Australian jihadists may be motivated by sense of empowerment, study finds

Michael Safi and Ben Doherty
Photograph: David Crosling/AAP

The archetypal Australian jihadist has no apparent mental health issues, does not have a refugee background, and is more likely to have gone to a state school than a private Islamic one, according to one of the world’s largest databases of alleged and convicted terrorists.

Islamist extremists from Australia tend to be better educated, more likely to be employed and have fewer and less serious criminal convictions than a typical European jihadist, according to the Lowy Institute study of 173 Australians alleged to have become foreign fighters or who have been convicted of terrorism offences.

But they are still more likely to be on welfare or do blue-collar work than the average Australian, suggesting that a desire for personal status may be a greater motivator for joining or supporting a terrorist group than religious devotion, poverty or mental health issues – causes that are popularly cited as driving factors.

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The Typology of Terror working paper, by the Lowy Institute fellow Rodger Shanahan, studied the backgrounds and characteristics of 173 Australian citizens and residents who are known to have joined radical Islamist terrorist organisations or who have been charged with terrorism offences. It challenges a number of the stereotypes ascribed to those attracted to jihad.

The Australia jihadi cohort skews strongly male – 85% to 15% – and is young, on average, aged 25.

Those from Sydney or Melbourne, and from a handful of suburbs within those two cities, account for 90% of the cohort. In Sydney, they lived in the western suburbs, and in Melbourne, there were two distinct northern and southern groups, close to religious institutions.

Jihadists are most likely to have attended a state school, and have completed Year 12.

“Twenty seven per cent had not completed high school, almost exactly the rate for the rest of Australia. Of the high schools they attended, 73% were state high schools (slightly higher than the national average of 66%), 17% private Islamic schools and 6% non-Islamic private schools.”

Most jihadists held down jobs before leaving Australia or committing their crime, but their unemployment rate was greater than the national rate (17% to 6%) and they were more than twice as likely to work in blue-collar jobs compared with the general population. The paper argues that the attraction of Islamic State or other terrorist organisation “may… have been influenced by a desire to increase personal status”.

“Occupying for the most part lower status roles in secular Australian society, Australian jihadis may have been attracted to the empowerment and high religious status Islamic State offers martyrs…”

The working paper concedes establishing the impact of mental health on jihad is difficult, and contentious, but the working paper found there was little link between established mental health issues and the commission of terror offences.

Only two people in Australia – Ihsas Khan, who attacked another man with a knife in Sydney’s western suburbs, and Moudasser Taleb, who attempted to travel to Syria to join Islamic State – have pleaded mental impairment in defence of a terrorism charge. A judge accepted Khan suffered mental health issues, but found those did not have a causal effect on the offence, while Taleb’s claim was accepted, a judge ruling his mental illness “significant impact on his moral culpability”.

Australians convicted of terror offences tend to show little contrition for their acts, and have, on the whole, poor chances for rehabilitation, the paper argues.

Nearly three-quarters (73.8%) of those convicted displayed no contrition, while fewer than one in 10 (9.5%) displayed ‘genuine contrition’. Forty per cent were found by judges to have poor or non-existent prospects for rehabilitation.

There is no correlation between a refugee background and jihadism: just 6% of the Australian jihadi cohort have a first- or second-generation refugee background.

Typology of Terror found many of the characteristics of Australian jihadis matched those from comparable democracies overseas such as the US, and in Europe. But in other ways, Australia differed significantly.

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Australia has far fewer converts to Islam joining terrorist causes. In Europe and the US, converts to the religion make up about 20% of extremist fighters, in Australia, the figure is 8%.

Also, the correlation between criminality and jihadism is weak among the Australian cohort. Studies in Germany, France, the UK and the Netherlands showed a strong link between serious criminal histories and jihad.

“Almost 90% of the Australian terrorists in the data set have either no or minor police records. The ‘jihadi in pursuit of salvation’ argument therefore holds little weight.”

Shanahan said the working paper provided a snapshot of the Australian jihadi cohort, beyond the cliched image of the disaffected, impressionable young man. Australia needed to continue not only to deal with those convicted of terrorist crimes, but also to detect those at risk of being radicalised and offending.

“You can deal with it in terms of legislation, which the Australian government has done: if you don’t display contrition, if it’s deemed you don’t have a good chance of rehabilitation, the Australian government has interim control orders, extended detention orders: legislatively, the steps are there to deal with people who come out of jail.

“But that’s after someone has committed an offence: we keep coming back to this question of ‘who are the influencers?’. Most of these people don’t wake up one day and say ‘I’m going to become a terrorist’, there’s a normalising of language and ideas, and this is something that community leaders need to address – and in public not in private. We know that it’s not criminality [driving attraction to jihad], it’s not mental health, it’s the attraction of a part of the religion that is spread by Australian and foreign speakers and writers.”