Identifying Islamic Extremism: 10 Questions to Ask Suspects

Police are expected to help fight terrorism, but what should they be looking for? A 20-year FBI counterterrorism agent—who has interviewed over 500 Jihadists—highlights 10 warning signs that can help officers assess a person's level of radicalization. If officers suspect radicalization, here are 10 questions they can ask.

M Police Radicalization Pm 1

By Leischen Stelter, American Military University

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 and what signs show a person may have been radicalized? What questions should officers ask to better understand a person’s level of radicalization?

During the 2nd annual Gulf Coast INLETS seminar 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. Often an officer can get a sense of how radical a person is during a field interrogation (FI) or an actual formal interview. While no single action or discussion means a person has been radicalized, the combination of several factors should make officers suspicious.

10 Signs of Radicalization

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 them 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.”

10 Questions to Ask a Suspected Radical

Barker estimates he has interviewed more than 500 Jihadists during his FBI career. In his experience, someone who is radical cannot help but spew the propaganda they’re consuming. Officers can get a better sense of how radical someone is by asking them questions such as:

1. Help me understand, what is the actual definition of Kafir (infidel)?
2. What is your opinion about the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan/Palestine?
3. What do you believe would bring peace to the current world situation?
4. Which group (i.e. ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) knows the truth about Islam?
5. If there was one Islamic scholar who had it right, who would that be?
6. Can you explain what a caliphate actually is?
7. You seem like a man of action not just words, what can law enforcement do to better understanding Islam?
8. I heard this term "Tawheed" (monotheism), what does that actually mean?
9. Anwar al-Awlaki seemed like a charismatic leader, what is your opinion of him?
10. In your opinion, do you believe the U.S. should get involved in Iraq and Syria?

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 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.

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 Wednesday, June 14th 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, please contact


Fill out my online form.