The Voices of War

81. Professor Greg Barton - Understanding Radicalisation, Extremism And Terrorism

VOW 81 | Extremism


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Today, I’m speaking with Professor Greg Barton, who is a Research Professor in Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University. Greg is one of Australia’s leading scholars of radicalisation, terrorism and countering violent extremism. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international media on these topics as well as on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.

He joins me today for a deep dive into radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism, as well as their causes and potential solutions.

Some of the topics we explored are:

  • Greg’s background and research in countering violent extremism (CVE)
  • Defining radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism
  • The explanation why Russia is not designated a terrorist state
  • Terrorism as a method
  • Dangers of ‘thought policing’
  • How to deal with extremism before it becomes violent
  • Explaining the ‘Push, Pull, Personal factors’ model to understand radicalisation
  • Systemic hate and its potential to fuel hateful extremism, violent extremism, and conflict violence
  • Similarities between recruiting into a military and a terrorist group
  • The role of social media in radicalisation
  • How online radicalisation occurs
  • Combating extremist propaganda
  • Effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures
  • The short-sightedness of military solutions to combat terrorism
  • How to prevent violent extremism
  • The Indonesian success in combating violent extremism as a case study
  • The growing threat of far-right extremism
  • Authoritarian populism as a key motivator behind far-right extremism
  • The potential risks of military veterans joining far-right groups
  • Pragmatic reflection about the risk to democracy in the US
  • Greg’s biggest fears for the next decade

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Listen to the podcast here


Professor Greg Barton – Understanding Radicalisation, Extremism And Terrorism

Thank you for joining me for another year of the show. I look forward to sharing many more interesting and insightful discussions with you. I would also like to remind you about the upcoming change to the show. Subscribers to the show will have access to a separate feed, which will air full episodes. This channel will publish the first half of each episode, and each episode will be book-ended with an invitation to become a subscriber, and I published a short explanation of this change.

Let’s get to the next episode with Professor Greg Barton, which is a deep dive into the complex topic of radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism. Greg helps us first define these terms before explaining some of the factors that motivate groups and individuals down this path. We discussed the process of radicalisation, the dangers of online recruitment, the scaling of this problem through social media, the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures, the growing threat of far-right extremism, and a whole lot more.

We conclude with a pragmatic reflection on the current state and dangers to democracy in the United States. As you will hear, Greg is an eminent expert in the field, and I hope you get as much out of this discussion as I have. Lastly, this episode was recorded on the 28th of September 2022, which is well before the midterm elections in the US that Greg refers to towards the end of the episode. You won’t be surprised that his predictions proved rather accurate. I hope you enjoy the discussion.

My guest is Professor Greg Barton, who is a research professor in Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University. Greg is also one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia, terrorism, and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years, Greg has undertaken extensive research on Indonesian politics and society, especially on the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in interfaith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building an understanding of Islam and Muslim societies.

Greg also has an interest in security studies, particularly, in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. Greg is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on radicalisation, violent extremism, and terrorism, as well as on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world. He joined me to discuss some of these topics, as well as their causes and potential solutions. Greg, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Great to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.

Before we dive into radicalisation and violent extremism, maybe we can start by finding out what motivated your entry into this rather murky world. How did you end up studying this and researching it?

My PhD thesis at Monash University in the late ’80s and early ’90s was looking at progressive Islamic thought in Indonesia, the renewal of the Islamic thought movement. I looked at figures like Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, and Djohan Effendi. That was primarily concerned with how religious values translate and apply in the modern world and modern society. Their ideas very much captured the idea that Islam should represent a push for recognition of human rights and accountable systems of government. By implication, they were pushing for a shift in Indonesia away from Suharto’s military-backed authoritarian rule to democracy.

In May ’97, Suharto suddenly stepped down in the middle of a financial crisis when he couldn’t form a new government and couldn’t find cabinet members. Elections were held the following year and there was a whole plethora of parties contesting, including many parties with a Muslim base. In the parliamentary process of selecting a new president, the first time was ever done inside the super-parliament. Abdurrahman Wahid was chosen as president, so I then went on to write a biography of Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur.

In 2001, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I recognised that having spent the previous years looking at progressive Islamic thought in Indonesia, I better pay attention to the other end of the spectrum. I looked around to see what was analogous in Indonesia to Al-Qaeda, or at least what influence Al-Qaeda might have on sympathising groups for Jemaah Islamiyah. We had the Bali bombings on October 12th. We were at the twentieth anniversary of that pivotal moment for Indonesia and for Australia. 202 were killed, 88 are Australians. I wrote a book on Jemaah Islamiyah.

I haven’t been able to walk away from this topic ever since, because of the last few years. It’s not my first interest, but it is an enduring interest. There is a squaring of the circle. I was drawn to Indonesia in progressive Islamic thought because of the quality of the people I have met and their sincerity. I do quite a lot of work in the countering violent extremism space in Southeast Asia. This is working with civil society organisations that have those same values there. They are inspired by Islam in a progressive way. That’s the redeeming side of looking at what can be a pretty grim topic.

It’s two sides of the same coin. That’s what we are going to dive into. Before we get into that, it might be useful to distinguish between some of the terminologies that are commonly used when we are talking about terrorism, radicalisation, or violent extremism. I don’t know if those terms are sufficiently different to warrant a discussion. I feel like, in my mind, I’m not entirely clear about the differences. I have to make the assumption that some of my audience members will be the same. Maybe you can explain to us what is the difference between radicalisation, extremism, and Islamic terrorism.

You are right, these terms overlap, but it is important to be clear about where the boundaries are and what we mean by them. They are used in very specific ways. People will often say, “There’s no standard definition of terrorism.” That’s true. Different agencies around the world define things in, for example, what’s a threat to American society or Australian society.

Leaving aside those in the specific elements and an ad hoc after-the-case definition, there’s a fairly broad consensus on what we mean by terrorism and violent extremism. To back up, extremism in itself and radicalisation refer to the process generally understood as a cognitive process by which somebody becomes to embrace extreme ideas. It’s increasingly understood that radicalisation is not just a cognitive process of embracing extreme ideas. It involves forming new friendships and new relationships of trust. Often for individuals, it’s joining a new family, having a new peer group, finding support, and finding recognition.

VOW 81 | Extremism
Extremism: Radicalisation is not just a cognitive process of embracing extreme ideas. It involves forming new friendships and new relationships of trust.

That occurs in conventional religious or even non-religious settings, you can be joining an environmental activist movement. That sense of belonging to a group on the social network side of things is often the most important and it generally tends to proceed. If we are talking about violent extremism, which is largely but not completely synonymous with terrorism, people generally get drawn to the community and the relationships. Often because somebody has gone after them in a predatory fashion to recruit them. Sometimes its happenstance can be extended family and siblings.

Once they identify with the group, then they internalise the ideas. The ideas come after the social connection. The difference between being radical or having extreme ideas and violent extremism, radicalism is often substituted for radicalism to violent extremism. The shorthand needs to be treated with care because becoming radical is not a bad thing. Most good things in the world that have come through social movements and change have involved a degree of extremist conviction and a degree of being radical. The definition of the word radical, of course, going back to basics, is it comes from the Latin radix for root. It’s going back to the roots of things. As we say in English, it’s a root-to-branch transformation for many people.

Being radical is not a bad thing. Most good things in the world that have come through social movements have involved a degree of extremist conviction and radicalism. Share on X

Somebody might become vegan having first become vegetarian because they have concerned about animals and they are concerned about the planet. They have done the research. They have figured out, “There’s a very compelling argument for me changing the way I live.” That, in shorthand, is a radical shift, but that’s not a threat to anyone in itself. It’s a net good. If more people made those personal changes, then the planet would be better, and our society would be better.

It’s important to recognise what can be positive about somebody being radical and what even ideas that are called extreme might have a very positive social benefit, pro-social if you like. The concern with radicalisation into violent extremism is the violent part. If somebody comes to a point where they justify violence, whether they actually use it or whether they threaten it, it can still be powerful just by threat. You then end up with a dynamic where they feel that the ends are so important that they justify the means. Often, whether it’s ideas from the far-left or far-right from Jihad Islamist circles, which have borrowed from these, there’s a framing of a grand conspiracy in which you are the victim. We have to change the system by fighting back. We need a revolution.

Once we have the revolution or once we succeed a small group of us at first, but eventually everyone, then we can put in place a new system. With that new system, we can have the world that we need. That, by definition, is a political framing. Terrorism is defined as the use of violence or the threat of the use of violence to bring about a political change. That’s a fairly universally agreed-upon definition.

This general consensus applies to non-state actors. We know that states do terrible things. We are seeing Russia involved in war crimes in Ukraine at the moment. A lot of those war crimes are designed to intimidate and destroy morale. You fire artillery rounds into a school or a hospital. If it’s done in a cold-blooded deliberate way, rather than an accidental way, it’s to terrorise people.

That’s generally treated separately from terrorism because it’s not that states don’t behave badly. They do. The Assad regime has killed more people in Syria than has Al-Qaeda or Islamic State. It’s not a qualitative or even a quantitative distinction. It’s such a big field that what states do is best discussed separately, although it does overlap because of proxy conflicts.

The actions end up being terrorism. It’s not necessarily by a terrorist organisation because we can’t have a state. I guess this is perhaps why the language that’s contemporary right now about why the world and the US in particular is recognising Russia as a state supporting terrorism rather than as a terrorist state. Is that right?

That’s a big part of the logic. It’s not to say that won’t change. One of the problems in most Western democracies was legal definitions. Once you designate a group as a terrorist group, then by definition, you can’t have any dealings with them. You have closed off that option. Sometimes you have to do that, but we saw it done reluctantly with Hamas and with Hezbollah, for example.

With Hezbollah for a long time, you’d speak to the political side, but not to the militant side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran was designated to the terrorist group. Why not the government? Partly, because you still want to be able to talk to the government to negotiate. It’s a bit like that with Russia.

There’s another problem that comes to play though. In America, just to put things in context, the biggest terrorist problem at the moment, in terms of the number of groups and the number of attacks by far, is far-right extremism. Why are more groups and individuals not charged with terrorism offences? It’s partly to do with the fact that terrorism is defined, not logically, because of circumstances of history. Terrorism is defined in American jurisdictions as involving international networks. Non-state actors are transnational from outside America.

The biggest terrorist problem at the moment, in terms of the number of groups and the number of attacks, is far right extremism. Share on X

If you have got a group like The Proud Boys, which is certainly engaged by most definitions in terrorism, they don’t neatly fall under existing legislation. That’s a quirk of American legislation. It’s not the same in other countries necessarily. It’s one reason why definitions are so important. Generally speaking, we are talking about non-state actors using violence or threatening violence with the intention of bringing about political change.

There are some actors like the Incels, the involuntary celibate. Some would say they are not terrorists because they are not trying to bring about political change. Others say, the framing of the narrative, the sense of collective identity, the sense of a movement, and the sense of trying to bring about change, qualifies as acting for political change, and that is terrorism. I would probably think that’s a fairer way of seeing things.

There’s that distinction between terrorism and violent extremism, which isn’t so clear-cut. Generally, whilst there’s an overlap, there are some kinds of extremist behaviour. Extremism generally involves a sense of belonging to a larger group. When they become violent, whether or not it fits the definition of terrorism according to legal jurisdiction, we can define violent extremism slightly more broadly than terrorism, but essentially synonymous in most cases.

There are so many potential threads there that you have led out for us. The first thing I want to pick up on is the notion that radicalism is not necessarily negative. I like that. The example you used about protecting the planet, we also know that it’s the more extreme versions of ourselves or in our society are the ones that are going to move the needle forward.

We know that bulk of the society wants the status quo. There are those change makers that will force change. The difficulty then is determining what is good versus bad, either for one social group or for the world at large, because that’s the contestation of narratives. This is where one can find an appreciation for the age-old saying, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Is that a neat summary of the problem?

It’s a neat summary, but it’s a partial summary because in a sense, when people fall back on saying, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” It’s a little bit of a straw man because it’s not really defining the actual problem. The definition of saying that the use of violence or the threat of violence for a political purpose and the definition, as I said, almost universally applies to non-state actors.

Historically, people have thought of it as involving targets that are not combatants. That blurs with an insurgency that’s particularly tricky. In rough terms, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam went from fighting in the jungles against the Sri Lankan military to going into the cities with suicide bombers, then that went from the methods of insurgency to the methods of terrorism. Terrorism is a method. We tend to think of it as we conflated as being an idea or a way of life. Actually, in the first instance, it’s a method.

VOW 81 | Extremism
Extremism: We tend to think of terrorism as an idea or a way of life. But in the first instance, it’s a method.

When the ANC started to use violence, they were crossing a threshold from being a civil rights protest movement, wanting to bring about political change and ending apartheid, which most people would agree was good, and using the methods of terrorism. They did so with some caution. They didn’t want to kill people. They targeted infrastructure. Still, that’s a line where you are crossing over. It’s important to recognise that line because that is the line at which the state can legitimately step in.

There’s another problem that goes with that. When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he said quite rightly that we need to deal with violent extremism before it becomes violent. That is logical. You have got to work upstream. He couldn’t define where you would intervene before it became violent. That’s undermined the credibility of countering violent extremism in some UK operations.

Why is that? Is that because we are in going down the thought police?

Exactly. You can believe completely that the moon is made of green cheese. You can believe the Earth is flat. You can believe that COVID-19 vaccines change your DNA. You are entitled however wrong to believe those things. As we know, when somebody gets into a conspiracy theory frame of mode, it becomes a social thing. They are in an information bubble, particularly with social media, so it’s pretty hard to nudge them directly. You have got to patiently step through the relationship and hope you can come out the other side with these people. We have seen this in the last few years with COVID, and then bizarre conspiracies that, in the cold light of day, don’t make any sense. However, sensible and intelligent people believe them. Think of QAnon, for example, as well as the various COVID-19 conspiracies.

As concerning as those things are and as disruptive as they can be, they cause a problem. If somebody’s pushing an anti-vax position, then that’s a problem for public health and for workplaces. Also, for families, it’s difficult. We don’t want to be in the business of thought police. Counter-terrorism and counter-violent extremism should never be about policing what ideas somebody has. It should be about behaviour. We need to bring it back to the level of behaviour.

Counter-terrorism should never be about policing what ideas somebody has. It should be about behaviour. Share on X

When David Cameron said in 2015, “We need to deal with violent extremism before it becomes violent.” I think picking up on the answer that he didn’t give, a legitimate place to intervene before you get violence is when you get contempt, hate speech, and incitement of hatred. If that’s sufficiently clear and of a sufficient level, whether it’s an elected official or a media commentator. That then, we need to define our laws. We don’t have laws in place perfectly, but that is a legitimate space for the state to intervene. The state in any of our governments quite legitimately, we could frame saying, “You have the right to believe in a caliphate of faith, but if you incite hatred against fellow Muslims or non-Muslims who reject your idea, then that’s a problem.

When Indonesia banned the group, Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, which was pushing aggressively this idea of a caliphate, including during the rise of ISIS. It became a problem in terms of amplifying that message. They were criticised. It was disbanded by presidential decree. The notorious group, Front Pembela Islam, or Islamic Defenders Front, was simply shut down by presidential decree.

A smarter way of proceeding in that context is to say, “You are being addressed by legal means when you break state laws and your behaviour is bad.” The behaviour in question here is hate speech and incitement of hatred, which certainly Front Pembela Islam was doing. I think that’s a better way of framing it. Our concern should be about bad behaviour, not about bad ideas. Not that bad ideas are not consequential, they are.

That’s the upstream cause.

It’s part of the upstream cause. It’s the social network. Even before people take those ideas on, it’s the social networks, but we have got to address those things together. We got a better foundation for being effective if we address the bad behaviour, and then address the social context of the social relationships. Also, to go back to our earlier discussion, we need to recognise the legitimate grievances and human needs. The need to belong, to be accepted, to be part of a group, and to have a sense of purpose in life, those are positive things. You want to counter that at the ideas level. We need to counter it with similar positive ideas and say, “Here’s a way to fight for climate action that has a chance of bringing about real positive change.”

I’m using one example that we could apply in many scenarios. If you are dealing with a group that perhaps might use violence. To be fair, most environmental activists at this point are not using violence. If you had a group that was tipping over that threshold into becoming a group that used terrorist methods. It’s important to establish trust and relations with the leaders of the movement. To say, “Your prime target is to bring that political change for good reason, but you are not going to get the public on the side.” We have seen this with mass protests all around the world. The public gets very upset with groups that turn to what appears to be indiscriminate violence, and it undermines legitimate causes.

For an environmental group, the danger is if they are using edgy approaches, some other group may come in and hijack. We have seen literally Neo-Nazi groups hijack and anti-COVID mandatory vaccination protests. Trying to work and establish trust and contact with movement leaders where there is a movement, and there’s leadership. Recognising legitimate grievances and legitimate causes. Making the argument strongly that your beliefs are fine. We may even agree that they are very good beliefs, but methods of violence are not going to work. Methods of hate and incitement of hatred are not going to work.

There are potentially so many threads, and I definitely want to pick up on some of them as we get deeper into this. I want to backtrack a little bit because you keep hitting on something important, and that is these motivations. What inspires hateful and violent extremism? You have mentioned a number of conditions that are necessary for people to embrace such ideologies. I know in a lot of your work, you have written about push, pull, and personal factors. I think that’s a neat way for us to visualise what happens to people who are radicalised. Could you please cover those in relation to how people actually become radicalised through those three factors?

The first thing is to recognise that those terms are never completely adequate, and they all carry baggage. Any models that are academic and innovative models. Models have a limitation. It’s the beginning point of framing and thinking about things. The three Ps, Push, Pull, and Personal factors are not a bad way of framing things. In as much as we can see, circumstantial factors like poverty, you might have at the moment in the Horn of Africa, including South Somalia where Al-Shabaab is strong. You have got a four-year-long drought. That’s an accelerant. If people are forced out of farmland into the cities, and then they are going to look for cash to buy food and water. That doesn’t cause terrorism, but it’s a factor that brings in vulnerabilities.

If you have an insurgency, as you have with Al-Shabaab, Somalia, and the East of Kenya. As you have had with Bangsamoro groups in Western Mindanao in the South of the Philippines. If you have an insurgency, then there are the factors of economic need of local injustice. In the case of the Philippines, a strong factor that seems counterintuitive at first is Rido or clan feuds. People might join the Abu Sayyaf group because they want protection from a clan feud that otherwise threatens them because they don’t have strong partners. Those things play into being push factors.

Pull factors, you can understand as the thing that attracts and that draws or pulls you in. Somebody says, “The reason you are suffering is it’s not your fault. You are a victim. The system is screwing you. The system is wrong. The system needs to be changed. We have got a plan to change the system. We are going to have a revolution. It will take time, but it will succeed. We will then be on the right side of history, and we will put a good system in place. The caliphate fate will make everything fantastic, or the revolution will bring in injustice. We will have an ideal Malist or Marxist state, whatever your flavour might be.”

The Taliban will be back.

When the Taliban is back, Afghan’s in charge of Afghanistan and everything’s going to be fine. The revolution never delivers. We speak of revolutionary change in loose terms, and it’s true. We need to have a revolution in electrifying everything. Electric vehicles and everything else. It’s to move away from carbon-polluting energy. The actual literal term revolution is not what we want because when we look at every historical example of a revolution, I don’t mean a metaphorical industrial revolution type thing, I mean an actual political revolution. It produces bad stuff because of the way people are.

In the personal factors and these things blur a little bit, but I have talked about the importance of belonging to a group, feeling accepted, having a sense of esteem, having a sense of purpose, and having people that you can feel are your people. That’s important. If you have had a tragedy in the family, have lost a parental figure, or are going through a bad patch in school. We are talking often about teenagers and people in their twenties, who are going through a relationship bust-up. That doesn’t, by itself, predispose you to join a criminal gang or a terrorist group. If somebody from one of those groups comes along and tries to recruit you through this approach of saying, “Be with us. We will look after you.” That personal vulnerability opens up the possibility that you will join.

There are larger factors of injustice, grievance, and compelling circumstances. You are in a drought. You have to leave the farm. There’s the attraction of a powerful narrative that pulls you in, and then there’s the personal factors. Perhaps, your dad died last year and you are the sole breadwinner in your family, and somebody says, “Join Shabab. We will pay you this much per week and look after your family. If you do get killed and be a martyr, the family will get this much money.” Those things come together. It’s a crude model, I grant, but it’s not a bad way of framing quite distinctive, but overlapping elements.

I couldn’t agree more. What it does for me, at least, is I’m a visual learner, so it creates images as you are talking about characters who may be attracted towards a particular ideology or be radicalised for a cause for reasons beyond their control. Circumstantial. We know the situation doesn’t explain everything. It’s certainly not deterministic in the sense that if I’m in this situation, therefore I will 100% join a radical group.

No. As you 100% rightly pointed out, it’s probabilities. It increases your probability because it opens up a number of vulnerabilities inside your mind or your circumstances that will allow some of these push, pull, or personal factors to act upon you and guide you down a path. It’s a critically important point because it allows us to create empathy for those in those circumstances to understand the lived experience of people in those situations.

I have talked about it on the show a number of times about the Taliban. Those who we very crudely termed Taliban, oftentimes were dirt farmers who were experiencing one of these push, pull, or personal factors. Whether it could be to put food on the table, they would carry ID passes for actual Talibs just to get a bit of money.

This is a point that is hugely important but is often missed because even in our evolved public discourse, let’s try and call it that, which I don’t think it is. We tend to go for simple Black and White narratives. How much do you think that’s a problem? How broadly do you think people actually understand the push, pull, and personal factors? Is this something that, in your view, is discussed sufficiently deeply?

People, particularly practitioners, often have an intuitive grasp of this. Setting it out as a model and saying, “Let’s break it down and reflect on the different elements of what’s happening in your case,” is important. I spoke about the difference between violent extremism and the role of hate to extend the model. You can think of violent extremism and hateful extremism where the hateful extremism may not necessarily be violent at all, but it’s negative for society and for the individuals experiencing racism, antisemitism, or Islamophobia, whatever it might be.

Hateful extremism may not necessarily be violent at all. But it's a net negative for society. Share on X

To stay with the three-cornered model, I mentioned groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, Al-Shabaab, and the Abu Sayyaf group. Where you have got an insurgency, you have got a different type of violence. Conflict violence often involves violent extremists, terrorist narratives, and elements, but it is its own thing. It overlaps.

Think of that triangle and think of perhaps a Venn diagram with quite a bit of overlap between hateful extremism, violent extremism, and conflict violence. We begin to get a better picture. The push, pull, and personal factors that take somebody into violent extremism, hateful extremism, conflict violence, or insurgent violence, those mixes differ.

Poverty and structural factors of daily survival often play a bigger role in insurgent violence than they do in joining a middle-class kid in a comfortable home in an Australian suburb joining Islamic State is generally not doing so because they are pushed because of terrible circumstances. As you said, a poor farmer in Afghanistan often ends up basically joining the Taliban or at least helping them. Over the last few years, it has been the story because of gruelling circumstances.

They are hedging their bets ultimately.

We need to recognise that if we have got an insurgency, which was the case with the Taliban that took charge, now they are fighting their own insurgent problems with IS-Khorasan and other groups. An insurgency has different dynamics. The push, pull and personal factors weigh and interact differently. We need to pay more attention to systemic organised hate because it’s a growing problem. It’s particularly associated with the far-right and White supremacy, but not just with that. It manifests in Asia and Africa as well.

With this idea that my group is experiencing a great replacement threat of our rights being taken away. Hate is an important thing to understand there. What draws somebody to be involved in that group, is that same individual may not be at all open to going and joining a violent group. The motivating factors are going to have a different mix, but these things overlap and it’s important to think of them in these broad terms.

To go back to your question, we need to do this conceptual work more fully and thoughtfully. If we just fall back on simple definitions, it’s often tough for practitioners. If you are a police officer in the middle of a pretty demanding position or you are an army officer sent into an insurgent situation. You have got tunnel vision, cognitive overload, tired, angry, and experienced loss, and you can fall back on rather simple models. That’s not helpful.

VOW 81 | Extremism
Extremism: If you’re an army officer sent into an insurgent situation, you have tunnel vision and you have cognitive overload. You’re tired, you’re angry, you’ve experienced loss, and you can fall back on rather simple models. And that’s not helpful.

We saw that with disastrous consequences. Australia relied extraordinarily heavily on special forces being rotated on high rotation into Afghanistan. By all accounts, it appears that some people did some very bad things and they need to be held to account. We also need to look at the structural factors that made that likely. When you place individuals in a stressed fatigue situation where they are not well-positioned to stop and think about, “How do I build rapport and relationships and understand motivation with these people in the Afghan community?” They began to see. As to the terrorists and also, their mentality, and then, they become part of the problem.

That’s so spot on from my view. This is a topic that I addressed quite frequently on the show. The upstream causes will lead otherwise good people to do things that they themselves could never have imagined or thought about months before. What are those conditions that will lead people down that path? I couldn’t agree more. Am I right to say that even some of our soldiers might have become radicalised? Do those terms and definitions also apply to them?

As long as we are careful not to be simplistic about it.

I also want to highlight it allegedly. I think it’s important to stress that.

You mentioned the Taliban. The Taliban haven’t been very good at communications, but a group that’s been good at communications is ISIS Islamic State through products like the big magazine. There were many languages including English in glossy PDF, well-curated and well-produced magazines. Much better than Al-Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine in the past, of such high quality.

I have mentioned that because when you look at a lot of the articles in Dabiq, it’s been a few years now, so it’s from an earlier period, but it gives you a sense of the appeal. It’s a little bit like military recruiting material where it says, “Come and join us. Join a group of people. Be one of the guys and girls. You will have a sense of purpose. You will learn some skills. You will be making a difference.” Pretty attractive. Fun toys and good condition as well. That helps.

In a sense, we are not 1 million miles away. The guy fighting ISIS or the Taliban in uniform are driven by many of the same sorts of human needs. They are part of a group. They have a sense of esprit de corps. They have a purpose. They have been trained up. They think they are making some good and bringing about change. I feel sorry for military veterans who now look back and say, “Why did we ever go there? We didn’t do the good we wanted to do. We didn’t say the course.” That’s another story, but it’s important to understand that.

To the extent the stuff goes bad, the terrorist group has bad intentions all along because of their means and methods to use violence in a way that is destructive and indiscriminate. Military uses violence, but in a way that hopes is just and accountable. It’s easy to cross that line from the just and accountable use of application of violence to the injust and non-accountable use of violence. Particularly, if one point of reference is your NCO and you are out in the middle of a long way from anywhere else. All the accountability you have is the after-action reports. It’s no wonder that sometimes bad things will happen.

I have interviewed a number of military ethicists on that very point. It strikes me as a point that’s often missed. Again, we’d like to then throw them out as a few bad apples, which elevates us on a moral high ground as though these are merely somehow broken soldiers. Rather than realising that no one is born a war criminal. There is a path to that. Undoubtedly, the conditions that they have served under contribute to that. Also, the narratives and the information that they are consuming, understanding, and contextualising.

This brings us to an important point, and you keep bringing it up, and I feel like it needs to be stressed. All of this ultimately boils down to an absence of genuine human connection. On one hand, we have the perceived or perhaps even real rejection by the state or one social group, which is that push factor. On the other hand, we have those preying on the vulnerable, promising a sense of belonging, vision, and purpose, which is the pull factors. We have individual personalities or our own individual histories that we all bring to the party, which is why not everybody will become radicalised. There needs to be certain vulnerabilities.

What is the role of social media in this? You have mentioned it in passing before, but given that we are now more connected than ever, but also far lonelier than ever. In other words, we have a higher quantity of connections, but they are generally speaking far lower in quality. What do you think is the role of social media in the radicalisation that we are seeing? Particularly the far-right radicalisation that you have mentioned a number of times as well in the West.

I think you are right about those points, but we need to be careful to think that technology somehow changes everything. Seldom is the case that technology changes everything. It tends to accelerate. It’s an enabler. We have been caught by a few changes in years. The COVID-19 lockdowns have seen people stressed and spending more time online. At the same time, social media is becoming more important anyway. Social media doesn’t exist a whole lot beyond many years ago. The digital age is new. It’s hard to imagine a world without Facebook, but it wasn’t that long ago we didn’t have.

The difference it makes is that it makes it easier for us to connect with like-minded people. If you like collecting mid-twentieth century model of fire trucks, there will be a community online for you. You can join a Facebook group or other social media platform and you can exchange. That’s great. That’s positive for a random example. I’m sure you could do that for anything. If you find your old school classmates on Facebook or something similar, that can be good too, and you can connect with people.

It enables you to find a like-minded community or be drawn into something that can be very powerful, but of course, it opens the way for predatory behaviour. We do know the social media platforms and the whole entrepreneurial shtick behind this domain. Mark Zuckerberg, by all accounts, genuinely believed that Facebook would make the world better. All we needed to do was connect people and good things would happen. It wasn’t completely wrong, but he ignored the fact that a lot of bad things were happening.

The algorithms that drive social media are because social media is not a charity. It’s a business. Mostly, we don’t pay upfront for our social media. Mostly, the companies that put a lot of personnel and a lot of resources into running their operations rely on advertising. We are not paying them but they are sending us ads through the corner of our screen or however else, it’s framed. How do they get their revenue? They have got to show to the guys paying for the advertising time. It’s not like television where you say, “We gave you twenty minutes last night.” It’s like, “We have had these many clicks.” The more clicks they get, the more advertising revenue they get. Their algorithms are set up to give you material that you want to click on to keep you on screen.

Understandable. It means that if you are looking for a mid-century model fire truck, fine, you are probably safe. Once you start looking for something slightly edgy, you get more and more edgy stuff. It can take you down a dark place or a rabbit hole very quickly. At the same time, social media is not just one-way passive consumption. It’s a chance to form relationships and get into a conversation.

If somebody is seeing that you are hanging around watching some pretty gruesome videos from Syria, then it strikes up a friendship and says, “I saw you here yesterday. Where are you from? What are you doing?” Once the rapport is established, they might say, “What about we don’t just keep on talking here, let’s go to Telegram or some other space and we will have a chat there.”

It’s grooming very often. In the case of recruitment, it is predatory behaviour. Social media has made that possible. Literally, there’s been cases of a kid in Melbourne building pipe bombs because a fourteen-year-old in Central England is giving them instructions. The old New Yorker cartoon with the Labrador at the keyboard says on the internet, “No one knows that you are a dog.”

As an element of truth in it, people are more easily fooled. I have talked about teenagers and twenty-somethings being vulnerable to recruitment. Sometimes when I’m giving a lecture to an older cohort, if it’s middle-aged people, I’d say, “How many people do you know who have made some mistakes when it comes to online dating apps? Has anything ever gone wrong for anyone you know? Hands go up and a light goes on people’s heads. They say, “They are just dumb teenagers.”

When you want to believe that the person on the other end of the line is the person that they say they are and you want to believe that they genuinely like you, and you genuinely have something, that’s the beginning of a lot of vulnerability. It could be a guy you met at the bar or a girl that you met at a party face to face. That happened throughout human history.

It’s called human intelligence.

Online, there are so many more opportunities that things can go bad much more quickly. Part of the attraction for predators is that their overheads are low in that virtual space. Most times they try and engage somebody and groom those probably going to fail. It doesn’t matter because they are not spending much money or time doing that.

That low level of friction, the fact that they can quickly move on and do it on scale means they are more likely to have an impact. Whether it’s predatory sexual behaviour, predatory financial behaviour, or trying to get somebody to buy into your scam. That social engineering where people would devolve information that ends up being used against them.

Very often, it is literally a relationship where you feel, “This is my friend. They are asking for help. I’m going to help them. I trust them.” Many times, police will tell you that when they have to go to a victim and say, “The person you thought was your friend isn’t your friend. This is who they really are.” They say, “No, I know them. You went there. I formed this relationship.” The tagline from the X-Files, “I want to believe,” is a very human response. When it comes to relationships, it’s a very powerful response.

Social media has that amplifying, speeding up, low friction aspect to it. It’s because it’s global, so it doesn’t have to be somebody in your suburb or your town. It can be somebody from the other side of the world. We saw with Islamic State, people travel from all over the world where they had no immediate connection because of relationships they’d formed online. It is a game changer, but not because it changes everything through the idea of technology just because of the way it speeds things up.

VOW 81 | Extremism
Extremism: Social media is a game changer in radicalisation. As we saw with Islamic State, people traveled from all over the world where they had no immediate connection because of relationships they had formed online.

It’s not the cause. Human nature is, in many ways, the cause but it facilitates it. Also, what it does is it draws you away from your other social networks. Particularly, if you already have some vulnerabilities or you are a “loner.” I have seen a bunch of terms used in your research as well that probably fit. Somebody who’s depressed has low self-esteem, has alienated, is isolated, doesn’t have too many friends, or even the term you used in there is a misfit. Those are already vulnerabilities that could be exploited by somebody online. That’s something that’s rather new because it’s taken it to scale. It’s nothing new, it’s just that it’s taken it to scale.

It’s also about the information feed. It’s where you get your news. In the past, you may have watched the evening television news, or read the newspaper. Now, if your news comes from Facebook or another platform, and it’s curated through an algorithm. That not only speeds things up, but it changes the trajectory of things very often because you start to get a very limited view of the world. You are not exposed to different ideas. You are often exposed to increasingly extreme ideas. That happened before social media existed, but it’s happening much more easily and more powerfully with social media.

I guess one of the things that most people in the West don’t realise, there are parts of the world where Facebook is the internet. I worked in Iraq as a civilian and we were looking after establishing social media platforms in Iraq. The absolute power of Facebook alone in Iraq, in fact, it’s for everything, for all the six primary emotions, you go to Facebook. I have also read Facebook has literally laid physical cables around the entire continent of Africa in order to be able to provide internet for a continent. When you buy a phone, Facebook comes free, but you have to pay for the internet at ridiculous prices for some of these parts of the world.

Therefore, this then again, amplifies the problem. If the only way of communicating or getting information is through an ecosystem or a business model that is designed to keep you on the platform as long as possible, to radicalise you, or to get you to be as interested and as engaged as possible, then there is a significant problem lies in the way. We have already seen it. It’s nothing new.

One of the things that I want to perhaps pivot to is, over the last many years, you have been quite a vocal proponent of the global war on terror or its failings perhaps. One of the things we have tried to do west broadly construed, and Australia is there as well. We have tried to if not stem the flow of terrorism, then at least minimise it certainly to our own shores. We haven’t been very successful. Have we? Why do you think that is the case?

The success question’s important to think about. We have had success in terms of stopping those Al-Qaeda-style attacks of the 2000s. Large ambitious attacks, obviously 9/11, but also London or Madrid. Those things haven’t been repeated because police counter-terrorism intelligence has gotten very good. Any group that spends any time chattering about, “Where do we get explosives? How do we make IEDs? What’s our target?” They get picked up and the plot gets disrupted. Not just in Western democracies. The Indonesians become very good at doing this through their specialist counterterrorism policing after waking up to the challenge many years ago with the Bali bombing.

We now have a situation where some people say, “Terrorism’s gone away.” In the last few years, our news cycle has been taken up with COVID and strange political manifestations, so it’s been bumped off. It is true, in many global cities, we haven’t seen much by way of terrorism. Either because groups are not as active or haven’t got their motivation, but probably more likely because from what the authorities tell us that they are trying still trying, but the counterterrorism intelligence detection and disruption piece is working well.

What we have seen though is in areas where there’s a breakdown of good governance and where there are multiple insurgencies that are persistent. We see not just a terrorist group come in and take root, but it becomes a parasitic presence in the body politic. To extend the medical metaphor, if your immune system is suppressed through environmental circumstances like diet and fatigue, then things that otherwise wouldn’t worry you start to take over. Your immune system doesn’t have the wherewithal to do the normal level of protection that you rely on. That happens in nation-states in a body politic.

It has been the pattern for the last 20 years that terrorism is worse where there’s a breakdown of good governance. Part of the problem with our military response to a terrorist threat, which is an understandable response to 9/11’s “How do we respond?” It was Al-Qaeda. They were based in the mountains of Afghanistan. Let’s go there and let’s get them. We don’t think through.

Terrorism is worse where there is a breakdown of good governance. Share on X

Military leaders like to talk about strategy. They like to wheel out thinkers and say, “We have got to think about this.” Operationally, they don’t have complete control. They are often simply told to do stuff by political leaders, which is the way things work in democracies. Even where they do have control, they often tend to fall back on siloed short-term thinking. “This is my command. It’s my tour of duty. This is what I’m going to achieve. These are the things.”

I hadn’t realised. How do you serve tapped in?

I haven’t served, but it’s not a well-kept secret. We are talking about to have served and the analysis of what went wrong with Iraq and Afghanistan speaks to that. It meant that the Western military had a series of tactical successes and strategic failures. Afghanistan is one massive series of considerable tactical successes and overall strategic failures.

Iraq, we shouldn’t have been there in the first place arguably. It was political manipulation of intelligence to justify a case. Afghanistan, I think probably we should have been there, but we should have been very clear about what we wanted to achieve and how we are going to achieve it and been open to a feedback loop. The feedback loop was closed down in Afghanistan. Every time we got bad news, we said, “Don’t tell me the bad news. This is what I want to know. This is what I have got to report up the chain.”

We created the problems in which terrorism becomes an existential threat. Terrorism is not an existential threat, generally speaking. It’s an annoyance. It takes a lot of police resources. In most societies, you can’t ignore it, otherwise, it will come back. It doesn’t threaten our existence. In a worst-case scenario in Somalia, Northern Nigeria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, it is an existential threat. We have, in our military response, contributed to the circumstances that allow it to become this parasitic insurgent presence that is then so powerful that it’s a threat to the very existence of societies and states.

That’s important. How have we done that or how has that happened?

Surprisingly easily. It involves not thinking through where we are going and not having a clear sense of the end state we want to get to. For all of the military thinking about centres of gravity, goals, and strategy. We haven’t put it into practice as we should have. You can make the case, as I said, with Iraq, we shouldn’t have gone out in the first place because it wasn’t a good reason to do so. Not that Saddam Hussein was good, but if we topple him, what do we get? Something worse. No fly zone out of Libya. Muammar Gaddafi is a bad actor. What happens if you take away Muammar Gaddafi from Libya? It turns out there’s never been a stable government ever, historically in the whole of Libya. We now are living with that nightmare situation.

Afghanistan, I’m not saying we never used military means. I think there was a case in Afghanistan very strongly. However, because we didn’t think through what we were doing and we never know the what ifs and counterfactuals of history, possibly there could have been a deal struck with the Taliban at the end of 2001. Maybe that’s the case, maybe it’s not. In any case, negotiating with the Taliban was possible for some political settlement all through those years, but having the resources in place to make sure that our presence was helping the people. Not actually contributing to their problems.

This is another whole topic that you know much more about it than I do. Shooting up a bunch of bad guys as we saw it, and then leaving those villages left behind, what choice do they have? We have maybe taken away their opium crop, so there are no more poppies, but they are in debt to the cartels that buy their stuff. What do we do now? What do they do? They don’t have any good choices. We have left. We are not coming back. We are not going to come back quickly enough. If somebody turns up with guns, they are going to have to be polite and compliant. We constantly failed to think through those things.

All sorts of basic problems like imposing a very centrist system of military command and governance out of Kabul. Rather than working in a more federal way in a very disparate complex country with poor roads and a lot of separate communities. It’s not that military means couldn’t have done much more good in Afghanistan, they could have, they did quite a lot of good along with the bad. It’s just that we were not thinking about the strategic end state and what we wanted to get to.

This is the same mistake made with your Iraq and Syria. The same mistake was made with Libya. We haven’t thought through the big picture. We have become preoccupied with the immediate, and that’s led to a lack of good strategic outcomes. It’s not just military leaders, also, political leaders are part of this. Political leaders are thinking in terms of 3-year to 4-year action cycles, popularity, focus groups, and evening news. It’s a wicked problem to get right.

It pulls fuel onto those push, pull, and personal factors that ultimately make the problem worse. We become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Apart from military solutions to maybe turn into some positives, what else can we do to prevent and counter violent extremism?

The first thing is what we have been talking about, understanding what takes people in, the social forces, and the personal factors.

How do we do that on a macro level? If we are looking at engaging with foreign nations, how could we have done that in a place like Afghanistan?

It’s probably good to think in terms of concrete examples. In Afghanistan, if we accept there’s a case for military intervention, I think that you could certainly make that case. Thinking through, “The problem is Al-Qaeda, but they are being hosted by the Taliban.” Can we drive a witch between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban? Can we find some agreement with the Taliban when they are weak so that we can put other alternative systems in place? What system of government’s going to be sustainable in terms of structures, but also financial flows? This is a weak military term. We need to think about playing the long game. We need to think in terms of decades, not months, and not years.

The big lesson is, do we need to use military methods here or other alternatives? A more positive example at the moment is the West of Mindanao and the islands to the West the large southern island of Mindanao. There have been various negotiation cycles. First with the Moro National Liberation Front, then the splinter group that came away from it, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Groups like the Abu Sayyaf group back in 2014 swore allegiance to Islamic State. They were part of a group led by a local presence called the Maute brothers who led a siege in the largest Muslim city, Marawi.

The Philippines military or the Armed Forces of the Philippines stopped that siege after five months by literally blowing the city to pieces. A city of 250,000 people was physically destroyed by artillery rounds and airstrikes. Thousands of lives were lost, and still, many people were displaced. To go back to the argument for this being not entirely negative, persistence with the peace political negotiations with the Bangsamoro. The establishment of a now transitional Bangsamoro autonomous government in Muslim Mindanao is the beginning of getting things right. The problem there is framed, particularly in terms of large-scale grievance and insurgency. We need to address it in those terms.

The next thing would be to pick up the pieces that have been dropped by the previous government on the other big terrorist threat in the Philippines, which is the New People’s Army which is all over the country as a Malist group driven by economic grievance. I have heard Filipino leaders say, when you look at the NPA, you realise most of their claims, for example, the Supreme Court in the Philippines was asked to declare the New People’s Army a terrorist group. They said, “No. We have looked at what they want.” These are mostly things that we agree as the Philippines state are good things. It’s just a question of methods.

That will make some people angry. My point is, if we could work out a negotiated way of getting structural change, we will never make everyone happier. There will always be a splinter group that will go back to the mountains and forests, and carry on the fight. In time, that splinter group the real IRA or the ETA breakaway faction will become less powerful. The main body, we talked about is social networks, it involves a group of people generally led by men who are now getting rather old and tired, don’t want to be running through the forest anymore, and can’t do it. A broader community that says, “We are sick of the troubles in Ireland or sick of the troubles in Mindanao. We just want to get back to peace.”

There is a potential for a real breakthrough. That’s where the real opportunities come to take an existential threat into something down to a level where it can be controlled by police. Even then with the policing piece, it still depends on relationships of trust with communities that are affected. Trying to prevent people from being recruited and radicalised. When you have jailed somebody and they are coming up to their jail sentence, preferably whilst in jail, certainly when they go out. Work with them to try and rehabilitate them.

If we could work out a negotiated way of getting structural change, that's where the real opportunities come to take an existential threat into something down to a level where it can be controlled by police. Share on X

You won’t get perfect success, but you will get some success. To the extent, you can break the cycle of radicalisation, then you begin to bring down the level of the problem over time. Unless you do this, the Israelis have a rather dark expression about counterterrorism in certain contexts for them called mowing the grass. As I said, it’s a dark expression, but it suggests that there’s nothing to be done, but this regular maintenance.

There’s some truth in that, but you want to get to a point where the police use of violence is minimal. Just because your community relationships piece, you are addressing the underlying grievances piece, you are stopping recruitment pieces from working so well, that it’s a very small number of people who are drawn to groups. That has been the case in many democracies with respect to Islamist groups. They are on the back foot. That’s why they are so active in Africa and other places where there are conflict zones. We have another problem now on the far-right, which is actually growing a pace in a very scary fashion.

I do want to touch on the far-right. I know you are an expert in Indonesia and you have made the point that we have made some inroads. I suspect you are talking about Indonesia. What have been some of the successes and why has Indonesia been so successful?

There are a number of elements to it. One is that, in passing, Suharto stepped down abruptly in May of 1998. There’d been a financial crisis in ’97 that impacted badly on Indonesian, particularly the banking sector. There was rampant inflation, and the exchange rate dropped. Suharto tried to form a new government for a second time, and no one wanted to join him. His secretary famously said when asked, “Whom do we have for the new cabinet?” He said, “There’s you and there’s me. So far, that’s all there is.” He stepped down.

The next year, there were elections, fairly free and fair. Abdurrahman Wahid was chosen as president. He had a very reformist agenda. The interim president who had replaced Suharto, B. J. Habibie who was vice president, but stepped in constitutionally to become president. Suharto had told him, “I’m stepping down tomorrow.” By which he meant in Javanese cultural terms, “We are stepping down.” Hardly, he didn’t get the message and he said, “I will take over.” Suharto never spoke to him again which was tough for him, but he carried on freeing political prisoners, opening up the press, and laying the foundations for elections.

Those two transitional presidents made a big difference. The president since has done a series of good things. A mixed story, but we have had peaceful, fairly fair, and open elections on a regular cycle. It’s become a success story. Not perfect, it’s still a work in progress. That has been a better framework for counterterrorism having a stable democracy. It’s not the only measure, because you can get levels of good governance and behaviour without democracy, but democracy is a better way to do it.

You can get levels of good governance and behaviour without democracy, but democracy is a better way to do it. Share on X

The Bali bombing I mentioned, was a wake-up call because there had been acts of violence. There had been some insurgent violence in Ambon and Central Sulawesi. There’d been various bombs, a bomb and a stock exchange, a bomb attack on the Philippines Ambassador, and a series of coordinated bombs on Christmas Eve in 2000. People blamed it on elements of the military. When the Bali bomb went off on October 12th, 2002, they said, “Either it’s the military playing games for politics, or it’s the Americans or the Israelis. It couldn’t be just ordinary Indonesian guys doing this.”

It was post-blast forensics that led to identifying where the vehicle had come from. It had been used in the Denpasar minibus circuit. It’s been sold through a dozen owners, but it led to Amrozi the last owner. He was arrested along with his fellows. These were a splinter element of Jemaah Islamiyah, and then it was clear. This is what you had. You had an Al-Qaeda-style network in Indonesia linked to Al-Qaeda, but local Jemaah Islamiyah. At least the splinter group that had broken away from the main group inpatient wanted to carry on with bombings.

That cooperation forensically relied heavily on the Australian Federal Police because of prior relations. I don’t know that it would have had the same breakthrough. It was an Indonesian officer who made the breakthrough and he’s making forensic investigators. The relationship enabled them to address a weakness they had. They didn’t have experience in post blasts forensics. They set up a section of the National Police Academy. It was called the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, but it was in the academy in Samara in Central Java, and it was about counterterrorism.

That trained lots of Indonesians. It also trained lots of other Southeast Asians. It’s been a great success. This special counterterrorism detachment was established as well. It is now probably one of the most successful counterterrorism groups anywhere in the world. It’s arrested 2,000 plus people. It is now able to hold and sustain threats from Jemaah Islamiyah, which has decided to play the long game and be less aggressive. The Islamic State is found that can organise large-scale attacks reliably. It often targets individual police stations and small-scale attacks.

It contained that problem but both the international cooperation that allowed the Indonesian police to transition to get those skills. It was a framework of open society post-Suharto a reasonably stable and reasonably open democracy. Those things have come together in the world’s largest Muslim nation, a nation of 280 million people. Had they not come together, things could be very much worse. You only have to look at another large nation in Nigeria to see how, when you have a constant failure, the door is left open for terrorist and insurgent groups.

When you don’t have an institutional commitment to addressing those push, pull, personal factors again, just to visually draw it. What you are describing there, it’s basically institutions and they reduce the likelihood of certain vulnerabilities existing within individuals. Which then can be used to either push them, pull them, or create personal reasons for a lion or wolf attack or something like that. Again, that’s a critically important piece as to why governance is so important.

This is not to say that we can’t have better governance, but this is one of the biggest arguments I have had with people who are COVID deniers, vaccine deniers, who basically blame the government and it’s about down with the government. What we are discussing is improving governance, not the absence of governance, because the absence of governance is anarchy. I’m sure most people who deeply think about that wouldn’t want it. A final point that I want to tap into, and that is the growing threat of far-right violence. How real is that threat in the West?

It varies according to context. It’s the number one terrorism problem in the United States of America. Regardless of whether the local law allows easy prosecution on terrorism charges. These 300-plus militia, like the proud boys, are one part of the problem. This is different from Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, you then have a much more loosely diffused network of networks.

In Australia, we would have said, “One day it’s going to be our problem, but it’s not our problem just yet.” In March 2019, we had this awful Christchurch attack. Now, it was Christchurch, New Zealand, but it was an Australian terrorist. One Australian who had purchased a couple of AR-15 military assault rifles, or the civilian equivalent effectively, prepared himself, went in, and shot people in prayer and cold blood killing 51 and injuring almost as many.

Streamed it live.

Uploaded the manifesto. He’s regarded as a saint and as a hero. He followed the example for him of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in July 2011, and people before that. In many years, this has increased in tempo, and people have copied particularly the Christchurch Shooter’s Manifesto. Now, it’s a prominent out part of the world in Australia. When we need to take responsibility, it goes to show that for all I talked about the effectiveness of police counter-terrorism intelligence. That’s true.

In Australia, our National Domestic Intelligence Agency, Australian Federal Police, and state police say that, many years ago, far-right terrorist threats took up about 10% of their caseload. Now, it’s half their caseload. It’s risen steeply over the last few years. The overall counterterrorism caseload is not diminished. It’s not that it’s becoming a lesser problem.

Have they been able to come to any consensus as to why? What’s motivating this? That’s a pretty significant increase.

It is. It’s because we are globalised going back to our social media discussion connected. Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter, wasn’t part of any particular one group in Australia, though he had some affiliation. His audience he was live streaming to be watched by and adored by were in Eastern and Western Europe. They were in North America. They were in Australia and Britain.

It means if you have got a growing problem in Europe, as we do have, and there’s a history of fascism and neofascism. If you have got a growing problem in America, and you have got this deeper problem in terms of the history of large-scale slavery, a civil war fought on that basis, but then incomplete solutions afterward, to a large extent, political forces play on racism that goes back to those structural problems. That’s conducive.

The extent that it’s conducive in America doesn’t stay in America. It comes to Australia via our digital highways and feedback loops. If we were just looking at Australia where we might say, “Not a problem.” In this digital age, it comes much more quickly. Australians like to consider themselves avid travellers, getting back to travellers now post-COVID, and avid consumers of new ideas. That positive aspect of Australian society now becomes a liability.

Globally, I think the rise of the far-right has to do with the rise of a different but related thing, which is authoritarian populism. A populist leader says, “I’m going to go to Washington, Canberra, and Westminster. I’m going to change the system because I’m from outside the system. This elite that runs the system is screwing you. Donald Trump’s going to drain the swamp.” Donald Trump has spent his life wallowing in a swamp varying any weaker passer-by with dodgy business practices. Still, the rhetoric stuck because people wanted to believe that somebody could change Washington.

He became popular there. He’s not a far-right leader in that literal direct sense. You can make connections. Many of the people were traveling around him, like Steve Bannon his advisor certainly far-right. As he’s a narcissist focused on his own personal power and success, he has other narcissists like Rupert Murdoch for different motivations, but narcissism is a factor in providing the message, that leads the space of something else bad happening. Something else bad happening is genuine far-right, violent extremists, and genuine fascists. I don’t believe that Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, he’s not a fascist, but he’s playing with fire.

They are business people, right? They are exploiting incentives.

Rupert Murdoch doesn’t need more money, so the question is motivation. I can only speculate that he gets off on the fact that he’s more powerful than the president and the Prime Minister. That’s corruption, but it’s not corruption with money, it’s corruption with intention. He could have used his powers for great good. He’s used them unfortunately to cause a lot of harm.

These factors come together. My point is not that the populists explain the far-right and the violent far-right, the extreme far-right that is involved in violent extremism, but they open up the space. In America, elements on the extreme far-right would say, “I don’t know whether Donald Trump is for us. Whether he’s one of us or not. I do know that he’s been good for us.”

The number of far-right violent extremist attacks and incidents through the Trump years doubled roughly. It was rising before him. He was not the sole cause, but it certainly doubled during his presidency. The fact is we have now got or are about to have a new prime minister in Italy with far-right associations. At first, it was Mussolini who first came to power hundred years ago. That’s disturbing because it opens up and it doesn’t automatically determine that bad things will happen on a terrorist front, but it makes it more likely that will happen.

That fits the conditions, I guess. One of the other things that struck me reading some of your work, and I can’t remember if it was the book or in one of your papers. That military experience exclusively appears as a predictor of far-right extremism. That to me was a really interesting finding through research. What we are saying is it’s not only that it’s extreme psychology. It’s not only that they are going to be allowed and dangerous, but arguably, many of those on the far-right spectrum will have military experience, which of course makes the threat potentially and exponentially higher. Is that right?

It’s a complicating factor in America. These are figures that I have got from memory, so I’m not completely sure about them, but roughly a third of serving police officers. There are hundreds of police forces in America. That’s part of the challenge or part of the problem. State troopers, local police, and some police. A third of police officers are former military or military veterans.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing in itself. You don’t need to find a career and do some good. Some of them do great good. For others, if they are carrying trauma, and most of them are carrying trauma, and the system doesn’t treat military veterans well, they can end up homeless. Your relationship breaks up, your wife kicks you out, you lose the house, and you are on the street. Things go bad pretty quickly. You self-medicate. It’s miserable stuff.

If some of these guys end up serving in police forces, and the police forces have received several billion dollars worth of military equipment over the last many years because it’s a flow-on effect. If you have got a riot in your city, you probably don’t want to be turning up in an armoured personnel carrier, but if you have got one, it’s very tempting to wheel it out.

Also, if the other side has got AK-47s or some serious firepower.

To be fair, there won’t be AK-47s. They will be American-made rifles probably AR-15s. You can go down the street and buy them. You don’t have to go to the nefarious black market. To be fair to the police, you are pulling somebody over on a highway stop. They probably won’t pull an AR-15 on you, but when they are going to the glove box, they may be getting their license, but they may be pulling out a Glock. Lots of police officers are killed every week on that basis. It’s a such tragic and sad problem.

When you up the scale of things, guys carrying trauma equipped with military-style weapons up against people who have military-style weapons, then there’s been some good work done. For example, in Seattle, after the Black Life Matter protests erupted into Seattle, the police force was caught by surprise. They regained their balance. They recognised that one thing they were doing badly was communicating poorly. They got their communications working better. They built lines of trust with many of the protestors. Many of whom had very legitimate grievances.

The Black Life Matter protestors in general were the police say, open to communication and following orders and instructions. “Please don’t do this. Avoid this area. Don’t do these things.” It was the anarchist element and some of the far-right elements that snuck in. That was the bigger problem. They managed to get things under control, not by using military methods and military equipment, but by doing the old-school policing thing of building relationships and trust.

On the other side, we don’t know how many of the militia groups have military vets, but we do know that they figure. Also, an insidious problem is that serving police officers and serving military personnel get drawn into these movements. You have been in military bases in Iraq, I can bet you, I know the TV station that was playing 24/7 in the mess hall. Fox News has gotten worse over the decades. In itself, that’s not going to radicalise people, but it predisposes them to George’s view of certain elements of government. They are more likely to go into their Facebook group and consume even worse stuff. It’s not a good and healthy situation.

Again, it contributes to those simplistic narratives that explain things as Black and White. Especially if you have got experience and if you are viewing your own experience in a country like Iraq in Afghanistan through a simplistic prism and simplistic lens. You have then got all the more argument and potentially all the more credibility within those groups to absolutely validate those simple narratives are true. Which then of course increases your status and your sense of belonging within that group. The cycle continues.

To explain what I mean when I talk about Murdoch and Fox News. I’m not saying everyone is bad all the time. It is normally commentators rather than journalists of the problem. When Carlson Tucker night after night repeats Russian propaganda, Pro-Kremlin, Pro-Putin propaganda during the middle of the war in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you have got a problem. If people marinate in that toxic set of narratives, then it’s weakening their defences when they go on to Facebook and other things.

It is very interesting that you made that point about cognitive or mental immunity. I interviewed Andy Norman, who published a book called Mental Immunity, and explained that very point in some finer detail. It’s scary. This was a slightly off-script on the US, but the US in 2022 featured for the first time or almost was about to feature in the Top Ten Conflicts to Watch by the Crisis Group International. It was coming in a close eleventh. Where is the US now in your view? I’m asking this question because what happens in the US matters as it’s the leader of the free world. It’s the beacon of democracy. What are you seeing happening in the US over the next year or two?

It’s easy to say of so many countries, and certainly of the US that it’s at a crossroads, but it’s certainly is at a crossroads point, not for the first time and not for the last time. Long story short, US society needs democracy to function well. It needs checks and balances. It needs two strong healthy parties. Democrats aren’t perfect. They may well lose the balance of power in Congress in the midterms in November. There’s something to watch President Biden. Objectively, he’s done a lot of good things, but not perfectly. I’m critical of his sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example. His popularity ratings don’t reflect what he’s doing. That party is vulnerable.

On the other side, The GOP or The Republican Party has been hollowed out by what began as the Tea Party movement, it actually goes back well before that, but it manifested with Trump. You have people taking a hostage to Trump. They dare not run for office, even in the pre-selection, and go against Trump. Otherwise, he will pour resources into making sure they don’t get pre-selected, much less win office. We saw that with Liz Cheney, for example.

Unless the GOP recovers its original position as a classic conservative party, more or less, unless it gets some health back if it’s controlled by bullies with a narrative that’s extremely toxic and politically extreme, American democracy is going to suffer. It may be that the overturning of Roe v. Wade, that decision actually means that the midterms don’t go the way of the Republicans. Normally, the government in the White House does badly in midterms. That’s the way it historically plays out.

You think that might be a sufficiently motivating factor to get many more Democrats out to visit the abortion laws.

It’s not voluntary voting, so whether they turn up and vote is a critical factor. It might be we have to wait and see with midterms, whether that means that the Republicans don’t make the gains they would have otherwise made without the reckless grab for intrusion into people’s lives in consequential ways. Either way, the Republican party needs to get back to being beyond the party of Trump or Trump points. To bring back to a broad church that’s essentially centre-right, rather than edging towards being, in many respects, far-right. If that doesn’t happen, American democracy is not going to recover. In time, worse things will happen. I’m not saying it’s hopeless, but it’s dire at the moment.

The problem is that we are also hearing more terms such as civil war banded around when we are talking about America. Even the fact that we have been saying that in itself shows how dire the situation is. As you said, it’s not certain that it’s going to happen with risks of that occurring. Greg, my last question to you. What are your biggest fears for this decade?

My biggest fear is to go back to this last thing we are talking about, the breakdown of democracy. The biggest challenge we have faced collectively as a human race is climate change. We have got a rather overloaded planet. The population curve will trend down over the course of the century, but places like Africa can’t afford any more stress right now feeding people. Nigeria is growing at a rate of knots which is not a bad thing in itself, but if you don’t have youth given decent employment, no point in graduating from the university if you don’t get something that’s a reasonable job. With the pressure from climate change, you are going to see more troubles with political violence.

I do believe that we will make this adjustment with climate change. We will overshoot, we will do too little, too late, but then eventually make good and begin to learn to live with a hotter planet but do the things we need to do. I’m moderately optimistic that we will get there eventually, but the real game changer is, in this very stressed context, what happens to democracy.

Once again, I’m not fundamentally pessimistic in saying American democracy is going to fail. America is particularly vulnerable at the moment. The rise of far-right parties and leaders in Europe is another point of vulnerability. America is the big one to watch. If America can course correct and regain its balance, then the planet has reason to be encouraged. If it doesn’t, so much else follows directly and indirectly from that. That’s the biggest concern at the moment for me.

VOW 81 | Extremism
Extremism: If America can course correct and regain its balance, then the planet has reason to be encouraged.

On that somewhat hopeful, but also realistic note. Greg, I want to thank you. This has been fascinating. I knew it would be. It’s been a long time coming. We have planned this for some time now, but I feel like there’s another full show in this with all the various threads that we have left unpicked. I do want to thank you for your time. It’s been fascinating. Thank you very much.

It’s been a pleasure. Thanks very much.


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