Last week the Australian counter terrorism Minister Michael Keenan launched a 31 page booklet pitched at helping people to recognise and counter radicalisation. Called Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia, the kit has been distributed to the country's schools and contains a series of case studies illuminating how people fall for dangerous ideologies. This includes a study linking environmental activism and alternative music with terrorism. Australia raged.
The focus of that rage was the fictional case study of "Karen". In what reads like a talk-back radio show, Karen is described as a young university student coming from a family with no history of activism, but who gets herself involved in left-wing politics and likes listening to alternative music.
Eventually Karen attends an environmental protest which is her gateway into dropping out of university to go live in an anti-logging forest camp for a year while her family disinherit her. Ultimately, Karen grows disillusioned and eventually quits the movement to build herself a career working for change "within the system".Now if you trace the history of the publication back to the researchers credited in the front of the book, you'll find that the fictional "Karen" begun life in a research paper titled from From Terrorist to Citizen by Kate Barrelle, who is a clinical and forensic psychologist working with Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTRC). "Karen" appears to be a mash up of four real life people, "Ed", "Dean", "Nadia" and "Layth" all of whom Barrelle interviewed about their experiences leaving environmental groups.The Global Terrorism Research Centre for the Australian Government contributed Barrelle's research to the booklet, along with some other contributors to the project. This included the GTRC's Deputy Director Professor Luke Howie, who has since distanced himself from the publication.
Howie is listed as a contributor in the front of the book but when I spoke to him, he said he was never contacted about having his work published in this form. "As far as I can tell my research has no specific contribution to the report," he said. "That said, I recognise the subject matter, even if I'm having a lot of trouble relating to it."While he doesn't know enough about what has happened to talk about it in depth, Howie did have a few issues with "Karen" and the way the book blurs the line between radicalism and violent extremism. "When we talk about violent extremism, we're talking about people trying to kill people. I've never thought of someone like Karen in that way. I personally have never equated someone like Karen with extremism," he said. "If anyone took away from that report that environmental activism is in the same bucket as ISIS that would be a real problem."That is also the exact issue that bothers counter-terrorism expert Dr Anne Aly from Curtin University. Dr Aly has advised the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Directorate and spoke on Countering Violent Extremism at the White House. She's also the force behind People Against Violent Extremism. Aly says that while it's good the booklet has made the effort to look at all forms of extremism, rather than focussing solely on Islamic extremism, case studies like "Karen" are unhelpful as they try to develop a profile that may have no basis in reality.
"History has told us that profiles don't work," she said. "The problem that I have with giving individual cases like that out of context is that I could give you 100 different cases and they'll all be different. There is no singular pathway to extremism. There is no model because they are all different. So having these case studies could backfire."Aly also said the same thinking gets applied to young Muslims where using the wrong words, having the wrong hobbies, or simply owning something with religious symbolism such as the Shahada, may all be used as "indicators" to mark out a Muslim as radicalised or extremist.In the US this happened recently when police raided the home of a 14-year-old Muslim from Texas who had built a suspicious-looking electronic clock, and again in the UK when another 14-year-old Muslim was pulled out of class and interrogated for correctly defining the word "ecoterrorist" during a French lesson."I hope that it doesn't go down the path of the UK and that we should have learned our lessons from the UK," Aly says. "You don't want to raise alarms bells to the point where Muslim kids can't do thing others do. It's one of the dangers holistically."Follow Royce on Twitter