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Terrorism prevention: When radical beliefs translate into violent behavior

Indicators of radical-belief-based violence are cumulative. The more present, the greater the probability of violent behavior


A car is seen through the window of a pickup truck shattered by bullets fired during a police shootout with San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in San Bernardino, Calif.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

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By Jack A. Digliani, PhD, EdD
Police Psychologist

People around the world mourn the police officers and civilians killed during several recent terrorist events. Some of these events, involving nothing less than the premeditated assassination of police officers, are indicative of the tragic state of affairs confronting modern society.

What kind of person is capable of carrying out such violent acts? What mental states could drive a person to target police officers or to engage in the random killing of persons unknown to them? The answers to these questions are complex, multifaceted, group influenced and may be unique to the individual perpetrator.

Terrorism associated with a radical cause and a radical belief-system agenda

It is an unfortunate fact that nearly everyone in the world is familiar with the horrendous acts of radical-agenda terrorists. Persons involved in the implementation of radical-agenda-driven violence not only seek to kill others, they often seek to kill as many others as possible. These persons are indiscriminate in their killing. Their acts of violence include bombing, shooting, stabbing, vehicular homicide and other means to achieve their goal of killing.

While it is sometimes difficult to understand the appeal of belief systems that advocate the ruthless killing of others, there is no doubt there are individuals ready and willing to follow the direction of leaders espousing violence to achieve their radical-agenda goals. The perpetrators of this kind of violence willingly engage in murderous acts, sometime sacrificing themselves, in the name of agenda-driven personal or systemic beliefs. This is nothing new. Human beings have died and have killed in the name of their beliefs since recorded history. What is new though, is the effect that modern technology and social media has had and continues to have on the publicity and implementation of violent acts and violent radical agendas.

Understanding human behavior

Human beings are creatures of cognition, emotion and behavior. We perceive, think, reason, interpret, feel and act. We are self-aware and view ourselves and the world in myriad ways. There are many theories about how we come to see ourselves and the world as we do. The ways in which we view ourselves and the world can be a source of conflict with others that do not see themselves and the world similarly. In fact, human history is characterized by such conflict. It takes only a cursory examination of human history to become aware of the long-standing nature of disparate-belief human conflict. But human beings are complex. Therefore, it is no surprise that there is also historical record of remarkable peace and harmony among persons of differing views. Whether the views of different persons, groups, or societies create conflict or encourage toleration and harmony seems to depend upon the views themselves.

Individual beliefs

Views involve beliefs. So, to view the world as unsafe is simply another way of saying “I believe that the world is unsafe.” The belief that the world is unsafe will influence a person’s feelings and behavior. Therefore, if you believe that the world is unsafe you will likely experience anxiety, be suspicious, increase awareness of your surroundings, maybe arm yourself and limit travel. Of course, the belief that the world is unsafe is an over-generalized belief. Few persons would argue against the idea that some parts of the world seem safe, or at minimum, are safer than others. The relevant idea here is that beliefs (thoughts) cause or at least influence feelings. Together, beliefs and feelings drive behavior — any behavior. The behavior that beliefs can drive includes the public beheading of innocent persons, all while the act is being broadcast worldwide via social media. If we did not understand the power of belief and associated emotion, such acts would be as incomprehensible as they are abhorrent.

When are beliefs translated into behavior? Practically all the time. Human conduct typically reflects the core beliefs that underlie individual behavior. This is true despite the fact that humans are capable of acting contrary to their beliefs.

When are radical violent beliefs translated into radical violent behavior? When they reach a subjective belief-to-action threshold.

Predicting radical-belief-based violent behavior

Accurately predicting radical-belief-based violence is challenging. This is largely because many indicators or warning signs of radical-belief-based violence are observed in persons that do not engage in such violence. This diminishes the predictive value of these indicators, even if they are commonly observed in radical-belief-based violent behavior.

Detection of imminent planned violence

Detecting imminent planned violence is also challenging. Like all radical-belief-based violence, there are few definitive indicators. To increase the probability of imminent planned violence detection, police officers must remain alert to persons that are in restricted or unusual locations, are in places during an unusual time of day, are avoidant or attempt to conceal themselves upon being seen by officers, are acting oddly within the social context, seem unduly nervous or stressed, are carrying backpacks or bags in conjunction with seeming nervous or stressed and are dressed in clothing that appears inappropriate for weather conditions, such as wearing concealing jackets on hot days.

Indicators or warning signs of radical-belief-based violence

Indicators of radical-belief-based violence are cumulative. The more present, the greater the probability of violent behavior. Keep in mind that for some persons there may be no outward indicators of such violence, and even when present, many indicators are not easily observed. Circumstances that increase the probability of radical-belief-based violence include:

1. A history of violence and antisocial behavior
2. Personal identification with a perceived persecuted group
3. A narrowing perception or tunnel-thinking about group ideology
4. An increasing sense of group member persecution
5. Open communication about wrongs perpetuated upon group members
6. Perceived attacks against strongly held beliefs and group ideology
7. Association with persons known to hold radical and use-of-violence beliefs
8. Talk of violence against perceived persecutors or symbolic representatives
9. Talk of needing to respond to a “call to arms” or violence issued by leaders
10. Attempts to solicit others to engage in radical-agenda violence
11. Growing acceptability of harming or killing others to further the group agenda
12. Conviction of mandate by higher power to kill non-believers or non-followers
13. Withdrawal from persons that do not hold similar radical and violent beliefs
14. Increased amount of time viewing radical agenda websites and newsfeeds
15. Increased participation in organized radical-belief group activities or rituals
16. Increased agitation and frustration with the status quo; increasing indignation
17. Frequent unwarranted visits to soft or known potential extremist targets
18. Checking and testing potential-target security personnel
19. Checking potential-target camera and surveillance systems
20. Past or recent travel to countries or locations known to train extremists
21. Prior arrests or imprisonment for radical-agenda behavior
22. The occurrence of a perceived trigger or last-straw event
23. Searching social media for bomb-making or weapon construction information
24. Acquisition of or attempts to acquire firearms, explosives or other weapons
25. Creating a plan for violence; may range from simple to complex

World leaders, politicians and governments, law enforcement agencies, national militaries and every responsible citizen must come together to combat radical-belief-based violence. This includes opposing any political or belief-system agenda that advocates the murder and extinction of others simply because they embrace different beliefs.

Law enforcement officers:

1. Stay true to the ideals of fair and equitable law enforcement and protection for all persons. Do not forget why you do what you do.

2. Remain alert. This is a trying time for law enforcement officers in America and throughout the world. Conscientiousness is the first line of defense against those who might look to harm or kill police officers. Policing has never been risk free. Use your training, tactics and technology to increase your officer safety margin.

3. Avoid shutting out concerned spouses and family members. Talk to them about the challenges and dangers currently facing law enforcement officers. Include discussion of how you and your department are managing these dangers.

Law enforcement spouses and other family members:

1. Talk to your officer about your views, fears, and any other concerns. Avoid suppressing your feelings. You do not have cope with your feelings alone.

2. Arrange for “check in” calls or texts from your officer during the officer’s shift if needed to manage your anxiety. Make the arrangement flexible as officer’s work demands are variable. This makes strict check-in routines impractical.

3. Keep in mind that officers know the risks of the job. They accept the risks and are trained to manage them.

4. Trust your law enforcement officer to keep himself or herself safe.


1. Talk to your children about the importance of education, avoiding drug use and gang involvement, peer pressure, appropriate social behavior, and respecting others. Make it safe for your children to talk to you.

2. Do not overwhelm young children with information they are not yet capable of processing or understanding. This is especially true for children that have been frightened by reports of terrorism and other violence. If they fear for the safety of their police-officer parent, discuss their fears and provide reassurance in an age appropriate manner.

3. Most importantly, model the behavior that you wish from your children.