Article by Fethi Mansouri
Published on March 13, 2015
Sydney Morning Herald


Military action alone will not defeat global terror.

We live with a constant overflow of media stories warning of the dangers surrounding us; from plane crashes and natural disasters to violent conflicts and terrorist attacks edging closer to home. All of these are unsettling and anxiety-inducing, but it is perhaps the latter that we feel most vulnerable to, and concerned by, as we try to understand why Australians, in particular teenagers, are embracing what seems to be a cult-like, nihilistic ideology of death and destruction.

The Melbourne teenager Jake Bilardi, who has reportedly died after being involved in a suicide attack in Iraq and the three British girls recently leaving their homes in affluent Western cities to join the Islamic State (IS) have again highlighted the need for both better understanding and improved collective action to counter youth radicalisation both in Australia and overseas.

So what can be done? Articles, reports and books prescribing strategies for solving, even eradicating, “global jihad” abound but, in truth, there is significant confusion.

Despite being more violent and barbaric than al-Qaeda, IS successfully recruits youth from Muslim and non-Muslim countries because it has developed an appealing identity, a brand even, that uses social media and information technologies to disseminate its messages well beyond its immediate geographic confines.

Given what it has become, it is important to remember IS was born among Iraq’s Sunni Muslims who, for the most part, were alienated from the newly formed Iraqi government, and thus from the rebuilding of post-Saddam Iraq. It was al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became the Islamic State in Iraq, which expanded into Syria, following the outbreak of civil war there and a merger with its Syrian equivalent Jabhat An-Nusrah, to become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

This in turn paved the way for the emergence of IS as we know it today; with a substantially expanded mandate: a “global” caliphate with a capital city, an anointed leader, significant finances and a slick PR machine. This international branding of IS has had strong appeal for Muslim youth far beyond the Middle East and North Africa, a fact that helps explain why growing numbers of second-generation Muslim youth in the West, as well as converts, are joining IS.

Understanding why youth in Australia may be attracted is at first rather bewildering but a closer analysis offers sobering reading. Examining the recent examples of Australians joining IS point to push and pull factors that are methodically exploited by the well-oiled IS propaganda machine: which has taken social media and interactive fora to a new level. The ability of IS to identify and recruit foreign fighters is facilitated and enhanced not only by the essence of its message but also the nature of the organisation itself; its operational fluidity and organisational adaptability, which distinguish it from the hierarchical and rigid leadership style of al-Qaeda.

And this makes IS a much more difficult target for traditional military intervention and counter-terrorism operations: it has developed many state-like attributes including a functioning bureaucracy, income-generation strategies, a core army of loyal operatives, territorial continuity across two countries, as well as a growing capacity to inflict damage well beyond its immediate geography. This highly complex evolution of IS and its transnational expansion has, in itself, helped create a strong appeal for would-be recruits believing that they are joining a “proper” state, a “strong” community fighting for a common cause, rather than a fragmented terrorist group.

But surely there is more than the slick and highly emotive propaganda machine to motivate young people to leave their quiet suburbs in Melbourne, Sydney and elsewhere to sign up for the perilous journey that is joining IS.

The deliberate strategy of IS to exploit the psychological and social vulnerabilities of potential recruits through the gradual marketing of a grand narrative about pure ideals, global justice and a well-connected brotherly community fighting to end injustice and bring about everlasting order is a message that is at once captivating and empowering for its target audience, especially when delivered through an action-packed visual narrative – which is the antithesis of the isolating social life experienced by many young people who wander in search of meaning, purpose and connection.

Indeed, I very recently spent time in France with French Muslim youth, community activists and religious leaders as part of a larger project, which also analysed the comparable experience of Muslim youth in Australia and the US. The project revealed troubling underlying currents: Muslim youth experience a deep sense of social anxiety, personal insecurity and lack of clear life pathways to follow. To make matters worse, the lack of proper mentoring and the confusing, at times contradictory, messages conveyed by their fragmented community and religious leadership, and in which, unfortunately, the calming and peaceful messages of level-headed religious and community leaders are too often overshadowed by the loud voices of radical ideologues shows how radicalisation and possible recruitment for global jihad can find fertile grounds in these young minds.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the IS crisis it is that simple, unidimensional policies, such as military action, will not achieve long-term sustainable success. The problem is global, it is multi-faceted and a response to it must be seen in this light.

What needs to be understood and acted upon is the critical role of education, community partnerships and, in particular, social media in building more resilient communities and shielding would-be recruits. To counter the sophisticated, visually appealing strategies employed by IS in recruiting and radicalising youth, we need to debunk the myths perpetrated by IS, and more importantly to create societies in which the rhetoric of IS loses its appeal construct a counter-narrative that offers hope and attaches a premium to the sanctity of human life everywhere.

Sadly, there is no secret or optimal formula for achieving success in this complex area of public engagement; rather careful analysis and action to address the key factors influencing potential recruits will go a long way towards prevention.

Professor Fethi Mansouri holds a UNESCO Chair on Cultural diversity and Social Justice and is the Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.