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How are Western youth conditioned to commit terrorist acts?

Narratives of grievance are foundational to Islamic radicalisation. It may have helped motivate 15-year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar’s actions. AAP

Questions continue to be raised as to how a 15-year-old Sydney boy, Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, was radicalised to the point that he shot dead a NSW police employee in Parramatta last week.

Each individual case of radicalisation has its own characteristics. But the research I have conducted which focuses on Islamic radicalisation – has highlighted some patterns that may help to explain this dark, murky world that is drawing in some Australian youth.

There is still much more work to be done in understanding this complex phenomenon, but here’s what we know.

Embedded grievances

Narratives of grievance are foundational to Islamic radicalisation. These narratives cannot be separated from international and domestic events, which are continually changing.

During the early stages of my research, grievances were primarily directed against the US military’s mistreatment of prisoners and detainees in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The focus then shifted to Syria and the inaction of Western governments. Most recently, grievances have centred on government actions to cancel passports. Coupled with this is the Australian government’s recent decision to extend airstrikes into Syria.

These grievances are framed to create an emotional response and a belief that oppression of Muslims is continuing to take place, as part of a long historical narrative of grievance. Key radical clerics have framed this grievance as an oppression of Muslims and a bid to prevent them from achieving their God-given destiny.

But grievance in isolation is insufficient to create radicalisation to commit acts of terrorism. Essentially, radicalisation is developed by embedding grievance within an ideological and propaganda framework. This framework calls for action in the form of jihad and ultimately martyrdom. Such actions are presented not merely as an option but as a divine obligation.

Building on the emotional connection created through grievance, a cognitive framework based on ideology and propaganda is developed that can direct action and legitimise violence.

Reframing morality

Terrorism in general has often been conceptualised as using forms of moral disengagement.

But my research, specifically focusing on Islamic terrorism, found that rather than disengaging from morality, morality was reframed to create a new mental framework that outlined morality as an adherence to Islamic fundamentalism and a willingness to adopt the ideology and – more importantly – its associated obligations.

As strange as it sounds, those who murder in Allah’s name believe they are doing a holy act, for which they will be rewarded in the afterlife.

How do online recruiters achieve this?

There are number of strategies. First is “anchoring”, or connection with an individual based on grievances. Disaffected young people with a personal sense of grievance are often easier to target as they can easily internalise this broader sense of grievance.

“Future pacing” is a common technique employed. Here, imagery is used to try essentially to mentally transport a recruit into the future and enable them to see that they have not only accepted the ideology but also acted on it. This is not done once but many times, using social media, videos and images.

In order to understand what happens to young people online, we can conceptualise the online social media environment as a type of virtual institution in which feelings and thought patterns are normalised to be in line with ideological frameworks.

Institutions also have an important sense of isolation from outside influences. Most important for radicalisation is the isolation from moderate Islamic voices.

A networked approach is often used where a potential recruit is connected with a large number of other radicals or sympathisers who help convey and reinforce the ideology. Key connections are made with individuals who can take a recruit further along the stages of radicalisation.

These recruiters essentially become guardians of a young person, demonstrating an albeit false “ethic of care” built through friendships that may even replace that of their parents.

Many of these skilled recruiters are from the UK, Australia and the Middle East. And as shown in recent cases, they can be young people.

Recruiters also look at targeting more than one person in a given friendship group. Online interactions and mentoring can flow over to offline connections, extremist networks and groups within a local community to reinforce the online mentoring process.

Isolating an individual within this online institution, which may also extend to a small group, enables a faster and more efficient form of transformation.

Notwithstanding this process, there are some important caveats:

  • Individuals who enter the virtual institution do so willingly and of their own choosing.

  • Transformation is a difficult process to achieve but even if it is only successful in a small number of cases, the effects are still horrific.

  • The best place for intervention is as early as possible. The more isolated an individual becomes, the more they connect to these extreme ideologies and the fewer their opportunities to be exposed to more moderate voices.

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