The root cause of IS extremism


James Fry memoir cover

I was 14 years old and angry with a world that could not tell me why I felt the way I did. My mind was fertile ground for an extremist ideology to plant its twisted roots.

After years of relentless bullying in primary school, I had developed a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This was a condition that would hugely affect my behaviour for years to come.

Thankfully the bully and I had parted ways, but with my PTSD in full flight, staying engaged in any sort of traditional schooling had become impossible. Also the heavy drug and alcohol use that had become the order of most days wasn't helping.

The standard benchmarks that someone my age would normally use to reach a sense of accomplishment and belonging with their peers – academic results or sporting prowess – slipped away from my grasp as the days progressed. I was completely oblivious to how the PTSD was driving so much of my behaviour at the time. But I was fully cognisant of the ever-present sense of self that revolved around not being able to do anything worthwhile for anyone, myself included.

That was until the day I met Mal. At almost 30 years of age, he'd had to find company amongst a group of boys who'd barely reached their teens. This signified that he'd been largely shunned by his peers, no doubt for being the unstable, violent alcoholic that he was. But to me as a confused young boy now on the outer edge of society, his wild stories of involvement with a far right white neo-Nazi group were deeply appealing.

Just like any extremist ideology, Mal's chosen brand of whackery presented a simplistic and easy-to-understand view of the world – something that appealed greatly to my confused and poorly coping mind. It was a something that could not fit into the real world, with all of its vast complexities and diversities.

The beauty behind this ultra-narrow belief system was that it did not suggest for one moment that there was anything at all wrong with me.

There was no call for introspection and self-improvement, two things that I was desperately in need of. Not only were the ills of the world the fault of others, but – according to this new narrative – I could now be one of the noble ones being called upon to save the world. For a boy whose only dealings with anyone representing the mainstream over the previous few years involved being scolded for my behaviour, I was hooked.

Fortunately for me, by the time I was introduced to this group, they were only a shadow of their former strength. Thanks largely to the self-destructive tendencies of the members, core parts of the rank and file were now either in prison or crippled by their own substance abuse and mental health problems. It was this disorganisation, rather than any internal behavioural controls, which for me at the time were few at best, that meant my ability to commit acts of violence and other destruction on behalf of the organisation were thankfully severely curtailed.

Had I met a charismatic IS member – rather than a neo-Nazi – at the time, I have no doubt that I could have just as easily ended up in Syria or Iraq killing innocent people, and possibly myself. I would have been convinced that I was doing so as part of some noble cause, like deceased Melbourne IS recruits Jake Bilardi and Sharky Jama. It is a real possibility that today's at risk youth will end up in the hands of IS, given the wide reach of the internet.

Through my own experience, and my ongoing work with troubled youth, I cannot help but shudder when I hear politicians talk of their commitment to national security and the war on terror, yet at the same time drastically defund community programs that work with the kind of marginalised young people that are fertile recruits for extremist ideologies.

Extremism starts between the ears, not in some far-flung Middle Eastern backwater. Though airstrikes and the disruption of funding sources may be of strategic military advantage when fighting a group such as ISIS, we have to acknowledge that however successful these measures may be, we are still fighting the symptoms of terror rather than the root cause.

Even in the unlikely event that IS could be crippled permanently, history has taught us that there will simply be yet another fringe group ready to absorb and radicalise impressionable young people like Jake or Sharky or myself into carrying out the most heinous of acts against their fellow men or women.

If we are really serious about fighting terrorism, then our leaders need to collectively acknowledge that the real front lines – the ones that need the most resources if we are serious about fighting extremism – are to be found in our school classrooms and mental health services, not thousands of miles away on remote battlefields.

If marginalised young people aren't adequately supported in identifying and working with their own issues, then it becomes all too easy for extremist groups to convince them that the real battles they need to fight are for the twisted doctrines of some distant cause, and not the internal ones inside their heads.

James FryJames Fry's memoir That Fry Boy was published in February by New Holland.Tweets: @thatfryboy



Topic tags: James Fry, youth, radicalisation, IS, extremism, mental illness



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Existing comments

Great article, James. However, I hope you are not holding your breath, waiting for our Government or Opposition to take any practical steps to win the large number of disillusioned, alienated young people back to a sense of belonging in Australia. Government and Opposition operate in a different framework - large-scale, great expense, visible on the international stage. While some young people are alienated by individual traumatic experience, as in your case, many more by the sense that their social group is not respected. While this includes many young migrants and first-generation Australians - particularly among Muslim Australians, it also includes young people among the long-term unemployed, the homeless, the disabled. Our Federal Government, seeing budget surplus as of more value to Australia than a national living wage, intend to set the minimum wage on the basis of each worker providing for him/herself alone, rather than for a dependent family. Tertiary education is to be deregulated, a move which will increase cost to individual students and thereby remove the opportunity to break out of generational poverty. Increased funding and driving improvement in primary and secondary education would better prepare our children for adult life. With present policies, I fear extremism could grow in Australia.

Ian Fraser | 16 April 2015  

An extremely perceptive article James, which could well be read in tandem with Ellena Savage's "Inside the head of an IS martyr" in ES 19 March 2015. Both the neo-Nazi movement you were involved in and IS can lead young Australians to self-destruction of various sorts, including suicide, whether as a suicide bomber or alone. Self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide are all too prevalent amongst young men and women. Many lonely, bullied young people go down your road but are not fortunate enough to come out of it. Of course it is about adequate resources to assist vulnerable young people. But, as you point out, there is more to it. Peace and stability are as much within ourselves as outside us. A society which cannot engender self-respect and fulfilment among damaged young people has no business giving basically open ended commitment to a multi-faceted ethno-sectarian conflict with no foreseeable end in sight. Damaged people, both service personnel and former jihadis,will return needing more assistance they will probably not get. I think there is something sick about our society when our leaders can neither see what propels young people towards destructive groups and seem incapable of doing anything positive to prevent this.

Edward Fido | 16 April 2015  

+Ian, +Edward. We're in a tough place. Our governments at all 3 levels are leaning towards punitive control of society and the individual. There's a barbarity at large that's leans towards totalitarianism. It creeps, insidiously moving a little further away, election cycle by election cycle, from what I believe were the peak times of evolution in Australian society. I'll name that time as inclusively Whitlam to Keating, on both sides of the fence. Since then it seems to self and many I've spoken to re this, that we've become a meaner and more cynical society. Don't expect a change in this progression any time soon. Well, not before a very painfully huge wake-up call. Our world, the world, is seriously economically destabilised, and this means, with the very large transfers of people and their cultures (physical and electronic) to new parts of the world resulting in a loss of social cohesions for a time, that politicians and bureaucrats will continue to help the most powerful individuals/families increase their reach and the net worth of their corporations, with increasing haste. There is a vast transfer of economic wealth and hence power to an elite that have a longer-term plan than our lifetimes. None of us, individually, can influence this directly. Indirectly - by listening to people like James Fry and many other writers appearing in ES, we, on becoming aware of the love-lost in our societies, will find a voice to follow that impels us to take personal action. That voice will be a big one, one that cannot be ignored. For many that read ES and this comment, it will be the same l hear, Jesus of Nazareth. The point is however, after we have exhausted the resources available from governments and ngo's, we become the resources. Our fuel, love. Our exercise, compassion. Many fine people are already at work, God bless them.

MichCook | 17 April 2015  

Australia is not unique in having disillusioned, alienated and marginalised youth. In fact, I don't even believe this generation is unique in this respect. And the 'solution', I suspect, depends much more on initiatives from civil society than government. Surely there are things that could be done by government, but 'government' can never be as effective as civil society in engaging and caring for wayward youths. Let government do the things that government is naturally good at, like law enforcement, security, social welfare, economic growth, etc, and let civil society be the empathetic listener and carer. I see little hope in waiting on 'government' to 'resolve' this problem.

Willem Rensburg | 17 April 2015  

Thank you James for this rational critique of what is so often glibly dismissed as "pure evil" that can be defeated by force.

Marie Byrne | 17 April 2015  

Government can't replace parenting.

john frawley | 17 April 2015  

Thanks, James. I'm sorry for all the pain that lies behind your wisdom, but I congratulate you heartily on where you've arrived and for this moving and illuminating piece.

Joe Castley | 17 April 2015  

Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing James Fry's article. Personal witness is so much stronger than sociological or medical theses. Mental health is a very broad canvas and James has shown what part mental/emotional/social maladjustment can play in young people being attracted to extremist organisations or individuals. They are both at the extremities of the marginalised.

Uncle Pat | 17 April 2015  

I must admit, I had gone along with the hype of IS being an evil death cult with not true roots in Islam - until I started reading about the historical reality of the carve up of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire post WW1, and the way the colonial powers played off the Sunnis and Shi-ites in Iraq and Syria in order to maintain the artificial national boundaries. It's easy to be horrified by the beheadings and violence and write the whole movement off as evil, but there is a legitimate cause behind it that won't go away until the world sees it in historical perspective.

AURELIUS | 17 April 2015  

Thank you for your article, James. I only wish the pollies would read it and listen to your story. Perhaps many people might not like to hear this, but the First and Second World Wars provided a similar ideology for young boys. It was OK then, because we were the "goodies".

Anna | 17 April 2015  

Thanks James,a great examination of some of the reasons young folk "march to a different drummer".. . It seems that already we have a structure in the form of our schools that if improved could contribute to supporting young people in "identifying and working with their issues". Maybe our schools need to not just be about naplan testing and the teaching of literacy and numeracy. The employment of trained staff, with adequate time to interact properly with students, working on positive affirmation programs, teaching values education in which topics such as respect for self , others and property are explored could add to the creation of citizens with a broader view of issues. Life studies in budgeting,nutrition, health , relationships, and leisure time activities such as relevant music,art and technology may help satisfy all students with a sense of confidence and relevance. Maybe, it's not just a matter of pouring more money at education facilities , Maybe it's using funds in the most effective ways , meeting the needs of the particular schooll and constantly evaluating their progress Maybe even reviewing the way prospective teachers are selected, and trained, and giving them ongoing professional development and support to carry out their vocations could be a better use of funding .rather than the bricks and mortar approach Just like in the mental health system where the funds are not being used imaginatively to meet the needs of people with mental health issues, poor use of resources may be happening in schools. Wouldn't it be comforting to see in schools programs implemented that put an end to competitive practices and boosted co -operative activities. Above all schools focussed on the insights that James has given in his article .

Celia | 17 April 2015  

Celia's words certainly ring true. Education is key to formation of right values and attitudes and must be guided with wisdom and vision. The wise formation of the minds of the future generation is vital for the future. Values and life skills are more important than most academic pursuits. Thank you James for your insight and for connecting these two serious issues.

Anne | 17 April 2015  

Great article, James - you've nailed it. Most of what I have to say has already been said, particularly by MichCook, but I'd like to emphasize the point that governments can't legislate the movements of the human heart. "Some put their faith in chariots and horses, but we in the name of the Lord", which I interpret to mean that the influence of the wealthy and powerful is as nothing beside the power of those who live the good life, the loving life, the Eucharistic life. This happens in our homes, in schools, at the bus-stop and on the train. The government's law and order, tougher-on-crime approach is nothing like it!

Joan Seymour | 17 April 2015  

What James Fry is stating is that "at risk" youth can easily be misled by evil groups like Neo-nazis and ISIS. However, in the case of ISIS, can its members really be classified as "extremists", which would signify a fringe group, or are they in fact actually the truest adherents of their faith, just following the teachings of their prophet, as described at: Hence we have the latest outrage in Pakistan:

Frank S | 17 April 2015  

Great post MichCook. I think you and many others, including, of course, James, have nailed it. I have a bit more faith after reading this and a few other threads on Eureka Street. People who mourn the demise of this country are sadly mistaken. I foresee several what I would call "phoenix moments" here. We seem to be going through a dark and awful time, but, despite that, I think, with all the often seemingly unseen good work people are putting in, I think we will be renewed.

Edward Fido | 20 April 2015  

Thanks James for a well reasoned piece. I have been suggesting for some time that the government should look to churches (of all flavours) that have been able to indoctrinate so well - we already know how to do it...and also the apologetics of reason. But while we live in fear - our own and govt sponsored - we will not look for more effective methods other than a blunt instrument.

Carl Aiken | 04 May 2015  

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