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Police countermeasures to extremism

From the anti-government movement to homegrown violent extremists, law enforcement faces both domestic and foreign-sourced challenges


Armed police move through the streets of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire during services at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

In October 2020, I gave a Zoom presentation to some 60 police chiefs in Illinois on the topic of extremism in the United States. This article attempts to formalize my findings so that they can be shared with a larger audience.

Extremism in America encompasses multiple participants:

1. Anti-government movement

One segment of radicalism is the anti-government movement. This highly diversified sphere of extremism comprises participants such as sovereign citizens, militias, anarchists and anti-police operatives. These radicals often target police either directly or while carrying out other illicit activities. The October 2020 arrest of Michigan militia members planning the kidnapping of the governors of Michigan and Virginia along with discussions to attack government targets illustrates the seriousness of these anti-government participants.

2. Hate groups and bias-based movements

Traditional hate groups and bias-based movements, principally those embracing variants of white nationalism, have gained prominence during the past few years.

In 2020, both the DHS and FBI deemed white nationalism and its adherents as the main domestic extremist threat in the United States. Between 2017-2019, the number of white nationalist hate groups (as designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center) rose by 55%. The FBI’s November 2020 release of hate crime statistics for 2019 notes 7,314 criminal acts (a 3% increase over the previous year) with a record 51 murders.

Other radicals, such as fringe ideologies and movements (e.g., Antifa, incels and QAnon) and single-issue adherents (e.g., extremist animal rights, environmentalists and anti-abortionists) are another segment of concern. In September 2020, for instance, an Antifa supporter shot and killed a Trump supporter in Portland.

The past several years have witnessed violence targeting Democrats and Republicans (e.g., Cesar Sayoc’s IEDs targeting over a dozen prominent Democrats in fall 2018 and James Hodgkinson’s shooting during a congressional Republican baseball practice in June 2017).

Unfortunately, violent rhetoric across political constituencies and radical elements therein have continued undeterred, aggravated during the fall 2020 elections and allegations of a rigged presidential election.

3. Foreign-aligned terrorism

Foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), like al Qaida, Islamic State and Hizballah, homegrown violent extremists (HGVEs) – those who ascribe to the goals of a foreign terrorist group, but act independently of it – and state-sponsors of terrorism with tentacles here all threaten the homeland.

The key risk among these participants here are HGVEs, mostly aligned with the Islamic State threats. Social isolation, marginalization, the pull of social media and the ease of embracement of extremist ideals, aggravated by COVID-19 stressors, will likely continue the threat in the coming years.

Factors inducing radicalism and attacks

Against this backdrop, multiple factors inducing radicalism and kinetic attacks are worth highlighting.

Radicals exploit social media seeding discord with misinformation and disinformation. Portions of the populace are mesmerized by such extremist precepts that offer easy solutions to baseless grievances blamed on newly found or long-targeted ascribed enemies. Perpetrators globally mimic terror targets and the means of attack irrespective of ideology.

Radicals may undertake their attacks in areas outside their geographical bases. Segments of radicals in the United States (e.g., some hate group actors and militias) can be characterized as accelerationists: those seeking to start an upheaval precipitated by a notable attack. Never underestimate the lethality arising from lone wolves, especially in causing mass casualty terror attacks (e.g., 23 killed at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, 11 murdered at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, and 49 killed at an Orlando nightclub in 2016).

The incoming Biden administration will have its hands full with these and unknown threats in the coming years.

Police responses

Foremost and initially, police management must be convinced that these threats merit. Administrations should allocate personnel and other resources that otherwise would focus solely on non-political crime to adjust their perspectives so that the latter are included in their work efforts.

Management should raise awareness of the threat and its negative implications to police officers and the community. Acknowledgment that common crimes can be associated with extremism (e.g., drugs, weapons and extortion) should buttress police personnel’s focus on radicals in their jurisdictions.

Threats to officer safety stemming from these non-traditional criminals must be emphasized with personnel. Attacks against cops by terrorists of varied ideological affiliations encompass spontaneous and pre-planned incidents across varied means of attack (e.g., gunfire, vehicle attacks and edged weapons) at diverse settings (e.g., while on the street, in a vehicle and at a precinct).

In May 2020, Boogaloo member Steven Carrillo shot and killed a Federal Protective Services officer in Oakland. The following month, Carrillo killed a sheriff’s deputy in Santa Cruz. Subsequently, he was captured and faces federal and state charges surrounding this death and other counts. Also, the risk to police arises while countering a violent incident by a sovereign citizen, militia member, hate-affiliated operative, a jihadist, or another culprit.

Multiple state statutes can be engaged to prosecute persons suspected of extremism. This is so even as federal prosecutions are often the mainstay of terrorism cases. Both federal and state laws may have applicability relative to an accused terrorist or hate crime perpetrator among others. The following crimes may have relevancy in prosecuting radicals: terrorism, sedition, gang membership, organized crime, hate crimes, arson, possession of unregistered explosives and stalking. As sometimes such fanatics are involved in precursor crimes or other criminality, their unlawful actions may span money laundering, weapons or drug offenses, fraud, extortion, identity theft, and human trafficking and smuggling.

Police agencies must use existing federal, regional, state, local, and tribal counterterrorism organizations and resources in their efforts to subvert terrorism locally. For instance, over 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, some 80 regional and state fusion centers, multiple drug and other specialized task forces, as well as anti-money laundering and counter-terror finance groups that can be engaged as relevant.

Likewise, the use of classified and non-classified intelligence databases along with submission to and accessing national suspicious activity reports (SARs) and suspicious transaction reports (via the Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) are useful tools. Of note, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database contains information about known or suspected terrorists. Daily there are some 55 traffic stops that get an NCIC hit on a suspected terrorist, meriting appropriate follow-up by police.

Some departments are of the incorrect mindset that extremist threats will never happen in their town. The lack of kinetic attacks, reported hate crimes, and silent terror fundraising and money laundering efforts are not indicative of the lack of radicalism in one’s community. Other jurisdictions may project terrorism is a concern nationally but not so locally.

Along with such thinking is the belief that while an acquaintance has characteristics otherwise meriting concern, the person is perceived as innocuous. Elsewhere, a suspect may engender the modes of radicalization, indicators of mobilization, and other attributes of extremism that are unrecognized. Preconceived perspectives of who might be a radical – even stereotyping – may cause wrong determinations such as false negatives and positives. Still, a police department may face multiple, more pressing challenges than extremism. In that setting, the issue is not a lack an awareness of the threat but a capacity to assuage it.

Police countermeasures

Police departments may craft multiple counterterrorism efforts that center on the public. They should focus on endeavors that detect radicalization and terror recruitment efforts (e.g., during a call for service, see if there are indications of extremist books, pamphlets, signs, and symbols or queries about recent travel).

Police should become well skilled at ferreting out individuals who have become mobilized (radicalized persons who support the use of violence in their efforts and intend to do so). This can be done by attending training on extremism as well as learning about the ideology, presence and activity of radicals in your area from open source, law enforcement sensitive, and other materials.

Although not foolproof, it is imperative that criminal analysts assess questionable behaviors that are dangerous independent of other considerations. For example, it would be wise to speak preliminarily (or monitor) an individual who declares online his interest in becoming a martyr or someone who has travel plans to a conflict zone.

1. Understand family influences

Paying attention to the prospect of family terror network-centered suspects is worthwhile, as this type of terrorism has become prominent globally. By understanding the influences of families on the creation of terrorists, incapacitating the likelihood of their involvement in terrorism is enhanced. Multiple family members have taken part in prominent U.S. extremist incidents such as the 2010 killing of two police officers during a traffic stop in Arkansas by the father and son (son did the shooting at the dad’s behest); the 2013 Boston Marathon attacks by the Tsarnaev brothers; the 2014 assassination of two Las Vegas police officers by husband and wife (Millers); and the 2015 San Bernardino shooting (spouses Farook/Malik).

2. Traffic stops, calls for service

Other successful countermeasures include pursuing traditional policing efforts like conducting traffic stops and responding to calls for service. These bread-and-butter policing functions should be carried out against a cognizance of well-known signs of terrorism: surveillance of and eliciting about a target, testing the security of an asset, acquiring supplies, fundraising, impersonation, conducting a dry run and getting into position for an attack.

3. Using informants

Using informants and undercover agents in building a case has relevancy as in other investigations. Informants and undercover agents are used in many extremist cases across all ideological spheres. In fall 2020, an undercover FBI employee posed as a member of Hamas while interacting with two anti-government operatives (Boogaloo Bois) in relation to the latter offering themselves as mercenaries to the FTO. The pair were accused of conspiring to provide material support to Hamas.

4. Leveraging technology

Police can leverage technology in their quest to combat terrorism. For example, they can monitor social media, use commercial and proprietary monitoring tools, and get search warrants for electronic devices, including phones and computers. Also, license plate readers, stingrays, infrared cameras, and explosive and metal detectors are among those technologies that can aid in disrupting radicalism.

Still, terrorists are skillful at diverse technologies to communicate, conduct command and control measures, and raise funds. Heightened capabilities with encryption and emerging technological developments often force authorities to play catch up.

The lack of cooperation by some companies in certain instances makes accessibility to terrorist data – even once a warrant has been issued – quite difficult.

5. Undermining fundraising

Center efforts on preventing the acquisition of extremist funding and other material support, such as the provision of weapons, safe houses, fake IDs, training and expert advice. Besides undermining fundraising through arrests (and convictions) of individuals involved in crimes that generate monies (e.g., drugs, weapons, human trafficking, fraud and kidnapping, to name a few), focus must be paid on the movement of these monies and interdicting money laundering efforts (when monies derive from illicit actions).

Consideration should also rest on stopping the next strike. It is imperative to initiate risk and vulnerability assessments so that damage from an attack is limited. Such security assessments examine the assets requiring protection, their vulnerability and criticality. It is paramount for jurisdictions to generate a list of the most prone government, private sector, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organization targets and encourage them to harden their sites.

6. Engage the public

Police departments should encourage the public’s involvement in combating terrorism. The public can recognize the signs of terrorism, inform police of their concern and aid them in preventing attacks. In particular, private industry can facilitate identifying suspicious behaviors, transactions and persons (employees and customers) that have a nexus with terrorism. Likewise, sustained, trust-infused, and impactful community policing efforts have a role in undermining and uncovering extremism, especially in otherwise alienated and marginalized populations. Fostering engagements with well-known, credible community leaders can contribute to increasing public vigilance and resilience to infiltration by radicals. Neighborhood policing can help develop sources, gain insights on suspicious persons and activities, and pinpoint where to use informants and undercover agents in future sting operations.

High profile involvement in communities can deter hate crimes and other extremism in the area, including through de-radicalization efforts. Additionally, once police cement ties with a neighborhood, they can build up bonds with particular households. In doing so, police can detect a family terror cell and encourage activities within the family to expunge radicalism that may exist or prevent infiltration of extremism within a home.


In the realm of extremism in the United States, law enforcement faces domestic and foreign-sourced challenges. The ability to confront these difficulties rests on responses internal to police departments and those necessitating efforts relative to the public.

Best practices in blunting terrorism must be followed rather than wasting resources reinventing the wheel. As the contributing factors to the existence of terrorism are diverse, the whole of society efforts (e.g., mental health, community and civic engagement, religious institutions and schools) must be sourced in order to achieve success. Terrorism can be undermined with the proper mindset, resolve and tools.

NEXT: How family terror networks impact terror attack investigations

Dean C. Alexander is professor/director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University and author of the recent book Family Terror Networks published in March 2019.