CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia has a bigger portion of Muslim youths at risk of turning to radical Islam than any other Western nation, with up to 3,000 in “ideological sleeper cells” in Sydney alone, a government-backed study said on Monday.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 youths, or about 1 percent of Sydney’s 200,000-strong Muslim population, had already been targeted by radical Islamic teachers, with some at risk of making the jump to militancy, the research said.
“The radical teaching base here is relatively stronger than you might expect it to be in the UK, the Middle East or the U.S.,” study author Mustapha Kara-Ali told Reuters.
“The youth community here is vulnerable and could be acted upon for recruitment and further radicalization.”
Australia has around 340,000 Muslims, or around 1.6 percent of the 21 million population.
But the percentage of radicalized Muslim youths was bigger than the United States or the UK, where the ideological pool was of similar size, but off a 1.6 million base, Kara-Ali said.
Kara-Ali, a member of Prime Minister John Howard’s Muslim advisory board, said it was far harder for radicals to spread an extremist message in other countries, where moderate groups were well placed to resist their message.
“The Muslim community is relatively new in Australia. Given that, there isn’t an established moderate Islamic order with deep roots in the community and the extremists are exploiting this,” he said.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, has never experienced a militant attack on home soil, although more than 20 people have been arrested and accused of terrorism-related offences.
The country’s top Shia Muslim cleric said last week he supported the Hizbollah militant group and attacked the Australian government for “defending terrorism” because of its support for Israel.
Howard said on Monday Australia was harboring would-be militants with the desire to emulate attempted car bombs in London over the weekend and the attack on Glasgow airport.
“We shouldn’t delude ourselves that there aren’t a small number of people in our own community who would want to do this country harm if they got the opportunity,” he said.
Australia’s Muslim clerics have been involved in a string of recent controversies, straining relations with both moderates and the wider community.
Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly stepped down as mufti of Australia last month after comments seen as justifying rape and saying Muslims had a greater right to be in Australia than white Australians of convict heritage.
Kamal Mousselmani, head of the Supreme Islamic Shia Council of Australia, prompted more outrage with his declaration of support for militant group Hizbollah.