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Counter-terrorism police ‘encouraged an autistic boy’s fascination with ISIS’ – and then charged him

An autistic boy with an IQ of 71 and a fascination with ISIS was encouraged to carry out extremist acts by undercover police, and then charged with terror offences over a photograph.

A copy of an October decision to permanently stay the charges by Victorian children’s court magistrate Lesley Fleming was recently released and viewed by the Guardian, and reveals the counter-terrorism unit’s conduct fell “profoundly short” of minimum standards.

The boy, 13, who had complex mental health issues, was reported to police in April 2021 and eventually charged with two terror offences by the Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) – made up of ASIO, Victoria Police and Australian Federal Police members.

“The community would not expect law enforcement officers to encourage a 13-14 year old child towards racial hatred, distrust of police and violent extremism, encouraging the child’s fixation on ISIS,” Ms Fleming said.

“The conduct engaged in by the JCTT and the AFP falls so profoundly short of the minimum standards expected of law enforcement offices [sic] that to refuse this [stay] application would be to condone and encourage further instances of such conduct.”

Ms Fleming found the police engaged in “subterfuge” to conduct a “deliberate, invasive and totally inappropriate search” of the boy’s bedroom, and deliberately waited until he was 14 to charge him to make make it more difficult to defend himself on the grounds of being a child with lowered criminal responsibility.

The boy’s parents initially requested police assistance because he had asked his mother to buy bomb-making ingredients and was watching ISIS videos, and Victoria Police started to work with the boy and his family.

A psychologist told the boy’s case manager that ISIS appeared to be a “fixated interest” and needed to be considered in context of his autism and “possible cognitive impairment”. The boy’s phone showed he also appeared fascinated with the Chinese Communist Party, but did not contain Quranic verses or religious imagery.

Three months later the JCCT started their own operation targeting the boy, which involved an undercover officer posing as young Muslim man from NSW and a more extreme individual from overseas.

The online covert operative told the court his aim was to chat with the boy to “ascertain his intent if any” and gather evidence that could be used to charge him.

He told the court the boy was living an online “fantasy life” and asked naïve questions, including whether he could join the kid’s version of ISIS.

Ms Fleming said the boy’s rehabilitation was “doomed” as soon as contact with the undercover operative began, and found they “fed his fixation”.

The chats, conducted over a 71-day period and amounting to 1400 pages, culminated with the “seasoned” JCCT operative’s extremist persona encouraging the boy to kill an AFP member or make a bomb.

In August 2021 the boy sent the undercover cop a photo of himself in school uniform holding a knife with ISIS written on it with marker pen. He was charged less than two months later.

He was initially granted bail but then spent three months behind bars after failing to comply with conditions.

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