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Mapping the Route to Violent Extremism

Mapping the Route to Violent Extremism


By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety

Police officers play a crucial role in identifying terrorist threats, but making a judgement on whether someone is going to be violent in the future is challenging. “It’s like peeling back layers of an onion to see what’s there,” said a Supervisory Special Agent of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU).

In June, the BAU Unit-3 for Crimes Against Children (BAU-3) gave a presentation entitled “Behavioral Assessment of Violent Extremists” at the Mid-Atlantic Intel and Law Enforcement Training Seminar (INLETS). The presentation focused on understanding homegrown violent extremism and why certain individuals turn to violence.

“We always get asked about the profile of a violent extremist,” the BAU-3 said. “It’s not so easy. There’s no checklist and there’s no profile.”

[Related: Understanding the Mind of Mass Shooters: Psychological Autopsy]

Instead, they described the route to violent extremism as a dynamic, fluid process. There are multiple influencing factors that could take someone from a regular youth, to a radicalized individual, to a person mobilized to commit violence.

Understanding Radicalization

When an individual becomes radicalized, they essentially believes that violence is justified. However, this does not mean they have taken, or will ever take, violent action. “At this point, it’s just thoughts,” explained the BAU-3. “No laws have been broken or crimes committed.”

[Related: 10 Ways Police Can Identify Radical Extremism]

Radicalization is similar to many of the socially appropriate fixations that young people commonly experience. For example, consider the actions of a 13-year-old boy who becomes a devoted football fan. He might spend hours reading about the sport online, talking about it, following famous football players, and even seeking out others who share his feelings.

Such fixations or obsessions are easy to fall into and those in their teens to early 30s are the most susceptible, said the BAU-3. This age range is also the most susceptible to radicalization. Additional factors put some individuals more at risk than others:

  • Five personality traits – Individuals who become radicalized tend to be open, introverted, conscientious, stable, and agreeable.
  • Cognitive distortions – A slow, incremental process where they can make excuses for violence and then start expanding those reasons for violence.
  • Family upbringing – This impacts push and pull dynamics (e.g. pushed because they have a difficult home life or pulled because they want to be a part of something bigger)

In addition, some common indicators of radicalization include:

  • Moral outrage over conflict – Usually a group-based grievance comes first (e.g. the belief that the West shouldn’t be in other countries or anger over the Israel vs Palestine conflict). Individual grievance comes later and the combination can be very concerning.
  • Religiosity – Religiosity and radicalization can appear to go hand-in-hand. However, just because someone is very committed to their faith doesn’t mean they’re radicalized. In addition, a lot of people believe violence is justified but that doesn’t mean they will commit violence themselves.
  • Indoctrination/socialization into extremism – They start consuming a lot of propaganda, which can be very effective at inducing shame and guilt in young people. It’s also common to see a transition from internet searches to encrypted conversations in chat rooms.
  • Adoption of a holy cause – This is when individuals start taking more action, like changing the style of their clothes to more traditional garb. Their ideas are no longer only rooted in a political or social cause.
  • Demonize adversary – They start to see conflict as “us against them” and begin limiting their world (e.g. many radicalized individuals leave their mosques because they become frustrated that its beliefs are not extreme enough).
  • Recruiting others into the religion – They actively work to share information about their beliefs and try convincing others to embrace their religious perspectives.

Mobilization to Violence

The BAU-3 emphasized that it’s important to differentiate between radicalization and violent extremism. “Individuals can be radicalized for years but never mobilize,” they said. “People can also mobilize for a different reason than radicalization.”

In cases where radicalization does lead to violent extremism, the steps that lead the individual to carry out an attack typically follow this path:

Grievance → Ideation → Research & Planning → Preparation → Breach → Attack

It’s important to keep in mind that this path is not necessarily one directional. An individual can start and stop anywhere along the path and revert back and forth between violent and non-violent ideation. The length of time on the path can also vary from a few months to many years.

Those who progress very quickly tend to be cases involving teenagers. “If there are signs of mobilization in a juvenile you get right on it because they can be very impulsive,” the BAU-3 said. “How many times do you see your teenage son or daughter change their mind about something overnight?”

The BAU has identified 55 indicators of mobilization. The most common indicators include:

  • Preparing a last will or martyrdom video
  • Seeking religious justification for violent acts
  • Attempting to mobilize others, especially family members and close friends
  • Paying off debts
  • Attempting to hide behavior
  • Acquisition of pre-cursors
  • Intense interest in previous attacks
  • Sudden withdrawal from their normal pattern of life
  • Expressing acceptance of violence to achieve ideological goals

A situation becomes dangerous when the individual starts to see violence as a legitimate option, the only option, and sees oneself as someone who will act, said the BAU-3.

Law Enforcement Response

It is never easy to predict the actions of a violent individual, but law enforcement has become very good at hardening targets. Often this makes it impossible for attackers to go after their ideal target from a tactical perspective, so they will research multiple targets and go for soft targets. They may also maintain multiple targets.

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

When investigating individuals who might have the potential for violent extremism but have yet to mobilize, the BAU-3 advises officers to tread cautiously. “Don’t create individual grievance and don’t become the grievance,” they warned. “Have a plan before interviewing or talking to someone.”

The focus of law enforcement’s response should be on assessing the threat that individuals present and having a strategy to deal with it. “Don’t think about risk assessment in terms of high, low or moderate risk,” they said. “Think about how you can manage and disrupt whatever risk is present.”

“Think holistically. These aren’t robots, they’re humans.”

About the Author: Jinnie Chua is the assistant editor at In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She graduated from New York University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Sociology. At In Public Safety, Jinnie covers issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. She can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu.



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