As soon as it was reported that Australian Jake Bilardi had blown himself up in an Islamic State suicide bombing in Syria in March, Dr Anne Aly’s phone started “ringing off the hook”. The media wanted an explanation for why a teenager from the Melbourne suburbs would do such a thing, and she was an obvious go-to expert.
Aly, an Associate Professor and Early Career Research Fellow at Curtin University, is involved in numerous projects aimed at finding out why some people are vulnerable to violent radicalisation, and what can be done to prevent it.
Hearing about Jake didn’t surprise me,” she says. “From reading his blog, it’s clear he shared a lot of characteristics with other young men who have gone overseas to fight. The fact that he came from an Anglo, quite privileged family just goes to show that you can’t profile according to ethnic or cultural background.”
Explaining actions like Bilardi’s is complex, but Aly notes the influence of online extremist propaganda, his obsession with colonial power and what he saw as western atrocities and oppression, turning into disgust for western society in general.
An extension of this disgust is that innocent bystanders aren’t seen as innocent, she says.
“The extremists’ moral compass is so skewed, they have no empathy for their victims. They justify their violence by seeing people as part of the system, guilty for voting for the actions of their leaders.
“I often use the term ‘the cockroach syndrome’. When you kill a cockroach, you don’t do it because you’re angry at it. You do it because you’re disgusted. Jake (who considered carrying out terrorist acts in Australia before going to Syria instead) talked about Australians as ‘filthy dogs’ and ‘filthy pigs’. He was completely disgusted by them, and disgust is a key ingredient in driving someone from anger to violence. You can be angry at something, but not necessarily want to destroy it. When you become disgusted by it as well, destroying it becomes the next step.”
Aly, whose family migrated to Australia from Egypt in the late 1960s when she was an infant, has published widely on issues including Muslim identity, Islamic media influences, terrorism and the internet, and counter-terrorism responses. In 2008 she completed her PhD on how the media and government influence perceptions of terrorism among Muslim communities and the broader Australian community. She is also the author of the 2011 book, Terrorism and Global Security: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.
In May, Aly and a team she has mentored, comprising two first-year and two third-year Curtin students, were announced as one of three finalists in an international competition called Peer to Peer Challenging Violent Extremism.
Twenty international teams were tasked with developing a product, strategy or idea to counter extremism, test it on a target audience, then pitch its submission as a creative brief. The project is run by Edventure Partners and is supported by the United States Department of State.
The Curtin team’s product is a social media app. As finalists, the team has been invited to the White House to present their idea. The winning team will receive a fellowship in the US and its idea will be taken up and developed.
Aly is also involved in Counter Narratives to Interrupt Online Radicalisation, an international project whereby ten reformed extremists are using Facebook to engage with 170 young people identified as having a high-risk interest in extremist propaganda.
“The attempts to open up discussions have had a 35 per cent response rate, which is quite successful in this area. We’re looking at what was said and developing guidelines and a knowledge base around the best ways to engage with people to turn them away from radicalisation.”
“Young people have questions and they want answers”, says Aly. “But often, they’re being told ‘hush, hush – we can’t talk that way’. But I’ll tell you who is talking about it and giving them answers: Islamic State, the violent extremists and their supporters.”
The international competition and Counter Narratives project fit in with Aly’s belief that “when you work with young people, you have to engage them and work at ways of making them part of the solution”.
“I’m not young,” she says, “so I don’t know what goes on in a young person’s mind. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, it was a different world. We didn’t have mobile phones and social media, for a start. I don’t think older people should be making programs for young people. Young people need to be telling us what works.”