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The evolving threat of violent extremism

What does the demise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq mean for Australia? Is far-right wing extremism really on the rise in Australia? How can Australia’s efforts to counter violent extremism adapt to an ever-evolving landscape? The Point Magazine asks the experts.

Losing morale and territory

Three years after ISIS seized control of nearly a third of the country, Iraqi forces have driven the terrorist organisation from many of its strategic strongholds. Many reports have claimed ISIS is losing morale as well as territory. But the demise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq does not necessarily reduce the domestic threat posed to Australia, according to experts.

“ISIS hasn’t gone anywhere – it’s just changed its tactics,” according to Sofia Patel, counter terrorism analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The group has reverted back to the insurgency they once were – and governments should not write them off as ‘defeated.’ Indeed, according to many scholars, the group remains stronger now than they were in 2011 when the US pulled troops out, and still retains several thousand fighters in pockets across Eastern Syria.

“Ideologically speaking too, they are more than just surviving, they are enduring, despite military defeats. Naturally, the content of the (ideological) material has also changed to focus mainly on defence and warfare, rather than utopia and state building,” Patel said.

When ISIS still entertained its fantasy of statehood, ISIS propaganda promised women a place in its so-called “Caliphate” as wives and mothers, and children were to receive ideological indoctrination in ISIS-run schools. ISIS’s call-to-arms for women to take up combat roles in October signalled a key shift in ISIS rhetoric, according to Patel.   

“The reasons behind this are complex, but on the face of it, it could also be a tactical move to ensure maximum potential for attacking the enemy now that the state project is no longer viable.”

With an estimated 87 Australian foreign fighters killed in Syria and Iraq since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, experts are concerned about the fate of the families of foreign fighters who may now be seeking to return to Australia.

“Australia should be prepared for returnees from the Middle East and from South East Asia – including children and women who may not have actually had battlefield experience, but would have been severely traumatised and exposed to extremist behaviours over a sustained period of time.”

The rise and fall of ISIS has not diminished the threat from like-minded terrorist groups active in the region. While Al Qaeda cut ties with ISIS over ideological differences, Patel warns we should expect to hear more from Al Qaeda. 

“Although Al Qaeda appears to have been pushed to the periphery since the rise of ISIS, they have not ceased operations, nor have they disbanded; more likely, is that they have been rebuilding.”

Regional threat

ISIS propagandists have long exploited the concept of the ummah – a global ‘community’ of Muslims – to mobilise adherents to its cause. The strategy works by merging local grievances from very different geo-political contexts into a global narrative of ‘Muslim persecution’.

Recent examples include an appeal by ISIS for Australian sympathisers to join the separatist movement in the Philippines, and its appalling exploitation of the tragic Rohingya refugee crisis, for its own strategic benefit.

“Australia should be on the front foot regarding the increased influence of ISIS in the southern Philippines, and should have a solid situational awareness of the local socio-political developments – including grievances – on the ground,” Patel said.

“The Rohingya crisis is likely to serve as a legitimising recruitment tool – much like the Syrian civil war – for those wanting to avenge the plight of the Rohingya refugees suffering at the hands of a regime, while the world watches. Australia should be working with peacekeeping missions to provide assistance and support for these vulnerable people.”

“The internet has become a huge game board, an online hypermarket for trolls and gamers, with the legal boundaries diffused and for the most part unenforced.”

– Professor Andrew Jakubowicz

Threat from the extreme far-right  

Far-right wing extremism feeds off the fear of terrorism, and so its rise in Australia cannot be readily separated from the threat of ISIS-inspired extremism, according to Patel.

“Far-right and ISIS-inspired extremism have much in common – and they both feed off each other. This is why it’s important not to silo off one from the other, as there are many links to address that resonate across the spectrum.”

Priscilla Brice, founder of the national anti-racism charity All Together Now, told The Point Magazine that far-right wing extremists in Australia have felt “emboldened” by the activities of anti-immigration and ultra-nationalist movements in Europe and other parts of the world.   

“These international events have presented local far-right groups with the opportunity to exploit similar fears and sentiments in Australia, having received a blueprint of how to do so from far-right members overseas,” Brice said.

Brice said the landscape of far-right extremism in Australia is constantly changing, especially in the online environment.  

“There is an interesting online-offline dynamic whereby some groups who used to be very active offline and were able to mobilise members, now only have an online presence on mainstream social media platforms. Other groups that had a strong social media following only 12 or 18 months ago no longer have the public presence that they once had.”

Brice said new far-right extremist groups emerge every year, and they are innovating and adopting new tactics.

“On the far-right side, some Australian groups have left mainstream social media platforms and gone underground to more secret, closed online spaces. As such, there is potential and significant risk for these groups to radicalise in so-called ‘echo chambers’, and to take their newly formed and more extreme ideas and activism to the outside world, both online and offline.”

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, an expert on cyber racism from the University of Technology Sydney, believes the law is not keeping up with the online tactics of far-right extremists.

“The internet has become a huge game board, an online hypermarket for trolls and gamers, with the legal boundaries diffused and for the most part unenforced.”

“I think internet hacking will become increasingly linked to violence and will seek to generate dangerous encounters and outcomes. The disinhibition that the internet facilitates opens up limitless opportunities for harm, thereby, almost by definition, helping violent extremism.”

In the face of the evolving threat, Jakubowicz said it is important to create alternative, affirmative spaces online.

“(One) thing we can do is find stories, podcasts, interviews, interesting lives and systematic evidence-based models about what we want to achieve.  Move people into a space that they feel competent and confident to stand up and create as their own.”

Evolving program design to counter violent extremism

Brice believes programs and polices to counter violent extremism “need to be community driven and led.”

“Extremism is a human rights issue, and so the focus should not only be on securitisation but also on prevention through supporting the civil society and arts organisations that work consistently to uphold human rights and challenge hate,” she said.

Patel believes a gender perspective will go a long way to improving program design.

“The lack of gender perspectives integrated at the heart of the design, implementation and evaluation processes further undermines the success and resonance of CVE (countering violent extremism) initiatives – women are valued in their roles as mothers and wives rather than as active participating citizens in society.”

The Point

The Point Magazine asks the experts about the evolving threat of violent extremism.


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