Terrorists receiving religious counselling

CONVICTED terrorists are receiving intensive religious and welfare counselling in jails in a program targeted against future threats posed by those holding extremist Islamist views.

The program has been quietly implemented with mainstream imams - Muslim clerics - leading the charge against violent jihadist ideas.

Inmates who have voluntarily signed up for sessions include fringe preacher Abdul Nacer Benbrika who is serving a 15-year jail term for planning a terrorist attack in Melbourne in 2005.

In sentencing, the Victorian Supreme Court judge Bernard Bongiorno said in 2009 that Benbrika had taught his young followers that the destruction of unbelievers ''was an essential aspect of the Islamic religion''.

Several of his followers, since released from jail, are being compelled to participate in one-on-one counselling as part of strict parole conditions. Overall, 15 offenders are involved in the pilot program in and outside jail - although not all are convicted of terrorist offences. The participants are mostly in the 25-35 age group.

Leading the roster of imams is Abdinur Weli, from Melbourne's City Mosque. He said he had found the knowledge of mainstream Islam shown by offenders participating the program was ''very, very limited''.

''People need to get their knowledge from qualified religious scholars, rather than relying on individual understanding based on their reading of literal text.''

Victoria Police Senior Sergeant Joe Illardi, who used his PhD in terrorism studies to help shape the curriculum, said: ''The key here is religious engagement with respected and qualified imams within the Muslim community.

''[It] is about challenging and helping participants to engage in discussions centred on their beliefs, bearing in mind the focus is on beliefs which are central to their offending.''

He added: ''It's not a form of propaganda, it's not a form of deprogamming either, which has the connotation of the use of force or coercion.''

Sergeant Illardi said the program - which also has a strong welfare component where participants are helped to secure post-release employment, housing and psychological counselling services - was not a soft option.

He said the program, a first for Australia, was a valuable tool in a multipronged fight against terrorist threats. ''I would contend that it's an intelligent response to the problem [of terrorism]. Our involvement in this type of work does not diminish our commitment and involvement in more traditional forms of counterterrorism,'' he said.

''We don't have a system like Singapore where there is an internal security system which can leave individuals imprisoned until they are no longer deemed a 'security threat' …''

Nail Aykan, from the Islamic Council of Victoria, which administers the program, said the peak mosque organisation was involved as it was ''in the interest of Muslim community to tackle and eradicate extremist thoughts which may lead to violent offences''. ''There are 152,000 Muslims in Victoria and a handful of individuals create a negative image and potential backlash for our community.''

''All it takes is a handful to spoil all the good efforts that have taken place for social cohesion and harmony over the last several years, especially in the period post 9/11.''

Implemented without publicity in late 2010, the program is funded by the federal government and is overseen by a steering committee that includes the ethnic community leader Hass Dellall from the Australian Multicultural Foundation and state and federal police.

The Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Tim Cartwright said the program was ''very much dependent on the strength of the community connections''.

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