VIOLENT young Muslim men who took part in the Sydney riot two weeks ago could step up to become the next terrorists if they fall under the wrong influences, a senior Australian Federal Police officer says.
The assistant commissioner for counter-terrorism, Steve Lancaster, raised particular concerns about members of the Lebanese community, saying they were over-represented in the ''distorted Sunni Islamist ideology'' in Australia. While they comprise 23 per cent of the country's Muslim population, they make up 60 per cent of those arrested on terrorism charges, he said.
''Australian jihadis have fought overseas and have the ability to influence young and disaffected men here in Australia, trying to influence them to do something - that is the major risk,'' Mr Lancaster said at an international conference on terrorism and counter-terrorism in Melbourne yesterday. ''These people will be looking at the young men in the riots and could seek to recruit those with serious violent tendencies,'' he said.
The President of the Lebanese Muslim Association, Samier Dandan, said Mr Lancaster was demonising people based on prosecutions, not convictions, so the percentile of Lebanese could be lower when all the cases were heard. "You are innocent until proven guilty in this country. Is this how we are going to label the Muslim community?"
There are more than 470,000 Muslims listed on the latest census. Thirty eight people have been charged with terrorism offences in the past decade.
Ikebal Patel, the vice-president of Muslims Australia, said: "There's always the risk [of terrorist recruitment], but the Australian Muslim community is vigilant on external influences."
A spokesman for Al-Risalah, an Islamic bookshop and community centre in Bankstown whose members took part in the Sydney protests, said: ''It's a bit far-fetched to be honest. I have never heard of such a thing as an Australian jihadi.''
Mr Lancaster said the raids earlier this month on people associated with the al-Furqan bookshop in Melbourne showed terrorism was still a real threat, but the trend was moving from large, spectacular attacks to small, simple attacks.
He said the new lone-wolf mode of attack was even more challenging for security agencies. ''There are hard-core people who are not going to stop and probably need to be jailed to keep the community safer,'' he said.
International experts have suggested that many terrorists have a very superficial understanding of their cause, and Mr Lancaster said of the protesters that ''a small group just wanted to go and punch on with the coppers - straight-out hooliganism''. It took a quantum leap to go from talking about violence to being a terrorist.
Some Muslims in Australia had strong links with Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. ''When they return it is very difficult to find out what they've been up to and how extreme they have become. It's very difficult to assess what influence they will have in Australia. That's why it's important to have strong links with international authorities.''
Andrew Zammit, a researcher at Monash University's Global Terrorist Research Centre, told the conference that since 2003 Australia had only experienced self-starting plots, and the threat now came from groups and individuals more often inspired by al-Qaeda than directed by them.
It was not because Australia lacked jihadis, as dozens had travelled to train or fight overseas. The main factor was that global terrorism's ''middle management'', the people who linked the grassroots with the leadership and the overseas training camps, had been largely disrupted.
But if al-Qaeda or a like-minded group took power in Syria, that could be dangerous for Australia because of the Lebanese connection, he said.