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Prisoner Responses to Terrorism: Online Radicalisation Proposal



There are multiple and diverse pathways through which an individual can become radicalised. For instance, Moghaddam's 'Staircase to Terrorism' is a psychological model that attempts to explain the radicalisation of individuals specifically into Islamic terrorist organisations. Moghaddam refers to a "six-step narrowing staircase" that combines individual, organisational and environmental psychological stages of progression leading to radicalisation.

However, the prison setting presents more devastating pathways into radicalisation. According to a report by Peter Neumann, the prison environment is a "breeding ground" that is able to provide "near-perfect conditions in which radical, religiously framed ideologies can flourish".

Based on the report by Neumann, prisons are more vulnerable to radicalisation due to factors such as :
• Poorly run prisons are subject to conditions such as over-crowding or under-staffing. Such prisons experience more difficulty in detecting and monitoring radicalisation. Furthermore, they amplify the "physical and ideological space in which extremist recruiters can operate at free will and monopolise the discourse about religion and politics".
• Prisons are unable to distinguish legitimate expressions of faith from extremist ideologies.

Imprisoned terrorists view themselves as political/religious activists rather than criminals. As a result, they see their prison sentence as an opportunity to continue with their political/religious campaign, engaging in disruptive behaviour and seeking to mobilise supporters from both inside and outside of prison walls. As such Neumann argues that:

"Prisons are highly unsettling environments in which individuals are more likely than elsewhere to explore new beliefs and associations. Confronted with existential questions and deprived of their existing social networks, prisoners with no previous involvement in politically motivated violence are vulnerable to being radicalised and recruited into terrorism. Prisons, therefore, are 'places of vulnerability' in which radicalisation can take place".

The phenomenon of modern radicalisation within prisons is relatively recent and understudied, meaning that extensive statistics pertaining to de-radicalisation are not available. This is due to a number of factors, including the ambiguity of the word 'de-radicalisation', programs that have not been running long enough to gather meaningful data, as well as government secrecy surrounding these programs. What can be said is that all programs aim to lower levels of recidivism. Minister for Corrections David Elliott has emphasised the need for socially valued resources, such as education, to help reduce recidivism.

Even though there is little to no data on recidivism with relation to terrorist offences due to the new nature of the offence and the minimal convictions, its root causes and matching solutions are not completely removed from more conventional crime. Research demonstrates that access to formal education and work opportunities increasingly lower recidivism rates for prisoners. The absence of meaningful personal relationships and a weak sense of community belonging play significantly into the radicalisation process, yet their influence has been overlooked in a number of de-radicalisation programs. Working towards lower rates of recidivism should give equal, if not more, weight to the engagement of a radicalised individual. A strong coordinated community and government effort that includes prisoner training, education, and engagement within prisons would significantly reduce recidivism and the chances of re-radicalisation.

This reflects a welfare approach that focuses on the links between crime, social and financial need. Prisoner vocational training heightens inmates' chances of employment on the outside while augmenting skills that have deteriorated during their time in prison. This is of particular concern given the rate at which technology is developing and the broadening expectation for employees to possess some form of digital literacy. Without formal training, prisoners are at a noticeable disadvantage post-release and struggle to find and maintain a job, which in return detracts from their ability to reintegrate into the community. In this regard, VET has an important role in ensuring that prisoners undertaking traineeships and apprenticeships are given the workplace experience they require to complete their training.


In addition to the issues of deterrence and punishment, a reduction of recidivism rates is the primary goal of all government policies relating to prisons. A successful collaborative relationship between government and a coalition of community groups would go a long way to ensuring that people in prisons have access to online counselling essential for reducing recidivism rates.

Online programs and services have been shown to reduce rates of offending and should have the capacity to make a positive impact on the process of de-radicalisation. Online access to cognitive behaviour therapy has been shown to offer a range of benefits that include the following:
• The period of time spent in isolation each day is utilised productively;
• Stability and continuity of the service provider are ensured throughout the sentence and after release;
• Greater trust in external counsellors;
• Greater empowerment by encouraging self-management;
• Greater cost-effectiveness; and
• Research indicates that online counselling leads to more long-term changes in the behaviour of participants than face-to-face counselling.

It is acknowledged that prisons are highly stressful, microcosmic environments, which lead to distorted forms of Islam being practiced. These forms of Islam, coined "Prison Islam" by Marranci, are said to be defined by emotion and help to rationalise the crimes committed through framing them as a 'necessary evil' for 'some ultimate good.' There is a push at both the government level and among Islamic stakeholders for wider involvement with Islamic leaders and imams in prison reform. Victoria's prison chaplaincy program, conducted in partnership with the Islamic Council, has proven to be successful. However, there are only 10 chaplains involved in this program to cater for over 300 Muslim inmates. With a rise in people converting to Islam while in prison, there is a need for more imams. If there was computer access in every cell inmates could access sermons, guidance and religious material as well as have daily contact with imams. This would allow prisoners to develop a far more inclusive perception of Islam and not just 'Prison Islam'.
PrisonPC – Australian Capital Territory
Since its deployment in 2009 at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, PrisonPC has provided inmates with access to several online resources. The initial aim of PrisonPC was to provide educational support for prisoners, which would contribute to lower rates of recidivism and aid in the process of social re-integration. However, the interface also provides several add-ons such as media streaming facilities and religious services. Online counselling in cells increases the availability of these services in concurrence with the chances of rehabilitation.
New Zealand – Auckland South Corrections Facility
Given the increasing prevalence of computer and Internet usage in our society, several international jurisdictions have implemented the use of online counselling in newly built jails. This demonstrates the importance of recognising the positive influence technology can have in rehabilitating those in prison rather than subjecting them to punishment. In particular, the construction and operation of the Auckland South Corrections Facility in 2015 symbolises a step forward in the recognition of the importance of access to technology in promoting self-management. As such, the Serco Director of Operations Scott McNarin states that "access to this technology imposes the expectation that prisoners will engage in purposeful activities, such as education, in what can often be an unproductive time in other prisons." Hence, this program demonstrates that there is scope for the introduction of online counselling in Australian cells to provide access to positive, external influences.

It is clear that access to online services in cells provides a constructive opportunity for effective prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration into society. With the appropriate resources and services, the higher the possibility of lowering levels of recidivism. Therefore, introducing online counselling into cells and offering online counselling services presents a viable option for tackling the issue of radicalisation.


We can broadly categorise these pathways across three levels at the individual (personal/dispositional), organisational (situational) and environmental (socio-cultural, economic and political) levels, following Moghaddam's staircase model. However, it is critical that in any theoretical or paradigmatic treatment or model, we remain mindful of the interplay between agency and structural issues in the process of radicalisation.

All studies agree that there is a stage of individual change enhanced or expedited by external forces (such as experienced or perceived discrimination, or a perceived attack against Muslims), and a move to violent radicalisation, usually brought about when the individual is exposed to and socialised with other likeminded individuals.

2.2.1 HORGAN

Horgan indicates that six key risk factors are involved in leading individuals to engage in acts of extremism:
1) Being disposed to certain levels of emotional vulnerability (which may include feelings of alienation, anger, or disenfranchisement). This state has often been linked to the search for spiritual guidance or being culturally displaced
2) Dissatisfaction and/or disappointment with the contemporary method of protest to produce political/social change
3) Identification and empathy shown toward the suffering of Muslims
4) A mindset that condones violence against a nation-state and the symbols with which the nation-state identify (the attacking of state symbols e.g. flags, monuments, etc.)
5) The possibility of gaining reward from joining certain groups or social movements that may be physical or symbolic (respect, authority, status, etc.).
6) Connections to people associated with terrorism/extremist organisations.


1. Individual radicalisation by personal victimisation: This first mechanism refers to the role that personal grievance plays in the radicalisation process (the authors cite a number of cases including Palestinian suicide bombings where revenge for loss of a loved one is the motive for self-sacrifice).

2. Individual radicalisation by political grievance: A political grievance from some political event or trend can also radicalise a person (although this can often prove difficult to disentangle from group grievances).

3. Individual radicalisation by joining a radical group – the slippery slope: Often joining a radical group is a slow and gradual process, starting with small tasks leading to greater responsibility and risk prior to becoming involved with important operations.

4. Individual radicalisation by joining a radical group – the power of love: This path to radicalisation is through personal connections where a person is recruited into a group through friends, family and lovers. Studies in small group psychology testify how commitment increases as group cohesion increases.

5. Group radicalisation in like-minded groups: This pathway refers to the phenomenon of "risky shift" or "group polarisation", where there is increased agreement about an issue along with a more extreme position being adopted in their views.

6. Group radicalisation under isolation and threat: Small groups under threat tend to show certain features, including very high levels of cohesion, itself increasing pressure for behavioural compliance and internalised value consensus.

7. Group radicalisation in competition for the same base of support: This pathway describes competition for a wider base of support and can drive more radical action to gain that support. The authors cite a range of examples of this phenomenon from the IRA and other nationalist groups.

8. Group radicalisation in competition with state power – condensation: The "dynamic of condensation" refers to a cycle of reaction and counter reaction between a radical group and the counter posing state agencies which see an increased commitment to violence by some members in an effort to retaliate to state violence.

9. Group radicalisation in within-group competition – fissioning: This pathway to radicalisation involves intra-group conflict and the role of threats from within the group for agreement.

10. Mass radicalisation in conflict with an out-group – Jujitsu politics: Here mass radicalisation can occur where out-group threats lead reliably to greater group cohesion and respect for leaders and, in turn, to sanctions for those dissenters and deviators.

11. Mass radicalisation in conflict with an out-group – hate: This pathway refers to the dehumanisation of the 'enemy' by group members, typically where prolonged violence becomes more extreme, resulting in opponents being perceived as less than human.

12. Mass radicalisation in conflict with an out-group – martyrdom: The final mass radicalisation pathway is martyrdom, where radical groups keep salient the memory of their martyrs (or witnesses), although as the authors note, the impact of martyrs on mass audiences is under-theorised.


Staircase of Terrorism
Ground floor: 'Psychological interpretation of material conditions'
• Acquiring a degree of predisposition towards terrorism via:
o Subjective perceptions of deprivation, injustice, blocked social mobility
o Perceived threats to their identity – antagonised by increasing globalisation and Westernisation.
• This is the most 'foundational' floor, presumably with the largest number of inhabitants due to widespread perceptions of relative deprivation and injustice.

First floor: 'Perceived options to fight unfair treatment'
• Those on the first floor have a perception of:
o Blocked social mobility and exclusion from political decision making, which generates a sense of injustice at the illegitimacy of existing procedures and systems of rules
o 'Displaced aggression', whereby others are blamed for their perceived problems.

Second floor: 'Displacement of aggression'
• This floor is characterised by displaced aggression, often verbalised rather than expressed through violent action.
• There is little by way of explanation for the transition to the third floor except the conscious seeking of ways to take physical action.

Third floor: 'Moral engagement'
• The role of the terrorist organisation emerges on the third floor, where training and 'moral engagement' occur, with narrative to persuade the individual that its ends justify its means in achieving an 'ideal society'.
• Employing tactics of "isolation, affiliation, secrecy, and fear" acts to encourage and maintain this moral disengagement.

Fourth floor: 'Categorical thinking and the perceived legitimacy of the terrorist organisation'
• Climbing to the fourth floor is to fully enter the terrorist organisation where recruits are socialised and assimilated into the secret life of the terrorist cell.
• The group promotes categorical "us versus them" dichotomous thinking, and the clandestine mission fosters increasing isolation from wider society.
• Moghaddam describes how pressures to conform and obey increase the likelihood of terrorist acts by members and narrow the options for leaving the group.

Fifth floor: 'The terrorist act and sidestepping inhibitory mechanisms'
• The fifth floor is the last step or operational phase, with recruits receiving the cognitive resources necessary to overcome natural inhibitory mechanisms required to kill others by:
o Categorising the target as 'the enemy'
o Exaggerating in-group and out-group differences
o Preventing any inhibitory mechanisms (i.e. allowing victims of the attack to become aware of the danger and thereby behave in a way that could change the attacker's mind).


Research shows that in a number of countries, underemployment has been a factor in leading young men to join and aid terrorist organisations. In the Western world however, 'the demographic profiles of radical Muslims...show that they are generally not poor, religiously fanatic, or desperate due to suffering from extreme poverty, political oppression, or other deprived circumstances.' But the causal link between underemployment and poverty is unclear, and further research remains to be done on this relationship.


Social and familial relationships have been widely acknowledged as crucial elements drawing young people to terrorist or radical groups. Group dynamics (where a respected, charismatic and credible leader is identifiable) have also been found to be vital in the radicalisation process, whereby a sense of belonging, ideas, and experiences are shared among group members. It follows that building a new set of relationships with individuals capable of providing a counter-narrative to terrorist ideology is central to the de-radicalisation process.


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