As the Australian Government brings forth legislation to detain high risk individuals indefinitely, I take a look at how our efforts in countering violent extremism (CVE) need to shift and why hope is not the solution.
Drugs and alcohol are not my problem — reality is my problem. Drugs and alcohol are my solution. ~ Russell Brand
In the coming weeks Info Ops HQ will be publishing a report on my 18 month open source investigation into Australian foreign fighters and domestic actors. I’ve been taking a deep dive into every available detail of over 160 individuals looking for the reason/s why they chose a path of violence and terror.
What is it that makes a person join a terrorist organisation?
Why do they feel compelled to commit acts of terror against their fellow Australians here at home or to flee abroad to join a war that they believe is theirs to fight?
And how is life here in Australia considered so unpalatable that living in war ravaged poverty with no free will is seen as an improvement in circumstance?
As I reflect on the rabbit hole I dove down in February 2015, I can’t help but pause to consider 18 months on that I’ve started down a path that in all probability may have no ending.
What if I learn everything there is to learn and I still can’t fix this?
I know I’m not the only keyboard tango hunter to experience a crisis of confidence when faced with the prospect of not being able to achieve my objective. I’m a results driven person. I see the mountain, I figure out how to climb or circumambulate it, I conquer that mountain – and then I look for the next mountain. There is no plateau for me. There are only mountains to climb. I don’t slow down and people find it hard to keep up.
But rather like a boyfriend that subtly keeps moving more of his stuff into your apartment until he’s part of the decor, this research project has become somewhat of a fixture in my life for better or worse. I say worse because I ponder regularly the impact my research is having not only on my life, but the lives of my family and friends. Am I less tolerable? Do I bore people with talk about this passion project? Does my work scare people? Am I too intense?
These are the things I think about at 4am as my brain keeps spinning. But in one of those moments of sleepless self reflection, I was contemplating if I had an addiction to my research.
And the proverbial penny dropped.
Maybe radicalisation is more addiction than volunteerism.
Maybe – just like other addictions – the confluence of social conditioning together with the company you keep and personal circumstances lead you down a path of seeking temporary respite from whatever it is you’re running from. It need not be drugs or alcohol – I’ve seen people addicted to toxic relationships, to sex, exercise or food.
The one constant? The person is trying to avoid something in their life they aren’t yet ready to deal with.
For some people, that something is life itself.
Why radical belief is like addiction.
I’m going to suggest two new(?) ways of looking at CVE by proposing two things:
- Extremism is actually a psychosis induced addiction; and
- Hope isn’t not the answer.
What we know about addiction.
Psychology Today explains:
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g. alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g. gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behaviour is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others… However the most addictive behaviour is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People compulsively use drugs, gamble or shop nearly always in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction… The focus on the the addiction isn’t what matters; it’s the need to take action under certain kinds of stress.
Science tells us that addiction is also complex web of genetics, cognitive reward pathways, timing, circumstances, challenges and issues (Genetic Science Learning Center).
Applying a CVE lens, we know that at-risk individuals become compulsive about their religious beliefs during the radicalisation process to the extent that they interfere with both the practical aspects of living in a Western, secular society and the temporal aspects of maintaining relationships and social cohesion. We also know that radicalised individuals have timing, circumstances, challenges and issues in their lives that they respond to in ways the majority of their peers – who are exposed to the same environments – do not.
These are all expressions of addictive behaviours within a CVE context.
In essence the radicalisation trajectory is therefore less about the indoctrination of extreme ideas, which form a second order of effect – but is more geared to creating an emotionally driven addicted dependence to the conduit. If we look at extremists who hijack religions to justify their actions, the distinct absence of alcohol, narcotics and nicotine mean that the conduit – a person or even a social media persona – becomes the critical addiction agent.
Psychological aspects of addiction.
In his book ‘The Sober Truth’ Lance Dodes explains that science shows that nearly every approach to addiction treatment has been a spectacular failure because:
- We try to solve addiction by treating it as a moral or spiritual problem; that can only be overcome by improving one’s connection with God
- We try to solve addiction by lecturing and ‘educating’ the addict about the science behind how drugs work and their dangers
- We assume that the addict has a lack of motivation to abstain, so we try and encourage increased motivation; and
- We convince addicts that their issue lies with faulty thinking that should be treated with corrected cognitive approaches to their behaviour.
A quick glance of these four points with a CVE lens and you can see the challenge – ideological recruitment taps into these cultural cognitive bias’ to use them nefariously against the individual being radicalised. In selling a solutions to whatever their problems, extremist recruiters capture the hearts and minds of their recruits at a primal level. Everything we as a society have told them to be true is reinforced in ways they’ve been pre-primed to receive from in person proselytisation to social media content payloads.
If we take this a step further we know that radicalised individuals experience a cognitive opening effect that awakens their sense of proximity to extreme ideology. Suddenly, it all just makes sense that cliched light-bulb ‘a-ha’ moment.
Dodes explores this feeling of empowerment further in his books The Heart of Addiction and Breaking Addiction. Dodes explains that every addictive act is preceded by a feeling of overwhelming helplessness or powerlessness. The particular situations or feelings that produces this helplessness are different for different people. Addictive behaviour essentially reverses these feelings and turns them into something that the person will know makes them feel better, in a way where they feel in complete control. This ‘key moment’ is therefore an emotional response to feeling trapped, and the rebellion that follows.
Well adjusted people manage these challenges in healthy ways, while in the case of radicalisation the recruit is encourage to harness their anger, direct it toward the designated cause and control it for release through delayed action.
At a basal level this is a simple process of replacing the emotion of feeling marginalised for example, with the addictive cure – a sense of feeling empowered and control.
Partner this addictive objective with well engineered choice architecture and multi-layered information cascades to validate the addicts new found sense of ‘self’ and it’s easy to see why Daesh and other terrorist organisations have been so successful.
Their followers are all addicted to the intangible sense of belonging to something that appeals culturally, religiously and socially. Take those things away – remember this is a sensory addiction – and the addict experiences immediate if not pre-emptive withdrawal back to feelings of hopelessness and marginalisation.
Add the reality of combat into that mix – whether that be on a battlefield or a domestic location – and a third order of effect is the cultivation of an addiction to adrenalin. In combat situations, this addiction is fed regularly. In domestic settings the addiction is acute to a nearly always homicidal intent of the lone actor.
Why Hope isn’t the answer.
In a perfect world, addiction treatment programs work.
In a perfect world, those who are imprisoned for their crimes are fully rehabilitated and released back into the community anew and go on to lead law abiding productive lives.
In a perfect world, we would be able to fix everything and everyone.
But the inconvenient truth is we can’t.
Not because we don’t try – we do, often more times than is reasonable and nearly always to our own detriment.
And it’s not because we don’t care – we do, often too much.
While civil libertarians argue for the rights of prisoners; who is standing up for the rights of the community or future victims of bad parole decisions?
Hope is a dangerous thing.
We can’t save everyone because not everyone can or wants to be saved. We often try to save them – but the offer of redemption is more to appease our own moral ideation and beliefs than to actually help the recovering individual on their road to recovery.
The truth is that we can’t fix radicalised individuals any quicker than we can fix an alcoholic, a drug addcit or a cigarette smoker. We know that addicts relapse. We know that for the majority of addicts the struggle to remain clean and sober is a lifelong challenge. We know that these individuals need a lot of structured support, in a stable home environment and certainly away from the very forces that conspired to create their radical addiction in the first place.
In Goulburn – a New South Wales country metropolis, the judicial system released Ahmed Elomar from prison today. He was released because the parole board believed he could become radicalised in jail. The New South Wales Government challenged this decision but was overruled by Supreme Court Justice Geoff Bellew, who rejected the Government’s claim that Elomar had already been radicalised, finding it was based up on a false premise.
Elomar had spent almost 3 years in jail for brutally bashing a Police Officer with a wooden pole during the Hyde Park riot in 2012. He was far from a model prisoner. A former professional boxer, whose own mother described him as “not very intelligent” and “suffering from an impaired mental state,” Elomar was involved in 4 violent altercations while imprisoned.
Elomar’s brother Mohammed was killed fighting with Daesh in Syria in 2015. Elomar’s uncle Mohamed Ali is still in custody after being arrested as part of the 2005 Sydney terrorist plot. Elomar’s sister in law Fatima was recently put on a good behaviour bond after pleading guilty to supporting foreign hostile acts.
Elomar’s father openly stated in 2007 that Sheikh Feiz had radicalised his children.
Ahmed Elomar was released into the community today.
Not into the waiting support of his family or friends.
Not into a Government support team to transition him from prison to clean living.
Not into a residential deradicalisation program.
Ahmed Elomar was released today into a media scrum.
Let that sink in.
Ahmed Elomar was released from prison today just incase he became radicalised in jail – not into a support network, but into a waiting media scrum.
He was effectively abandoned and placed directly into a volatile situation without any assistance by the very system that is allegedly so worried about his becoming radicalised in jail.
Whether Elomar is radicalised, became radicalised or isn’t radicalised is yet to be determined. But today, we all failed him because we gave him hope only to demonstrated how little we actually care.
If we are to give men like Elomar hope, we can’t play it both ways. We can’t accuse him with one hand while ignoring him and withdrawing support with the other.
There have been other men with violent criminal histories like Elomar who have been released into the community in recent years. These are the names of just some of the women who lost their lives because of erroneous parole decisions:
- Jill Meagher
- Sarah Cafferkey
- Masa Vukotic
Hope IS a civil right.
Every law abiding member of our society should be able to live with the hope that they will be safe to live a peaceful existence within the community.
Why we continue to reserve hope for those who have violently relinquished their right to live freely amongst us isn’t compassionate, it’s dangerous.