Universities to co-host hub on countering extremism

Two of Australia’s leading universities, the Australian National University, or ANU, and Deakin University, will host a new research hub with the aim of developing strategies to counteract violent extremism and the radicalisation of young people on home soil, it was announced last week.

The Intervention Support Hub project was launched on 10 August by Minister for Justice and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism Michael Keenan. The Australian federal government is funding the project to the tune of A700,000 (US$515,000), with a further A254,000 (US$187,000) contributed by the Australian Federal Police.

Keenan said: “This pioneering centre will be an invaluable source of expertise and information for government and communities working to counter violent extremism.

“The hub will work with community organisations to build their capacity to develop effective, community-oriented approaches to counter violent extremism, and support individuals who are at risk of radicalisation."

He said the hub will also identify evolving international best practice in countering violent extremism, or CVE, and evidence-based research, and facilitate independent evaluation of CVE programmes.

Over the next 12 months, six core team members as well as external consultants will compile and analyse research from both Australian and international institutions into the causes of radicalisation and violent extremism.

Hedayah, the international centre of excellence in the United Arab Emirates for countering violent extremism, will also be involved in the project, as will several other high-profile Australian universities such as Monash University, the University of Melbourne, Victoria University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Western Sydney, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

Project co-leader Dr Clarke Jones of the Canberra-based ANU said the project would act as a “conduit” for this research, developing practical solutions and objectives for community groups and policy-makers.

A sensitive issue

The issue of radicalisation is a sensitive one in Australia, with numerous high-profile cases of Australian citizens travelling overseas to fight with foreign terrorist groups.

One of the most infamous involved Mohamed Elomar, an Australian citizen who the Australian government says was killed in Iraq this year fighting for radical organisation Islamic State (IS – formerly ISIS) and who had posted photographs of himself holding the severed heads of opponents on social media.

In June this year, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, speaking on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio programme said: “Our best estimate is that there are 150 Australians who have been or are still fighting with opposition groups in Syria or beyond… including ISIS”.

But it’s not only abroad that the problem exists. A 17-year-old was charged with terrorism offences when police found home-made explosive devices in his Melbourne home in May this year. Another teenager was arrested this year over allegations he planned to attack a law enforcement officer on a national holiday to obtain maximum publicity for a terrorist act; and a 17-year-old boy from a school in north-west Sydney was investigated by counter-terrorism police in June for preaching radicalism in the schoolyard.

Jones told University World News that the reasons young people were radicalised were complex and that the project would investigate which community interventions may have more chance of long-term success in countering the phenomenon.

“Kids are developing these ideas online through social media and so on; they are getting these ideas away from their parents and families. [It might be] socio-economic reasons, lack of employment and opportunity, neglect from parents, a lack of guidance or a clash of cultures, or even rising up against the treatment their parents have received. The idea of intervention is to try to understand those reasons,” he said.

The project team will remain a neutral body according to Jones, and although government representatives would be present on the steering committee, government policy would not influence the research objectives, he said.

The current centre-right Abbott government has taken a hardline stance with accused terrorists and national security, passing a ‘Foreign Fighters Act’ last year that gives law enforcement agencies even greater power to detain and investigate terror suspects. Jones said that the research hub represented a fresh approach compared to current strategies.

Jones, who worked for the Australian government for more than 15 years in national security, has researched violent extremism and radicalisation in prisons for many years. His co-director of the research hub is Professor Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, at Deakin University, Melbourne.