The Victorian Board of Imams hopes its new plan will weed out rogue radical preachers they fear are preying on impressionable students at university campuses.
“Campuses are the place they can find a base for their hate … particularly among international students who are not familiar with the positive relationship Australian Muslims have with other Australians,” deputy secretary Alaa el Zokm said.
Mr Zokm said unqualified firebrand preachers were still taking part in campus-based prayers and informal meetings of students and preaching “hate against other religions”.
Sri Lankan suicide bomber Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, Christmas Day plot mastermind Ibrahim Abbas and ISIS fighter Mahir Absar Alam are understood to have been enrolled in various degrees including accounting and civil engineering between 2011 and 2012.
Mohamed, 36, and eight other jihadist terrorists killed more than 250 people during a wave of bombings at church services and hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
Deakin University professor Greg Barton, a counter-terrorism expert, said the targeting of middle-class university students was a classic move for terrorist organisations.
Some of the 9/11 attackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, were recruited while at university.
Mr Barton said experts and security agencies had since learnt that Australians had become a key recruitment goal for IS recruiters.
“It made sense to recruit university students to be at the pointy end of what you’re doing. You can find cannon fodder on the streets to put on a vest and drive the truck, but you need bright guys to pull off overseas attacks.»
Last week Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Mohamed’s family told investigators he had been radicalised in Australia.
«That’s how the family feel,» Mr Wickremesinghe told The Guardian. «We know there is some militancy going on in Australia among the Muslims. Australia has been out there fighting [in the war on terror].»
The powerful imams’ group said its new plan would link experienced, moderate imams with campus mosques at key Melbourne universities, with the aim of ensuring students are not taught a radical interpretation of Islam.
Imams are already working with Islamic groups at the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University and are likely to link up with groups at Swinburne University soon.
“We need to give these students big support, otherwise people will come from places we don’t know and preach hate,” Mr Zokm said.
Swinburne University vice-president Andrew Smith said it is an open, diverse and respectful university that strongly condemns extremist activity.
“Swinburne works closely with Victoria Police and we maintain a routine and ongoing dialogue about happenings in the community, and how they pertain to campus,» he said.
The Swinburne Islamic Society was contacted for comment but referred inquiries to university management.
Christmas Day plotter Ibrahim Abbas, convicted of plotting to stage an attack at Melbourne landmarks, studied civil engineering at Swinburne from about 2011 and later told the Supreme Court that campus life pushed him further towards radicalisation due to his peers’ use of drugs and alcohol.
Mahir Absar Alam reportedly enrolled in an accounting course in 2011 before he left for Syria. One of the first Australian recruits to leave Melbourne for Syria, he was captured by coalition forces in Baghouz during the battle for the last Islamic State stronghold last month, the ABC has reported.
The years between 2011 and 2015 were a peak time for radicalising young people in Australia, Mr Barton said, as social media use took off just as civil war broke out in Syria, leading to the establishment of Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.
Mr Barton said it was now known that IS recruiters approached potential recruits at meeting places such as universities and mosques and via the internet before directing them to encrypted chat rooms.
He said that while Sri Lanka had a Muslim population of 2 million people, and Australia just over 600,000, Australia had three times as many people radicalised before leaving for Islamic State strongholds as foreign fighters.
“It’s sobering to think we were a popular target for recruiters,» Mr Barton said.
“It’s hardly surprising when something tragic happens like Sri Lanka that there is a connection back to Australia.”
Victoria Police and the Australian Federal Police declined to comment.
Erin covers crime for The Age. Most recently she was a police reporter at the Geelong Advertiser.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.