Terrorism expert examines family roles

Terrorism may be a world problem, but a Victoria University researcher has found that its prevention may best be tackled at a very local level.

Professor Michele Grossman’s ground-breaking study of the role of family and friends in pinpointing potential terrorist suspects has been taken note of at the highest levels, both in Australia and abroad.

To date, she said Australians have generally been urged to look out for unusual or sinister behaviour among strangers, but Professor Grossman asks: “if you suspected someone in your immediate family or school, would you pick up the phone?”

“Families and close friends are often the first ones to pick up on signs that people may be radicalising to violence,” she said. “You have to know someone to pick up the small, subtle changes.”

Her world-first study, Community Reporting Thresholds, interviewed a range of Australians across three states who had reported ‘intimates’ to authorities, contemplated it, or said they would never report someone they knew under any circumstances.  

 Professor Michele Grossman
Professor Michele Grossman

Professor Grossman, director of VU’s Centre for Cultural Diversity and Wellbeing, said it was moving to hear the stories, and the sense of torn loyalties and obligations.

“The most compelling finding is how profoundly isolating and lonely it is to be in that position,” she said.

The study found that interviewees strongly preferred face-to-face reporting to people they knew, whether community leaders or law enforcers, rather than by telephone or over the internet.

“The primary reason for sharing information is because they care about someone, and they want that person to be stopped and diverted, not prosecuted.”

The study showed significant tensions between the need of those reporting to know what happens after they share information and the need to maintain confidentiality about investigations for operational and security reasons.

Sponsored by the Australian Federal Police and funded by the government’s Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee, the report was delivered last year.  A pilot telephone advice support line is now being trialled informed by research findings.

Professor Grossman’s research was replicated in Britain this year by a UK Economic and Social Research Council grant award through the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats research consortium.

Read more about Professor Grossman’s research in VU’s 2016 Research Highlights publication.

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