Detect potential radicals - with a quiz

A series of terrorist attacks and thwarted plots involving "schoolboy" radicals in Australia has prompted the authorities to examine a range of innovative weapons in the battle against young extremists.

The measures have included controversial tough new security laws proposed by the federal government, such as allowing strict surveillance and curfews for terror suspects as young as 14.

But there have also been some creative non-policing proposals aimed at assisting schools to identify at- risk youths.

These include a 35-minute "radicalisation quiz" that can be given to schoolchildren to detect early warning signs.

The quiz was developed by psychologist Rose Cantali, who came up with the idea while researching disengaged youths in Sydney schools more than a decade ago.

She came across a young boy who had severe behavioural problems and later learnt that he was arrested and convicted of a plot with several fellow Islamic extremists in 2005 to blow up the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in Sydney.

The experience prompted Dr Cantali to focus her research on Islamic youths and the early identification of children who are at risk of being radicalised.

She went on to develop the quiz, which asks for responses to 87 statements such as "I trust my school friends", "I don't fit in anywhere" and "I would do anything for what I believe in".

The quiz aims to identify students who are alienated, or experiencing an identity crisis or parental conflict, and can alert schools to try to intervene.

"It's the disconnected kids who are at risk of radicalisation," Dr Cantali told The Straits Times.

The quiz, aimed at students beginning high school (aged 12 or 13) or ending their junior high school (aged 15 or 16), has so far been tried at three schools.

Dr Anthony Bergin, a homeland security expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, expressed support for the quiz, saying schools were "now on the front line of countering violent extremism".

"The blunt reality is that both federal and state governments are rarely in a position to observe early signals of radicalisation," he told Fairfax Media.

The authorities in Australia have increasingly been grappling with the growing threat from a young cohort of extremists.

In the past year, there has been a string of terrorist attacks and thwarted plots involving Islamic extremists as young as 14.

These include the shooting in October of a police employee outside police headquarters in Sydney by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar, and a plot by five teens in Melbourne to conduct an attack in April.

Numerous teenagers have also gone to fight for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

To address the threat, the federal government in September launched a "Radicalisation Awareness Kit" - a 32-page booklet designed to assist schools in spotting students who are being radicalised.

It lists various warning signs such as hostility towards police and the government, commitment to a group or ideology, or a failure to relate to previous friends and family.

Some teachers criticised the booklet, saying it would promote fear and intolerance at schools.

One of the most controversial measures, however, is a proposed law to extend control orders to children as young as 14.

It would allow security agencies to impose restrictions on young terror suspects such as curfews, or electronic tags or restrictions on where they go or whom they associate with. Currently, the orders can be used only for people aged 16 and above.

The New South Wales Muslim Legal Network warned this week that the measures risked further alienating youths. "A purely legislative response to the issue of young people who may be prone to violent behaviour will never be effective," the network's head, Mr Zaahir Edries, told a parliamentary committee examining the laws.

Dr Cantali said the most effective approach was to try to identify young potential radicals and then enlist the support of their school, community and family.

"These kids need doctors, not police," she said.

This article was first published on December 18, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.