal of Islamist radicals has been to unify the Muslim world against a common enemy (the West). This goal is at the core of ISIS's strategy, which is camouflaged under the rhetoric of ruling Iraq and Syria, something ISIS knows it can't manage for more than a few months.

Nadim also argued that Australian counter-radicalisation methods were misplaced, with too much emphasis on religion and too little on family and culture:

The fundamental flaw in the Government's counter-radicalisation policy is that it has relied heavily on Muslim community leaders to understand the roots of radicalisation. Not only are the Muslim community leaders no experts on the subject of radicalisation, but they are are also distant from the younger generation of Muslims who undergo an identity crisis triggered internally by Australian society (which functions contrary to their beliefs) and externally by sophisticated propaganda which they digest over social media.

The result is an obviously misdirected counter-radicalisation strategy focusing on sponsoring 'liberal' Islamic education, training for Imams, and the opening up of Islamic institutes at universities to promote research and dialogue.

Opening up new Islamic institutes and publishing liberal Islamic texts has absolutely no measurable impact on radicalism – thick intellectual texts are not read by majority of the Muslim youth. And there is little evidence that Imams have much to do with growing radicalisation, given that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS tend to bypass structures and hierarchy to reach directly to recruits.

But, countered Charles Miller from ANU, how do we even know when deradicalisation efforts are working?

Nadim has some good ideas about how we can improve on current deradicalisation efforts. But testing whether they work or not isn't easy. Let's say we try out a deradicalisation program on three young Pakistani men like the ones Nadim interviewed. Suppose they all turn away from terrorism after they complete the program. Great. But does that mean the program worked, or would they have turned away from terrorism anyway?


Perhaps we could compare them to three otherwise similar young men who were not exposed to the program. That's better, but we're still talking about just six people. Maybe the result has got something to do with their individual life stories and the apparent success of the program is just luck. OK, so let's look at a larger number of people. Now we're getting into the world of the randomised controlled trials, or RCTs.

RCTs are standard in medicine. If you've been sick in Australia at any time since 1998, chances are the treatment you got has been tested through an RCT under the oversight of the Medical Services Advisory Commission. Applying RCTs to public policy is a more novel proposition for many, but they are increasingly becoming standard in many areas of domestic politics.

At the beginning of the year Anthony Bubalo raised a debate on the need for liberal democracies to have a real and honest discussion about how they should be fighting terrorism:

I would like to see a debate in which the proponents of liberty acknowledge the threat, understand that it provokes genuine fear in much of our society (even if more people die falling off ladders or in car accidents) and then ask themselves which of our liberties we should compromise for the sake of security. As the Charlie Hebdo case underlined, we don't even seem to be clear about the liberties we are defending.

I would like to see a debate where the proponents of security recognise that the threat to our societies comes not just from terrorism but from the way in which we fight terrorism, and that we should be prepared to accept certain levels of risks for the sake of preserving our rights and principles.

Paul Buchanan responded and said terrorism should be treated as a crime, which would essentially depoliticise the act:

Although ideological extremists see themselves as being at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a 'war' marshaled along cultural or civilizational lines, is mistaken.

The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Those who practice terrorism can then be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war.

A second piece from Buchanan made the point that it is near impossible for liberal democracies to guard against 'lone wolf' attacks:

The focus of these autonomous, decentralised terrorists is 'everyday' targets: shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities. All present soft targets with symbolic value where a relatively small act of criminal violence can generate waves of apprehension across the population, thereby prompting a government overreaction designed as much to calm public fears as to prevent further attacks.

The range and number of these targets makes guarding all of them difficult. and if the perpetrators plan in secret, they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defence against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used as weapons. This is as much true for psychopaths as it is for terrorists.

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