The government in Canberra estimates 150 Australians have flown overseas to help militant groups, including the Islamic State. But the spiritual leader of Australia's Muslims says the efforts of local Imams have prevented many more would-be fighters from travelling to conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Islamic leaders said without their efforts the number of radicalized Muslims leaving Australia to join conflicts in Iraq and Syria would be 10 times the government’s most recent estimate.
Last month, authorities in Canberra said they had issued arrest warrants for two Australian fighters with the Islamic State group after one was pictured brandishing the severed heads of what appeared to be Syrian government soldiers.
One of the suspects, Khaled Sharrouf, who had been jailed in connection with a terrorist conspiracy to bomb Australia’s only nuclear reactor [in Sydney], has allegedly posted a picture from Syria of his seven-year-old son also holding aloft a severed head.
The image caused revulsion around the world, and came as Canberra considers new laws that would make it easier for police to detain and prosecute suspected extremists and require Australians to justify their travel to overseas areas of conflict.
But Professor Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, who as the head of the Imams Council speaks for many of Australia's half-million Muslims, believed his community could help steer the young away from extremism.
“These people should be re-educated. We are working on this. We have methods that work on the correction of their ideas. We try to cure them. Our educators are young men who are native speakers, who are born here and who are specialized in this field," he said.
Australia and the United States are to take their concerns about homegrown extremists to the United Nations next month to seek a global response. Canberra denies its proposed anti-terror laws will discriminate against the Muslim community.