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10 Ways Police Can Identify Radical Extremism

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Police officers around the country understand they are an important element in the fight against terrorism. But what does that entail? How can an officer identify potential terrorist activity? What should officers look for as signs a person may have been radicalized?

[Related: Training Police in Counterintelligence to Combat Domestic Terrorism]

During the 2nd annual Gulf Coast INLETS seminar in April in New Orleans, Brig Barker, who spent 20 years as a counterterrorism agent with the FBI and is considered an expert on the Jihadist mindset, gave a presentation called Homegrown Violent Extremists: Counterterrorism Strategies for Law Enforcement.

During this session, he discussed some of the signs of radicalization that officers should look for during their normal duties. For example, officers need to be on the lookout for books and magazines that promote the ideology of terrorist leaders and Jihadist scholars. “If you see certain propaganda during a traffic stop, you need to recognize it and be able to evaluate it,” said Barker.

[Related:  Understanding Homegrown Extremists]

Officers should have a basic working knowledge of popular and influential terrorist leaders as well as of historical Jihadist scholars especially during traffic stops, search warrants, and parole/probation searches. This way, if they see such materials while on duty, they’ll recognize there’s a greater chance that person has been radicalized. Officers should be concerned if they see materials from such historical scholars such as:

  • Sayed Qutb
  • Abdullah Azzam
  • Ibn Taymiyya
  • Ibn Abd Al Wahab
  • Abul Maududi
  • Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi

In addition, any materials below could also indicate someone is heading down the road of radicalization:

  • Dabiq or Rumiyah magazines. These publications are well-produced, glossy propaganda publications that aim to recruit Jihadists. You can learn more about these magazines and safely read issues at the Clarion Project website.
  • Inspire. This publication is published by Al-Qaeda In the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and used to promote radical views.
  • Materials featuring the teachings of Salafi-Jihadism which promotes strict adherence to Islamic doctrine.
  • “The Management of Savagery” by Abu Bakr Naji. This book has Jihadi rhetoric and is focused on justifying the use of violence. Learn more at the McKenzie Institute.

These resources provide aspiring terrorists with a poisonous and action-based ideology coupled with tangible training to carry out attacks. They include information on everything from how to identify local soft targets and building IEDs to how to recruit others in furtherance of building out networks.

10 Factors Indicating Radicalization

An officer can also get a sense of how radical a person is during a field interrogation (FI) or an actual formal interview. Barker, who interviewed more than 500 jihadists during his FBI career, knows that radicals cannot help but spew the propaganda they’re consuming. While no single book, action or discussion means a person has been radicalized, the combination of several factors should make officers suspicious. Barker highlighted 10 points that can help an officer determine a person’s level of radicalization. As a caveat, these factors should be considered in totality—one indicator alone will not provide the full story as to how radical one may be.

  1. Religiosity: Does religion dictate this person’s life? Do they unerringly go to mosque five times a day? Do they have a scar on their forehead from contacting their head on the ground during prayers? Such overzealous commitment may be a sign of radicalization.
  2. Fixation on Islamic theology: Do they always want to talk about Islamic theology? Are they hyper-focused on the nuances of the teachings and following it literally? Officers should build rapport with individuals and “play the student” to learn how enmeshed the person is in this theology.
  3. Black and white belief system: Do they uphold a strict belief system with no room for interpretation? Often radical believers see the world in black and white without room for gray.
  4. Shedding of Western ways: Are they suddenly growing their beard out? Stopped wearing Western-style clothes? Have they stopped sleeping on a bed and sleep only on the floor? The more radical someone becomes, the more they may be shedding Western ways. Barker calls this the Haram corridor.
  5. Language of Jihad: Officers should listen carefully to the words that only radicals would use. Those who are radicalized are often so immersed in reading theology that they can’t help but use the same language. If someone is moderate, they generally won’t use the language of these teachings.
  6. Apathy: Has this person started disregarding other aspects of their life? Are they often late for work? Are they intently focused on seeing religious meanings in everything? Have they developed new vices?
  7. Mentorship: In Barker’s experience, individuals don’t become radicalized all on their own. There is generally someone walking them down the path toward radicalization. While people love to blame the Internet for radicalizing people, said Barker, there’s always a person guiding him in that direction.
  8. Physical appearance: Has his appearance recently changed? Is he growing his beard out without allowing his moustache to fall below his upper lip? Is he wearing his pants above his ankles? While appearance alone doesn’t mean he has been radicalized, it should be considered in totality as part of the overall investigation.
  9. Propaganda: What books and materials is he consuming? If a person is moderate, they are not consuming some of the propaganda mentioned in the section above.
  10. Travel history: Has the person gone to Yemen or Morocco to study Arabic? Such travels may mean they want to better understand the teachings from more radical scholars in the Middle East.

While most of these points focus on the radicalization of men, Barker emphasized that police shouldn’t discount the radicalization of women. “We’ve seen an uptick in ISIS recruiting women, so don’t rule out the female side of this,” he said. “They fall prey to the same propaganda and are being mentored by other radical females.”

If officers identify someone whom they suspect may be radicalized, Barker said they should contact the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) with as much detail as possible. Then, police should be diligent in seeking to collaborate with the JTTF because local police understand the territory and the community better than the federal agencies.

Further Training on Radical Extremism

Since his retirement from the FBI in 2016, Barker remains passionate about combating terrorism. He founded the company Red Rock Global Security Group, which develops tools to help law enforcement disrupt terrorist attacks. “If officers better understand what to look for in the field, then they’re not operating in the dark,” he said.

[Related: Why Education is Key in Law Enforcement’s Response to Terrorism]

Barker also remains active in the field. He’s teaching a webinar for law enforcement, Understanding the Jihadist Mindset: Pre-Attack Flags and Indicators of Islamic Extremism on Thursday, May 18th from 1-2pm (ET). Sign up to attend this webinar.

He also co-wrote an innovative training program that uses virtual-reality technology to train police on how to identify signs of radicalization. The training is called DIRT, Digital Immersion Reality Training, and the first training session, The Path to Radicalization, is being launched at the Mid-Atlantic INLETS seminar on June 19-23 in Annapolis, Maryland. To learn more about any of these trainings, please contact

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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