How can Australia deradicalise at-risk youth?

Sheikh Mohammed Omran Source: Supplied

Governments worldwide are now working hard to prevent homegrown terror attacks and bring violent extremists back from the brink through deradicalisation programs. But do they work?

More  than 200 young Australians have joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq in the past three years. Around 40 have returned home.

Since 2014, the government has been putting money into secretive intervention programs, so-called ‘deradicalisation’ schemes.

Ali (not his real name) once supported Islamic State and dreamed of going to Syria.

“Very often I thought I should go,” he said. “It was just something to aspire to, like kids aspire to Schoolies.”

The anti-terror police knocked on his door after Ali made online contact with some of the most notorious IS supporters in Syria. It wasn’t their first visit.

But this time they came with an opportunity. Ali was offered the chance to join a program to learn about Islam and help him find work.

The programs are run by police but involve mainstream Muslim organisations.

“I met some people who really help me in life,” said Ali. “They say they want to stop people going into a life of crime.”

“The research shows that the best way to target the pointy end [of terrorism] is through very targeted, individual, tailor made intervention programs,” said Debra Smith, an expert from Victoria Uni.

Dr Jenny Cartwright is part of the AFP National Diversion team, and works to develop programs like this.

“People can move very quickly to being a diversion candidate to then being you know, facing arrest and prosecution,” she said. “What tools do they need to be provided with to allow them to reconnect with Australian society?”

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Sheikh Mohammed Omran is a controversial figure here in Australia. He’s been labelled an Osama Bin Laden sympathiser, and over the years he’s come into contact with some who are now either dead, or serving lenthy prison sentences for acts of terrorism.

But some believe he’s one of the best people to divert young extremists from violence. The Sheikh says it’s a tough job, as young Muslims feel afraid to discuss their thoughts and feelings openly.

“There's no Islamic centre or mosque, that's not monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

He believes IS propaganda resonates with those who feel disillusioned with their lives in Australia.

“We always let them feel they are not Australians,” he said. “Some of the top officials say, ‘if you don’t like it, go back to your own country’. That makes the situation much worse.”

Radical Rewire airs Thursday 2 June at 7.30pm on SBS 2, or streams live.

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