How young, vulnerable people get radicalised 

How young, vulnerable people get radicalised 
  • PublishedApril 26, 2024

This week, more than 400 police searched 13 locations in Sydney and Goulburn, as part of a joint counter-terrorism investigation relating to the 16-year-old who allegedly stabbed a bishop in Sydney. 

Seven young people have been arrested and the Australian Federal Police claim they share a similar violent extremist ideology. 

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) chief Mike Burgess told the National Press Club on Wednesday there had been a growing number of minors in his counter-terrorism caseload, which peaked at 50 per cent a couple of years ago. 

He said the size of the “vulnerable cohort” had “picked up again”. 

So, who makes up that vulnerable cohort, how do they get radicalised, and what can Australia do to stop it? 

How do young people get radicalised? 

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds says there are underlying factors leading children to become involved in radical behaviour like violent extremism, leaving them vulnerable to grooming by extremist groups. 

“A lot of these kids have underlying complex issues like neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD, autism et cetera. They have learning problems, they may have mental health issues as well,” she says. 

She says children’s brains are constantly developing physically, cognitively, and emotionally and they’re not “fully formed yet”. This makes them more susceptible to being groomed for radicalisation. 

She says children need connection and a sense of belonging, and that family is “very important” for meeting that need.

“Some kids are lucky to have family relationships that are able to support them. But not everyone is so fortunate.” 

Anne Hollonds sits in an office. A glass table and a bookshelf are in the background
National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds notes similarities in the underlying causal factors for children who end up in prison for crimes and those who commit violent extremism.(ABC News: Andrew Whitington)

She sees overlaps in the underlying causal factors for children who end up in prison for crimes, and those who commit violent extremism.

“The kids that I speak to who have become involved with the youth justice system often feel that they don’t belong at school,” she says.

“They either drop out and disengage at very early ages because they don’t feel they belong, or they’re actually suspended from school because their behaviour is difficult to manage.  And I have some concerns because if a kid’s not at school, where are they?

“These are kids who have a deep longing for a sense of belonging, which is an absolute human need that we all have and they, unfortunately, end up doing these negative behaviours in order to meet that need.” 

Early intervention

Mr Burgess says by the time ASIO and law enforcement are dealing with the problem, “we’re at the wrong end” and “we need society to stare into this problem earlier and understand the drivers”.

He says more research is required to understand what’s happening to counter it and “make sure that these kids are on the right path”.

“And when some of them do get caught; how we can quickly help them disengage and deradicalise? It’s in our national interest to help that happen,” the director general says. 

The commissioner says early intervention could be achieved through health, education, and social services systems, but they’re often not effective.

“It’s these basic service systems that should be picking up the problems early, and wrapping around these kids and families — the kinds of help the treatment, the supports that they need,” she says. 

Commissioner Hollonds is compiling a report investigating opportunities for the reform of youth justice systems, and is expected to finish it in the middle of this year. 

Deakin University terrorism expert Greg Barton says authorities should be working closely with communities to enable families and friends to report concerning behavioural changes in individuals, allowing them to intervene early and prevent radicalisation.

Professor Barton says while the number of young people influenced by extremist material might be rising, it is only a small number who go on to offend.

“This is about intervening as early as possible to try and stop that offending, and then there’s good confidence for complete rehabilitation,” he says. 

Being careful with language

Professor Barton says the language used by police needs to be specific when discussing young people arrested on terrorism-related charges, and that evocative terms shouldn’t be “bandied” around.

“Acts in preparation for terrorism … doesn’t simply mean we’re dealing with a terrorist. We’re dealing with somebody who might end up becoming a terrorist, if they’re not helped, and they’re stopped. But just to bandy around these highly loaded terms, isn’t going to help,” he says

“We have to use terms that carry stigma in a very cautious fashion.”

The commissioner agrees that how the arrests are reported and talked about matters, in person or on the internet.

“We shouldn’t be calling children ‘terrorists’. We should be calling children ‘children’,” she says.

“By making it sound sort of special in that way, and really damning children in that way, it sounds like there’s nothing that can be done … but actually, they are children whose … brains have not been fully formed yet.”

Age verification and grooming on social media

Ms Hollonds is arguing for greater regulation of online platforms, trialling age verification technology on social media and better recognition that children are being groomed online by extremist groups.

Professor Barton says authorities should try to modify online environments where young men are vulnerable to extremist recruitment and influence, by working with social media companies to limit accessibility to extremist material.

Last month, in the United States, the state government in Florida passed a bill to ban social media accounts for children under 14, and require parental permission for 14- and 15-year-olds to use it.

The children’s commissioner would like to see age verification trials in Australia, and so would the Coalition.

“I think we need to recognise that it is it’s not the fault of these children that they become groomed and targeted by these groups.

“We are allowing them free access to these technologies in ways we wouldn’t allow them to drive a car at that age, right?”


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