Australia and the United States: Sharing Lessons in the Fight against Domestic Extremism
January 29, 2015
Recent events in Paris, Ottawa, Sydney, and elsewhere have brought into renewed focus the threat posed to the United States and its partners by homegrown violent extremism. The challenge includes countering online radicalization, blocking financial support to the Islamic State, protecting against “lone wolf” attacks, and preventing citizens from joining the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
With President Barack Obama hosting a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” on February 18, it is clear Washington is eager to learn from what others are doing to counter the extremist threat. Australia’s approach should be of particular value to the United States leading up to and following the summit.
Australia has grown increasingly concerned with the potential threat to domestic security from citizens influenced by the sophisticated narrative peddled by terrorist groups like the Islamic State. The implications of that narrative became tragically clear with the siege by lone gunman Haron Monis in downtown Sydney in December, and before that during unprecedented counter-terrorism sweeps across Australian cities in September. The conflict in Syria and Iraq has had a catalyzing effect on a small, disaffected segment of Australia’s Muslim community.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government in August announced a more than $500 million counterterrorism strategy that includes new funds and staff to better counter radicalization and extremist threats. This plan includes community engagement programs, a new Australia Federal Police Community Diversion and Monitoring Team, and a multiagency national “disruption” group to target recruiters and foreign fighters. Much of this counterterrorism strategy has focused on bolstering the traditional role of intelligence and security forces, and some it has come under fire as being too far-reaching or heavy-handed.
But Australia’s evolving strategies to counter violent extremism have also used the nation’s sense of multicultural social inclusion to work at the community level with local leaders on better awareness, education, and engagement. Multiculturalism plays a crucial role in providing an authentic counternarrative to combat the extremist propaganda that targets disaffected segments of the community, especially among youth.
Australia’s community-level focus should be instructive for the United States and other partners, because it offers an opportunity to tackle localized causes of radicalization and violent extremism. For example, Australian police, researchers, and community organizations are tailoring counter-radicalization efforts differently in western Sydney than in southern Melbourne, recognizing the differences in those targeted communities. The government’s Living Safe Together Program keeps communities at the center of its response and wisely gives a boost to local policing to increase and improve community outreach programs.
This approach reflects a realization that countering the long-term threat of extremism at home requires engaging on issues outside the national security arena, such as jobs, education, health, and civil rights. Australia’s focus on this type of work and the building of grassroots community contact by the police, social services, educators, religious leaders, and others is essential to preventing violent extremism, especially among at-risk youth. With sometimes-mixed reactions, the government has worked hard to include community leaders as part of the design, implementation, and monitoring of programs. Australia’s relatively small population and limited number of high-risk communities provide a range of in-depth case studies that should be of interest to the United States.
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry outlined during his January 23 speech at Davos, “If we’re going to successfully combat violent extremism, we better understand all of the factors, because we can’t change minds without knowing what’s in them.”
The issue of messaging and the changing of minds is among the most difficult challenges that the United States and others face, and in this regard Australia is no different. The scale, sophistication, and effectiveness of the Islamic State’s social media and other messaging set it apart from those of previous extremist groups. The diffuse nature of the messaging makes it especially difficult for governments and communities to respond. Programs such as All Together Now in Australia point the way toward a better response, but more research and exchanging of best practices needs to happen to ensure an effective multichannel and multimedia strategy is used. Bringing community groups and leaders onboard is critical, given that governments struggle to be creative and strategic in the use of social media and other channels to spread a counternarrative.
The threat of fighters returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria has dominated much of the debate in both Australia and the United States. The security implications of these fighters’ return are especially significant for Australia, which has an estimated 200–250 nationals participating directly in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The initial reaction by Australia and others has been to cancel the passports of those involved. This is understandable but insufficient and raises the question of rehabilitation as another issue worthy of discussion at President Obama’s upcoming summit. In this area, Australia and others can learn from the Hayat program in Germany and the pilot de-radicalization programs in Aarhus, Denmark, which provide counseling and support for returned fighters. This off-ramp to rehabilitation should be a crucial part of governments’ approaches. As Victorica University's Michele Grossman argues, if done successfully, rehabilitated returnees can provide a credible resource for helping turn away potential recruits.
Australia already works closely with the United States as part of the coalition combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network and a member of the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum. Working with Australia to share lessons learned and better coordinate efforts to counter violent extremism at home is a natural extension of the already close relationship between the two countries, especially between their law enforcement, security, and intelligence agencies.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Pacific Partners Initiative.
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