Youth intervention strategies: what Australia can learn from South East Asia

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By Robyn Torok

The tragic events of October 2nd, 2015, where a 15 year old boy murdered a police employee after becoming radicalised shocked many in Australia and the international community. This event coupled with an increasing number of teenagers including girls travelling to join Islamic State (IS) or being encouraged to commit attacks on home-soil highlights the need for intervention strategies for this age group.

Although much media focus of this problem is on Western nations such as Australia and more recently France, our Asian neighbours are also dealing with the issue of IS radicalising and recruiting young people with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore each facing their own unique challenges in terms of radicalisation. Lessons from the de-radicalisation strategies used in these countries can be used to help better formulate Australia’s policy response.

Any intervention strategies must be research-based and founded on psychosocial characteristics of teenage development.

Firstly, research indicates that young people are more influenced by fast processed information that focuses on graphic and cultural symbols. However, the effects of these influences tends not to last. Hence, there is a need for constant and repeated exposure to key discourses promoting radicalisation and violence. Secondly, the role of emotions is critical with these being in a state of flux.

However, emotions are not contrary to cognitive frameworks, rather they reinforce key discourses such as grievances, jihad and martyrdom. Third, experts have pointed out a generation gap between some Muslim parents and their children as well as with older, often foreign born Imams. Notwithstanding, there are also noted instances of a wide gap that young Muslim youth face between their traditional Muslim home values, and that of the Western culture that they are exposed to or growing up in. Successful de-radicalisation strategies in Malaysia rely strongly on the social circles of individuals ensuring they have proper support networks from families and community.

The Federal Government has recently moved to lower the age at which control orders can be applied down to 14 years old. Australia is not the only country dealing with these age challenges as Singapore and Indonesia are also concerned about the increasing radicalisation of young people. Coupled with this is the need to reintegrate individuals back into society after having served their custodial sentences.

The question then arises, based on research coupled with strategies used by our Asian neighbours, can Control Orders be effective?

First, a brief definition: Control Orders place restrictions on individuals that may include reporting to a certain place, or more importantly; require them to keep away from the Internet or certain individuals who are deemed as having a radicalising influence. The aforementioned research strongly supports the potential effectiveness of control orders in breaking the cycle of influence from Internet/social media as well as key influences of exploitive individuals. This is also supported by policies used in South East Asian countries that emphasise the importance and influence of an individual’s social circle in both the radicalisation and de-radicalisation processes. Therefore, Control Orders can be used as a form of interruption to recruitment strategies used by extremists elements, especially in the process of future pacing that looks to embed change for violent action on home-soil.

Objectors to the use of control orders need to remember that the ultimate aim of these is to prevent criminality. Once the line of criminality is crossed the consequence is most likely detention and imprisonment. Once this occurs, more sophisticated de-radicalisation strategies are needed such as those used in Indonesia and their effectiveness is often limited. Arguments against the use of Control Orders that play on grievance and the unfair targeting of Muslims need to keep in mind that protection and rehabilitation of the young person needs to be the primary concern and this can be done much more effectively away from further potential radicalisation influences in prisons.

Control orders in isolation are not going to be effective. Removing a young person from negative influences breaks the cycle of influence but does not change cognitive frameworks or deal with the highly charged emotions of youth who feel aggrieved. Counselling is needed to once again change cognitive frameworks and help deal with emotional fluxes. Counselling has been a key component of Malaysia’s successful de-radicalisation strategy.

Referring to the third key research finding, outlining the generation gap between older Islamic leaders and the youth, informs another potential strategy. Moderate Islamic youth leaders and Muslim mental health workers that can build rapport are more likely to be successful in changing cognitive frameworks and help identify legitimate grievances and how to positively deal with those in non-violent ways, than older leaders who may be seen to be out of touch and not relevant to today’s Muslim youth or the complex issues they face. That is not to say that imams have no place in intervention strategies, rather a broad team that includes: parents, family, imams, Islamic youth leaders and professional counsellors and positive, moderate Muslim guidance is needed to affect change.

Malaysia’s successful de-radicalisation strategy has a central focus on relationships and reintegration. In addition, Muslim community support for families with a minor on a Control Order is absolutely paramount. The last thing we want is a family who has a minor on the ‘Order’ to feel ostracised from positive Muslim influences, engagement, consultation as well as support.

We can also learn from our South East Asian neighbours. Indonesia’s approach to much more hardened jihadists also involves a holistic outreach to families and communities making sure there is no stigmatisation. Malaysia also uses a similar strategy and Singapore’s approach is to rehabilitate and reintegrate those who have been radicalised. Consequently, while youth are under control orders, there is a need to rehabilitate and then reintegrate by reaching out to families and communities. Australia’s political leaders like those in Singapore have called on families to watch for early signs of radicalisation.

Control Orders need to be reframed as a positive intervention strategy designed to protect young people and prevent criminality. In addition, it needs to be made clear that these are part of a rehabilitation and reintegration strategy. Research supports the potential benefits of Control Orders in breaking the cycle of radical and extremist influence as long as it is accompanied by other interventions that can be adopted from our South East Asian neighbours.

Singapore, indonesia hold talks on tackling challenges of radicalization. (2011, Sep 15). BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific Retrieved from

Kelly, J. (2015, Jun 30). Singapore, australia pledge closer action to combat terrorism. The Australian Retrieved from

Teoh, S. (2015, Oct 03). KL terrorist rehab ‘a model for asean’. The Straits Times Retrieved from

Lennings, C. J., Amon, K. L., Brummert, H., and Lennings, N. J. (2010). Grooming for terror: The internet and young people. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 17(3):424-437.

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