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Threat of young people, mainly men, joining extremist groups 'very real', security expert says

A New Zealand security expert says the threat of young people, mainly teenage boys and young men, being inclined to join extremist groups is "very real" as some personalities get sucked into an online "vortex".

Laptop computer (file picture). Source: istock.com

However, Paul Buchanan told 1 NEWS there is a good and bad side to the shift to a younger demographic.

His comments come after three young men face possible terrorism charges in Melbourne following an assault and fire.

Assistant Commissioner Scott Lee of the Australian Federal Police's counter-terrorism and special investigations unit told AAP with all three suspects aged 20 or under, counter-terrorism teams across the globe are encountering a "younger and younger" demographic, with the Covid-19 pandemic pushing more kids online and exacerbating the problem.

Neither NZ Police or the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service would confirm to 1 NEWS if there had been an increase in tracking younger people. But an SIS spokesperson did say "online platforms where people express and share extremist views tend to attract a younger audience".

"We work to identify and investigate individuals and groups who hold violent extremist views, and then make an assessment of both their intent and capability to actually carry out acts of terrorism. NZSIS is unable to comment on particular areas of focus or investigations."

A police spokesperson reiterated that "the internet can be a key tool for those who seek to cause harm through terrorism and extremism".

"From a New Zealand Police perspective, no one particular age group is over-represented in terms of counter-terrorism and extremist activity and intelligence.

"Violent extremism and terrorism is highly concerning irrespective of the age of those who perpetrate it. Police and our partners work hard to identify and investigate any concerning activity."

Meanwhile, Buchanan said there is a "silver lining" if there is in fact a shift to younger demographics.

"The good news is that the young are by and large easier to catch, particularly so with this TikTok/Instagram generation. That is because teens and 20-somethings like to boast and be recognised as a form of self-affirmation and self-worth validation.

"This makes them careless online as well as in person, which in turn helps security authorities to distinguish between those who talk and those who act, those who are doers and those who are not, those who are leaders and those who are followers.

"There are plenty of psychological profiles in the intelligence community with which to develop threat profiles from what is canvassed online. So the younger they get, the more likely ideological extremists will trip up and be discovered because they are psychologically unable to maintain the level of security required to carry out successful irregular warfare operations such as terrorist attacks."

Buchanan said it was bad enough, though, that many young people - again usually male - were using violent interactive games for entertainment, stress relief and fantasy fulfullment, but he added that such games could be highly addictive for some personalities.

"The obsession can be detrimental to the individual as well as those around him," he said.

"Some obsessions become political and ideological-fixations on who is to blame for the world's ills and on how to fix the 'problems' that they cause.

"Then you must factor into account that both jihadists and white supremacists, and others, use interactive gaming as a recruiting device, luring people to be more extreme in their character stereotyping and urging them to carry over their online personas into real life.

"This is, to say the least, not good when imparted on impressionable teenage minds - or anyone else, for that matter - but it is the young who get sucked into the vortex."

Buchanan said it was then "a short leap" from such platforms to extremist forums like 4chan and 8chan.

"So yes, the problem of younger people getting radicalised into extremism online and acting violently as a result is real.

"Other forms of radicalisation remain, say, in churches or via criminal gangs, drug networks, etcetera. But these are increasingly superseded by the online process because the latter does not expose the recruiter or recruitee to outside scrutiny."