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START domestic radicalization data replicated by Australian research team

One of START’s domestic radicalization datasets has been replicated in Australia by a research team from the University of Queensland.

Professor Adrian Cherney and Senior Research Assistant Emma Belton headed up the team, which modelled the Profiles of Individual Radicalisation in Australia (PIRA) dataset after START's Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset.

The PIRA dataset uses open source materials to captures over 100 different variables on individuals who have radicalized to violent extremism in Australia from 1985 to 2020.

“I had always kept myself up to date with the research that START produces,” Cherney said. “I’ve used PIRUS for my own research and for teaching. The size of the PIRUS dataset and the public-facing part of it was always very useful.”

The development of PIRA grew out of an interest in replicating PIRUS, but also to provide an opportunity to do comparative analysis on the data between the two countries.

“I’ve spent about two years working on PIRA,” Belton said. “I’ve been working with other research assistants to compile it, and to accommodate for contextual differences, because obviously America and Australia are different.”

One such difference is reflected in the size of the datasets, with PIRUS including over 2,200 individuals and PIRA including over 240 individuals.

“In Australia we don’t have as much of a prevalence of radicalization as in the US, and when we do it’s very publicized,” Belton said. “The cases in Australia also tend to be more violent in nature. We don’t have the in-between people that you see in the US, who may be members of extremist organizations but don’t commit violent acts.”

The team has published a journal article with preliminary data from PIRA, “Understanding youth radicalization: an analysis of Australian data.”

“For the paper we decided to focus on individuals under the age of 19 in the dataset,” Cherney said. “PIRA has a low percentage of missing data with radicalized youths – because these cases are so high profile, there’s a lot of reporting on them.”

One surprising finding from PIRA was that, contrary to leading criminological theories, the family context failed to be a protective influence for radicalized youths.

“Many of the youths were not isolated from family members, which suggests that the family environment is not necessarily a buffer against radicalization risk,” Cherney said. “Some family members are indifferent, or may even be the source of radicalization.”

The PIRA dataset is funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, a four-year research fellowship which Cherney received to study countering violent extremism and radicalization risk.

The research team was unable to engage in field work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and so adjusted their focus to developing PIRA.

“Our team also includes our research assistants Jack Milts, Tayla Barber and Amy Templar, who did a great deal of work on PIRA over the past few months,” Belton said. “The profiles can be tedious, and they do take a long time, so our research assistants are essential to doing our work well.”

The PIRA team hopes to complete the current profiles in the dataset by the end of the year, and eventually expand PIRA and create a public-facing dataset like PIRUS. The team is also seeking funding to add the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment (VERA-2R) tool to the variables in their dataset, in order to assess the tool’s validity and reliability.

“The VERA-2R assessment tool is used quite extensively here, but there hasn’t been a lot of research to determine if it’s applicable to radicalized individuals in Australia,” Cherney said.

To see Cherney and Belton’s webinar with START on preliminary PIRA data relating to background characteristics and risk factors for radicalization, view the recording here.