By Akansha Singh:
ISIS has garnered a reputation in the West as one of the most bloodthirsty organisations to ever threaten Australian soil. Yet again and again, youths are voluntarily leaving home to fight its cause. So what is luring Australian children away from home to face an almost certain death?
A bored teenage boy kills time after school playing a violent video game. Across the world, fellow Australian teen Jake Bilardi straps a bomb onto his chest and kills himself and 17 others in a suicide mission lead by ISIS. It’s becoming clear that Australian youth are thirsting for something greater than the trappings of mundane life, yet some have become misguided enough to take the final, deadly, step.
“They’re fighting for something,” says Hassein Dia, president of the Australian Muslim Youth organisation. “They have a goal: establishing a so-called ‘Islamic state’. Whereas here in Australia they’re outcasts at school, or maybe their families don’t pay too much attention to them, they’re socially awkward, they can’t express themselves adequately. So that’s why some of them may be drawn to groups such as ISIS.”
ISIS’s steep rise since 2013 has seen the Middle East become subject to some of the worst and most widely publicised atrocities it has experienced in recent years. More than that however, their power has now extended past border lines and has begun to infiltrate the minds of the most vulnerable- the youth.
“The very expression home grown terrorist is very destabilising,” says Prof. Michael Humphrey of the University of Sydney, who has written extensively on the relationship between Islam and the West. He describes the hopes many Muslim people feel upon migration to Australia, only to have them unfulfilled.
“We have people who not only feel they haven’t succeeded but they have actually become increasingly alienated,” he continues. “I don’t think it happens for a single reason but a combination of things, like what happens when people feel increasingly socially disconnected.”
This appears to have proven especially true with Australia’s youth. Recent months has seen Western media saturated with images of ISIS’s atrocities, yet also of images of young, Western raised teenagers fighting for their cause.
“They’re completely drawn away from school, from their family,” explains Dia. “Some take drugs to deal with how they’re feeling. Some commit suicide, they just can’t handle it. And some decide to express themselves by going and joining groups such as ISIS.”
“They’re given information which most of the time you could say is false, or over exaggerated information,” says Ali Mehanna, vice president of the Australian Muslim Youth organisation.
“It’s the same notion that most Westerners grow up with, with democracy,” says Ali Safdari, the president of the Islamic Society at the University of Sydney. “When you grow up it’s just like second nature to you, you don’t think about it twice. The same thing goes, for some of these people at least.”
Sydney teenager Abdullah Elmir would have appeared as the perfect opportunity for recruitment to ISIS. A socially awkward teenager who failed to interact well with his peers, he left Sydney in June 2014 to go fight for the terrorist organisation.
“ISIS is trying to go away from the dark haired, Arab looking Muslims that are running this thing,” says Dia, who attended high school with Elmir. “They’re trying to show they’re multicultural, everyone’s accepted. They have this blonde kid now, he’s got red cheeks, he looks Aussie. As their poster boy, holding a gun, threatening the Prime Minister.”
“It isn’t just Australians, or it isn’t just people from Sydney,” elaborates Humphrey. “It’s people from the UK, from Scotland, from Belgium, from Tunisia. In other words, there’s people from a lot different sources involved in this.
“The idea of a nation state is assimilation. Which means, everybody is meant to become like us,” he continues.
Although feelings of not belonging is hardly a novel phenomenon experienced by teenagers as they approach adulthood, it is clear ISIS offered a new purpose and direction in life which sparked enough determination in these youths to leave their old life behind.
“The trend is this emptiness in the people who live in the West,” says Safdari. “The idea of martyrdom and being able to die for the sake of something valuable is something even secular countries like Australia try to bring back… when an ideal like that- sacrificing your life to reach eternal happiness is brought out in the forefront of campaigning things like ISIS- everyone is attracted.”
The modern world has also enabled ISIS’s success in remote brainwashing and recruitment. Social media and its ability to easily permeate the everyday life of teenagers and adults alike has meant its full utilisation by ISIS in its targeting of at-risk youths.
“Social media is probably the biggest weapon ISIS has. It’s not their guns, it’s not their tanks, it’s not their mines. The biggest weapon they have is the social media,” says Mehanna.
The success of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook is that it has been able to transcend physical borders and prejudices in unprecedented ways. For teenagers who have always felt like they didn’t belong, such as Jake Bilardi and Abdullah Elmir, the online world offered opportunities for forging relationships between these social loners and the ability to foster feelings of resentment that had been brewing since early adolescence.
“We live in a world in which global communication, whether it’s internet, social media, video, all kinds of instantaneous communication, means that… people can now live as If they’re suffering and experiencing the same things that their friends and families are experiencing in another place,” says Humphrey.
Furthermore, the use of Islam by ISIS in their attempts to justify the atrocities they are committing has raised vehement opposition from Muslims in Australia and around the world, who have faced discrimination and prejudice upon the misconceptions surrounding Islam and ISIS.
“It will make things much worse, because what the government should do is try and familiarise themselves with these Muslim youth,” says Dia on the issue of cancelling citizenship for suspected terrorists. “They should be building bridges with these communities… The most vital, the most important information they get is from the Muslim community itself and from the own family of these kids.”
Mehanna stresses the importance of a healthy childhood in preventing youth radicalisation: “If you have a happy Muslim with a middle or upper class upbringing, they would not think twice about ISIS. But if you have someone who’s damaged, who doesn’t have a way, then ISIS becomes something that wins.”
“Our projects that we do are very much in line with Islam,” says Dia on the Australian Muslim Youth. “For example we go and feed the homeless in the city, we hand out roses and bottles of water to just normal strangers in the city as just an act of kindness, with peaceful Islamic quotes on them. Now if say a potential young person who potentially wants to go and fight overseas, comes and joins our project, they’ll see that this is what true Islam is. It’s not going and fighting, this is the real jihad you should be participating in.”
Youth radicalisation has proven a complex issue for which there is no easy solution at hand. Understanding the appeal of a radical terrorist organisation to children who have grown up closeted within the Australian lifestyle has proven the first, monumental step in learning how to prevent it.
“When you do random acts of kindness, you learn to love humans, you learn to understand fighting,” says Mehanna. “Everyone wants to fight, but I want to fight for this. Making my community happy.
“You have to find the solution that builds bridges, not breaks them.”
Akansha Singh – a journalism student at UNSW who nonetheless feels great affinity with the UWS community and the communities of Greater Western Sydney