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External Signs of Radicalization and Jihadist Militancy

Is it possible to know if we are before a jihadist judging solely by exterior appearances?

It is, in fact, very difficult to respond to this question in a definitive way. Certain appearances (referring as much to style of dress as observable behavior) can indicate a symptom that an individual is experimenting (o has already completed) a process of jihadist radicalization. That is, a process through which the person incorporates jihadi values and joins active militancy in an individual manner (exceptional “lone wolf” cases) or in a group.

But the problem lies in that external appearances usually only constitute weak indications. There is a risk in attempting to catalogue an individual as jihadist through a superficial test for the following reasons:

Many Muslims that sincerely reject jihadism also dress in a way similar to or observe the same religious practices as jihadists. Therefore, certain customs of jihadists are not exclusive to them, but shared with thousands of people who wish to live their beliefs in a pacifistic and coherent way. For example, it would be unreasonable and erroneous to claim that a particular Muslim is “fundamentalist” (and susceptible to becoming a jihadist) because they fast during Ramadan, abstain from drinking alcohol or observe with regularity the five daily prayer orations. Simply, this Muslim is a person who practices their faith.

Certain customs, like letting a beard grow long, dressing in a jelaba or even using the tasbih (Islamic rosary), are not only particular to many Muslims but also to individuals who have nothing to do with Islam.

In the cases of authentic jihadists, some symptoms are apparent during the process of radicalization. Nonetheless, normally is once that individual has been incorporated into a jihadist group (and especially if this group is planning to execute a terrorist action), strives to pay special attention to appearances, avoiding all signs that could be related to radicalism. In extreme cases this can could mean the violation of Islamic norms like the drinking of alcohol or the consumption of pork. The recourse to this strategy does indeed constitute a warning sign, but to discern if the behavior is genuine, it is necessary that security agencies have conducted surveillance on the individual in question for some time.

The global jihadist movement is not homogenous. Internally, there exists diverse doctrinal currents and as a consequence, the external aspects of their religious and militant practices also vary. At the same time, the behavior of the organizations, networks and subgroups of which they are composed differ from one to another. The decentralized nature of the global jihadist movement, at a macro level, prevents us from talking about a sole modus operandi in what are referred to as “terrorist techniques” and common customs of religious inspiration.

Lastly, the application of the norms and customs also depends on the degree of indoctrination, of radicalization and of actual commitment of the individuals. It is necessary to add that the jihadists experience the incoherencies, weaknesses and contradictions intrinsic to any human being, therefore, at times some of their actions can go against their inner convictions, but this does not mean that they do not possess them. 

In spite of these limitations, the attentive observation of certain signs can be useful at the time of initiating or determining the scope of investigations about processes of jihadist radicalization. Above all, noting if some of these signs occur simultaneously in an individual and, especially, if they are witnessed in group behaviors like those that will be detailed in the following pages can be particularly useful. The objective of this Jihad Monitor Occasional Paper consists of compiling and commenting briefly on some of these types of signs.

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