Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one and part two here.

It is not a far stretch of the imagination to see that Australia is well and truly in the spotlight of Islamic extremists. The world is dealing with a very dangerous threat and Australia is certainly not immune. Homegrown radicalisation is something that has gained considerable momentum since the Islamic State became a global name synonymous with terror. The reach of the group extends far beyond the physical land that they are in control of, and their war has taken on a digital paradigm with no comparable precedent. They are successfully spreading their message and recruiting people an entire world away to join them in their murderous campaign.

Over 200 Australians have left the relative comfort and safety of Australia to travel to a world plagued by the suffering and devastation one would expect after four continuous years of civil war. For every Australian that leaves, there are several who do not, but could still be classified as active Islamic State sympathisers. Every Australian that returns from the conflict brings with them a level of experience and expertise that is simply unattainable outside of our defence force.

So what do we do about it?

The question is one of genuine concern and something that is dominating the Australian political, social, and religious landscapes. There is obviously no silver-bullet solution to the incredibly complex issue of homegrown radicalisation; it is something that requires a layered approach to ensure the best possible chances of countering the online rhetoric of groups like the Islamic State. First, developing an understanding of how someone becomes “digitally radicalized” is necessary in order to prescribe workable strategies. Each step of this radicalisation process then needs to be analysed with the implementation of strategies aimed at countering each of these categories and sub-categories.

The strategy would ultimately follow the defence-in-depth (DiD) approach, which is used in all effective security applications. The defence-in-depth principle represents a systematic, highly integrated approach to the physical security of people and assets. Any single measure only forms part of an overall protection strategy; the entire concept of defence-in-depth rests on the notion that a shortfall in one protection layer will not lead to a wider, more serious failure in the entire system.

Utilising this method would ultimately provide progressive safety nets to stop an individual from moving further toward becoming completely radicalised. If one layer fails to stop the radicalisation process, then hopefully subsequent layers will. The idea is to ultimately create strategies to disparage the terrorist propaganda that is leading vulnerable individuals down this extremist path.

Let me analyse this further from a more familiar perspective. The selection processes for special operations forces around the world do an effective job of removing those who are wedded to nothing other than the idea of joining their ranks. Special operations selection is designed to purge those who have simply romanticised this type of service without fully considering the demands that go with it. They are designed to force people to acknowledge their decision with absolutely no room for uncertainty or doubt. Essentially, selection is designed to leave only the most motivated, committed, and capable of individuals standing at the end. De-radicalisation strategies can be based on logic not too dissimilar to this process, and I’ll explain why.

Australia's Homegrown Radicalisation Problem (Pt. 4): ISIS and Cyber Warfare

Read Next: Australia's Homegrown Radicalisation Problem (Pt. 4): ISIS and Cyber Warfare

Using this approach and reflecting on my own selection course, I was so dedicated to achieving my goal that there was absolutely nothing other than physical injury that was going to stop me from becoming a qualified commando. Everyone in my course may have initially believed that they had this mindset going into it, but this was only true for those who passed and eventually made it into the regiment. Even though injuries claimed the dreams of some, there were a large number of candidates who withdrew at their own request based on the physiological and psychological demands of the course. These demands ultimately exceeded their motivation once they were faced with the reality of what selection and life as a special operations soldier was all about.

Similarly, being paneled on selection is by no means an easy feat, nor a matter of just being at the right place at the right time; there is an application process that includes psychological testing, physical testing, and aptitude testing, as well as a number of other considerations prior to the final panel of candidates being chosen. Every person that is there on day one of selection has devoted themselves in some aspect of their lives to getting there. They are all convinced that this is the path they were born to be on, yet, when thrown into the uncertainty of selection, they start dropping off as early as day one.

What I am trying to illustrate with this analogy can be summed up as follows: The level of commitment that a person has to following a chosen path to achieve a desired goal can be altered by external and countering stimuli.

Revelation? Not really. However, I have always found that putting myself in other people’s shoes and, where possible, using my own experiences to try and understand theirs, allows for a much clearer understanding of the issue at hand. If I apply my experience to understand a mindset rather than a specific path, then there are a number of similarities worth mentioning.

Just to be clear, I am in no way putting our special operations soldiers and terrorists on the same level. I am merely pointing out:

  1. An underlying level of determination that certain individuals—whatever their predilection—have for achieving a chosen goal
  2. How this commitment can be considered variable
  3. How external stimuli has the ability to alter these convictions and commitment. Whether it is becoming a member of Australia’s elite or joining the ranks of IS, there are loose similarities that are critical to the development of effective counter-strategies.

The radicalisation process

Let’s again go back to the layered onion metaphor to examine the radicalisation process. The outermost layers of the onion represent the weakest of opposition and those that require the least amount of effort to steer away from the rhetoric of terrorist groups. It represents people who may be considering going down the extremist path, but are still undecided. They are essentially sitting on the fence but can be convinced either way based on the most persuasive stimuli.

As we peel away the outer layer, we may encounter individuals who are either passive/closed or passive/open supporters of terrorist groups. They may agree with certain aspects of their ideology and beliefs, with the former hiding their support entirely and the latter willing to discuss with other like-minded people. The passive group of supporters would not take part in any of the violence advocated by these groups and may even denounce it as a political tool.

The next layer would represent those people who are active/closed and active/open supporters of terrorist groups. They would be considered fanatical, with the main distinction between the two being the applied discretion of their beliefs. These people would be the type to post content on their social media profiles supporting groups like the Islamic State, attend seminars by controversial groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, or donate to these organisations or similar causes. They would very likely advocate the violence carried out by the group, however would not carry out attacks themselves.

The final group of people represent the hardened and rotten core of the onion. This group of individuals are extremists in the truest sense and would either leave our shores to join the fighting overseas or, worse still, plan an attack domestically. They are proponents of violence and have an unwavering commitment to carrying out the violent ideological demands that groups like IS are advocating. This is the level where de-radicalisation strategies are mostly ineffective and must be replaced with military or law enforcement action.

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