In December last year, the ever-discussed media piece of Islamic State released information on what they considered a ‘coup’ against their Western enemies: the inclusion of a white, middle-class kid into their ranks. Jake Bilardi, a young man from Victoria, disappeared from his family home, only to appear in ISIL propaganda videos months later. Not long after, he was dead, having blown himself up in a truck in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. Between then and now, the “AAAAH, TERROR” parts of the Australian and British media have been constantly on the case of just how a 19 year-old from Melbourne’s northern suburbs, with no history of extremism, could end up with one of the most dangerous terrorist organisations in the world.
From a purely journalistic standpoint, the above photo is gold both for IS and Western media. It’s a striking and surprising image, a white teenager propped between two stereotypically masculine, intense IS members. For IS, this is exactly the kind of thing they need to connect to what is quickly becoming a key demographic for them: young, disenfranchised men predominantly from countries that are in literal war with them. After all, there’s no better way to undermine your enemy than to appeal directly to their children.
For the news media, the image of a normal white kid in IS is a gold mine, because it plays on people’s inherent fears about Islam and terrorism: that it’s only a matter of time until they start indoctrinating our kids and taking over our lives. That’s what they keep telling us in their videos, and that’s what news networks rely on to keep us attached to the existence of IS. Fear is a big driver and motive in modern news, and the fact that a son from a non-Muslim family – from a very moderate part of the world – can become involved with a terrorist organisation hits close to home.
And this isn’t just a freak occurrence, either. Abdullah Elmir, aka “The Ginger Jihadist”, became worldwide news last year when he appeared in an IS video, claiming that they will destroy their Western enemies. And a couple of weeks ago, two brothers – aged 16 and 17 – were stopped at Sydney Airport when authorities got suspicious. They were travelling to Turkey – a common hub for people travelling to join various Middle Eastern conflicts – and their bags contained various pieces of “extremist paraphernalia” and literature on how to fool authorities into not thinking you’re about to end up between a video camera, a Quran and an IS flag, AK in hand.
Again, gold for journalists. Despite the obvious lack of information available on two minors allegedly trying to become terrorists, it’s a story that sticks with you. It also hints, whether factual or not, at a growing trend amongst young Australian men to pack up their bags and join IS. So why exactly are these young, middle-class men joining a cause so culturally and socially set apart from their lives that their friends are considered targets?
According to at least one Australian Islamic leader, Western media itself is to blame. From the article:
“They take the western media and they blame them a lot and it makes them turn away from Australian and Australian culture. That’s one of the biggest reasons why people go over there,” said Abu Zaid, a committee member at the Hume Islamic Youth Centre, where Mr Bilardi sometimes went to hear lectures.
Abu Zaid – who is, importantly, giving a perspective from Australia’s Muslim youth – goes on to argue that our general reaction to the news of some kid getting on a plane and joining IS is overblown, and that the usual judgement call we fall on when we see something like this – that a vulnerable kid was brainwashed by a bunch of media-savvy extremists into taking up arms – is basically flawed.
“Isn’t all Australian culture about freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of all this? Why is it OK, for example, for the Jews to recruit kids from here to go and fight in Israel and no one make any fuss about that, but then one person under the name of Muslim – maybe he’s Muslim, maybe he’s not Muslim – to go and fight overseas in what he believes in, even if it’s wrong? … a person has an idea in his mind, he believes it’s right, he should fight for what he believes in.”\
Jake Bilardi allegedly died for what he believed in, according to ISIL. He killed himself and destroyed a few cars, but nothing more. According to the head of the Iraqi Defense Forces, Jake’s attack was completely inconsequential.
All in all, the story of Jake Bilardi, from leaving Australian to his death, was a matter of months. From sitting in his bedroom in Craigieburn to dead on the streets of an Iraqi city. It’s sad, no matter how you look at it, and a condemnation against a lot of cultural practices, both in the regions of the world where movements like IS are allowed to thrive, but also within our own borders. I don’t think Abu Zaid was being too insensitive in his comments about Bilardi, but was instead pessimistic. It had happened; they had already gotten their hooks in him, and he was already in Iraq. It was only a matter of time.
Obviously, Abu Zaid’s opinion grates against a lot of public sentiment, but his message is an important one. Especially in times of war, the black-and-white mentality of “us versus them” carries a lot of weight, and it becomes easy to simplify things to the level of a “death cult” roping in young, impressionable men. What Abu Zaid and a lot of other Islamic leaders are apparently trying to do, while still maintaining a clear opposition to the actions of IS, is make us think about how our own methods of doing things are causing people like Jake to throw themselves into what we would describe as a violent extremist lifestyle.
The questions of how and why Bilardi joined IS and wasted his life are now under a much larger amount of scrutiny, as countless news pieces expose various parts of his life. But the indoctrination and eventual tragic death of Jake Bilardi is not just some freak occurance, but is rather symptomatic of the often convoluted war of ideology that is happening across our TV and computer screens.
Recently, Four Corners investigated the high number of Chechen immigrants in Austria travelling to Syria to join ISIL’s fight. A conservative Muslim diaspora, the Chechen immigrants (mostly based in Vienna) are something of a control case for those people most vulnerable to the romantic image of extremism. Two brisk wars against Russia had effectively destroyed Cechnya, and the amount of men in Cechen society plummeted. The refugees who fled to places like Vienna were largely young, without fathers, and stranded in a country that barely accepts them. Vienna itself is split between the far-right Freedom Party and carious ant-fascist groups, with regular clashes on the streets. It’s a perfect storm for ISIL recruiters: an entire group of young Muslim men, without fathers and completely disassociated from their home and culture, save for a few imams that are very capable of persuasion.
According to various reports, the majority of Austrian nationals who have joined ISIL were Chechen refugees. Other countries with large Chechen diasporas, namely Turkey, have seen large numbers of young men and women pick up and leave as well. If anything, this is proof that the coercion of young Muslim men is a far-reaching issue, and that organisations like ISIL are skilled at picking the prime targets: those with anger and resentment towards the alien society they find themselves in, a lack of fatherly guidance, and unhindered access to the internet.
Dr Anne Aly is a research fellow at Curtin University and head of the Countering Online Violent Extremism Research Program. She has spent a great deal of time dissecting ISIL and similar organisation’s presence on the internet and, as can be unfortunately expected, it’s not simply a case of one-way brainwashing. Like most things on the internet, there’s a whole lot of grey area.
“The organisations are very internet savvy,” Aly says. “IS is all over social media and able to reach young people through various channels. However, we also need to be cautious about making assumptions about their influence too. Some, if not most, young people drawn to IS will actually reach out to them and make contact that way. Also, we need to consider that fact that, although they have a strong media presence as well as a high profile in the international media, there is still a vast majority of young people who reject them.”
But there is still that minority of vulnerable youths who will fall under the spell of ISIL. The organisation’s sophistication in terms of media outreach has only increased with their exposure in the media, and they’ve become well-versed in using the news media as a tool against the very countries that host it. The infamously regular release of beheading videos by ISIL – the latest showing eight Syrian soldiers being decapitated in Hama – are staged as direct rebuttals to the way in which ISIL is supposedly portrayed by the media. It’s pretty ironic to defend yourself as an organisation by beheading people, but that’s just how ISIL operates. It’s even getting to the point where involved countries, including Australia and the US, are releasing ironic propaganda videos themselves to apparently lighten the immediate impact of ISIL propaganda.
But it’s not just these videos which are brainwashing young men. The ISIL media platform has become one operational on many different levels, and one that appeals to many different facets of ideology.
“It’s just one part of the equation,” Aly says. “Disaffection and distrust of mainstream ‘Western’ media means that young people will turn to alternative sources of information which they do trust- including some of the propaganda of IS. They will dismiss mainstream media reports as being bias and having a Western agenda. This means that reports of IS brutality are often dismissed as anti-IS propaganda and makes the IS propaganda more appealing.”
It’s a confusing and frustrating state of affairs, but it’s pretty hard to see an alternative when the average 19 year-old is bombarded daily with information from Syria and Iraq, especially if a large amount of that information is coming from the people directly involved in the conflict. It’s incredibly hard to tell just what aspects of the ISIL propaganda machine are attractive to any one individual, but it’s obvious that more needs to be done to understand just how integral media accessibility is to ISIL’s ability to reach a worldwide audience.
“[Government agencies were] not prepared at all,” Aly says. “In fact the entire world was not prepared. The impact of IS and their ability to attract people was completely underestimated. Part of this is because there is little understanding of how young people become radicalised online or what that even means. More research is desperately needed to understand this phenomenon and the mechanisms of radicalisation- particularly in the online space.”
While Australia has focussed on heavy-handed enforcement, it’s obvious that a different approach needs to be implemented to cut off ISIL’s ability to reach teenagers in their own bedrooms as soon as possible. The constant exposure to media on the various wars in the Middle East, whether it be from our own country or from ISIL, has some kind of measurable affect on kids like Jake Bilardi.
“We already have a strong enforcement framework- in fact our approach is too heavily focussed on enforcement,” Aly says. “We need to balance this with more strategies that address the root causes of violent extremism as a social issue. This means that we need to look at why people are attracted in the first place and we need to develop social change initiatives to address this attraction and appeal. Law enforcement has a place but when it is the only approach, it can also be counterproductive because it can make young people feel targeted and make them more disaffected.”
The death of Jake Bilardi, as well as others like him from around the world, is a tragedy. It’s a simple matter to look at an organisation like ISIL and agree that Bilardi was simply a poster boy, a young white man willing to commit jihad to further their goals. Its stuff like this that makes you stop and think, and it should be stuff like this that makes us think twice about exactly how we handle domestic and international media, and how we send the right message when kids can receive whatever message they want to, as long as there is someone willing to share it with them.