The tale of the try-hard jihadist

Caroline Zielinski [and] Lindsay Murdoch

It is difficult to believe that one of Australia’s most wanted religious extremists, Musa Cerantonio, grew up in a big, Catholic Italian family of six in a suburb in Melbourne’s west.

It is equally surprising that the man who supports jihadists once dreamt of becoming a professional football star.

Mr Cerantonio, 29, or, as he was known then, Robert Cerantonio, was a typical teenager who did what adolescents are wont to do: he attended what was then known as Footscray Technical College, he partied, drank alcohol, went on dates with girls and played footy with his mates.

So what happened to turn this otherwise regular teen, who was arrested in the Philippines on Friday [11 July] and faces deportation to Australia, into one of Australia’s most radical preachers?

A family friend, who declined to be named, told The Sunday Age that Mr Cerantonio’s rising infamy as an Islamic preacher was a shock to the family. “I knew that he’d become a Muslim, but not to this extreme,” he said. “To be one of these radicals . . . he’s just off his head,”

The friend, who knew Mr Cerantonio when as a child, said he was a “real fantastic kid” who “could have played professional AFL”.

“The Western Jets wanted him to try out for them when he was about 15 or 16. He was a good looking boy, just a normal kid. I don’t know what

The friend said that once in high school, Mr Cerantonio would “hang out with Muslims”, but that he could not recall him acting unusually. “He was a regular kid who liked girls and going out with friends,”

While Mr Cerantonio’s Italian father and Irish mother have declined to comment on their son’s predicament, the friend told The Sunday Age that all they wished for was to see their son safe and home after years of separation.

A father to at least two young daughters, Mr Cerantonio has been estranged from his family for nearly a decade, the friend said.

The radical preacher, regarded as one of the top propagandists for jihad, recently had his Facebook page shut down for urging Muslims to kill Western leaders and for encouraging young Australians to risk their lives in Syria and Iraq.

He was arrested on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines, early on Friday morning after being pursued by the Australian Federal Police for possible charges under Australia’s Foreign Incursions Act, which prohibits fighting with foreign para-military organisations, including recruiting others.

During a conference detailing his conversion to Islam five years after the event, Mr Cerantonio spoke of his journey from an increasingly faithless Catholic to faithful Muslim, referring to his upbringing as “Catholic by name only”.

“We weren’t very practising, and whilst we were Catholic by name, we didn’t go to church except on Christmas or Easter, or when someone died or was getting married,” he said. “And while I loved all the [Bible] stories, I didn’t have the access to turn that love into religious action.”

Mr Cerantonio, who attended a small Catholic primary school in Footscray before enrolling in the former Footscray Technical College, described his high school as “a very liberal school”, influenced by the politics of socialism. In what Mr Cerantonio described as a “socialist and atheist” atmosphere, the teenager soon began seeking solace in religion.

When Mr Cerantonio was 15, he visited the Vatican to strengthen his faith in Christianity, but was disappointed by what he saw.

“I began to question the role of the Pope in the Catholic Church . . . and saw people praying to a dead body [embalmed body of a Pope].

There was idol worship at the home of my faith . . . and I felt in my heart that this was not right.”

When he returned home, Mr Cerantonio began reading about other religions. With encouragement from his Muslim friends, the teenager’s interest in Islam grew, eventually leading him to convert in 2002, at age 17.

Since then, it is understood, Mr Cerantonio has studied history and communications, as well as being the president of the Islamic Society at Victoria University.