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Police can play a greater role in community-based efforts to tackle radicalisation

Addressing violent extremism requires more than police simply knowing about the signs of radicalisation. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Police can play a greater role in community-based efforts to tackle radicalisation

Much has been said about the role of families and Muslim communities in preventing youth radicalisation, and that it should not be seen solely as a policing problem. This is true. But police should continue to play an important part in community-based efforts to tackle radicalisation and violent extremism.

Police as a contact point

As some recent cases involving young Muslims highlight, family members are often unaware of their child’s behaviour or beliefs, or that extremists online are encouraging them to undertake acts of violence or travel to Syria. Muslim leaders and imams can similarly be caught unaware.

Police can therefore often be the first contact point with radicalised youth. This may occur when members of the public tip off police or when youth come to police attention through surveillance and online monitoring.

It is at this point that police can act to trigger community resources by engaging with relevant leaders, agencies and other third parties to help disengage and divert Muslim youth from a more deadly extremist pathway. But this requires a rethink on the part of police relating to their counter-terrorism role.

UK research shows that Muslim communities that are classified as at high risk of violent extremism exhibit low confidence in police and don’t perceive the police to be legitimate. The study’s authors conclude that targeting police resources at areas with Muslim communities that have low confidence in police can be an important evidence-based approach to tackling violent extremism.

While the causes of violent extremism and radicalisation are complex, the results of this UK research illustrate that police engagement with Muslim communities and the building of trust are important for tackling risks associated with radicalisation. My research shows this to be the case in Australia, too. When police use procedural justice in engaging with Muslim communities, Muslims are more likely to want to co-operate with police in counter-terrorism efforts.

We also found that when Muslims trust police and judge police as using procedural justice, they are less likely to feel under siege and to believe that terrorists have valid grievances.

What Australia is doing now, and what next

There are a number of good examples of police engagement efforts in Australia.

While it is often argued that we rarely hear about the concerted efforts that dedicated Muslim leaders and community members are making to tackle radicalisation, the same applies to the police. But, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has a small unit dedicated to community liaison. These liaison officers engage with Muslim communities to help build better relations.

I have completed interviews with members of the AFP community liaison team. These officers talk about undertaking a whole range of engagement activities, including:

  • attending events celebrating the end of Ramadan;

  • helping community groups and mosques access funding for local projects;

  • educating counter-terrorism investigators about Islam;

  • undertaking community consultations following major counter-terrorism operations; and

  • engaging with Muslim youth to hear their concerns.

What is particularly important about the AFP community liaison team’s work is that members do not seek to elicit information or gather intelligence from Muslims about extremism or suspected radicalised individuals. Doing so is seen as risking their engagement work. Rather, the voluntary provision of intelligence is a byproduct of good community engagement.

When community engagement simply masquerades as intelligence gathering, this can undermine community trust and co-operation.

Tackling violent extremism requires more than police simply knowing about the signs of radicalisation. It also requires police to understand good principles of engagement, which will be essential to building effective partnerships with Muslim communities to prevent radicalisation and extremism.

Research shows that police and Muslim communities face challenges when working in partnership. The ability of police to overcome the suspicion and distrust that Muslim communities have towards authorities is important. Police training and education about the types of engagement methods that are most effective are essential. These challenges are not insurmountable.