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Back to Archives | Back to April 2010 Contents 

Policing with Muslim Communities in the Age of Terrorism

By Mark G. Stainbrook, Lieutenant, Los Angeles, California, Police Department

he Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), like many U.S. law enforcement agencies, recognizes that Muslim communities, whether in Somalia where extremists are radicalizing Americans to their cause or here in the United States, are subject to significant internal and external political, cultural, and religious pressures that make positive police-community relations difficult to achieve. In recognition of such challenges, counterterrorism and community policing need not be mutually exclusive terms; to the contrary, local police should redouble outreach efforts to American Muslim communities if they are going to effectively address terrorism and the communities’ roles in combating extremist violence.

Since the July 7, 2005, bombing attacks in London, speculation has skyrocketed regarding the potential risks of homegrown radicalization in the United States. In 2007, the New York City Police Department released a study documenting this national phenomenon.1 With an estimated population of between 2 and 3 million Muslims living in the United States, law enforcement officials have voiced concerns that disaffected Muslims could be a source of violent Islamist extremism.

Unfortunately, this concern is not without basis. According to the 2007 Pew Research Center report titled Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream, 8 percent of American Muslims agreed with the statement that suicide bombings of civilian targets in defense of Islam sometimes can be justified. Among American Muslims under the age of 30, that percentage is almost twice as high at 15 percent.2 This is the kind of information that keeps counterterrorism officials up at night.

In September 2006, LAPD Police Chief William Bratton and Dr. George Kelling wrote an article for the Manhattan Institute describing how local police agencies can champion counterterrorism efforts through community policing.3 Beyond Bratton and Kelling’s assertions, there exists a need for proactive policing in Muslim communities and specific practical approaches to working in communities that may be affected by violent political extremism.

American Muslim communities are under an extraordinary set of pressures. These pressures may be attributed to a variety of factors, including negative media attention, the implementation of the Patriot Act, additional security precautions in the transportation industries, and increased interaction with law enforcement. However, law enforcement officers at all command levels can address these pressures both assertively and compassionately when working with Muslim communities. Their efforts should be focused on three broad categories:

  1. Direct police-community engagement strategies

  2. Indirect police-community engagement strategies

  3. Media communications strategies

These areas form a starting point for further study and genuine community engagement in support of counterterrorism efforts.

Community Policing and the British Experience: Lessons Learned

Police response to homegrown radicalization in the United Kingdom can be a helpful starting point to consider the major issues and pressures facing Muslim communities in the Western world. The United Kingdom’s bond with the United States extends to law enforcement; a long history of collaborative cooperation exists between both countries and is reinforced with exchanges of both personnel and information. Many Muslim communities are also multinational, with extended families and friends who are living, working, and traveling between the United States, the United Kingdom, and other English-speaking countries, making this communication between law enforcement agencies essential.

On July 7, 2005, four British citizens detonated explosive devices in London’s Underground rail system and one doubledecker bus, solidifying themselves as the first homegrown suicide bombers in that country. These four young men, three British Pakistani Muslims and one British Muslim convert of African Caribbean descent, killed 52 of their countrymen and injured more than 700 additional people.

This attack publicly raised issues of racial discrimination, community cohesion, and community-government relations in the United Kingdom at a time when police forces across the nation were in the midst of reorganization with a focus on community policing. Because of negative feedback from several government commissions in the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, police forces throughout the country had made serious efforts to improve community engagement. 4 In November 2003, the British Home Office, responsible for immigration control, security, and order, isued a paper called Policing: Building Safer Communities Together, which also called for police to improve community engagement.5 At the direction of the Home Office, police forces across the United Kingdom were required to staff robust Neighborhood Policing Teams (NPTs) in the communities they served by April 2008.

The Home Office report (2002) and Bradford Vision (2001), known respectively as the Cantle Report and the Ousley Report, specifically dealt with race issues and community tensions in Muslim communities in the northern part of the country. During the summer of 2001, serious riots characterized as “race riots” erupted in the northern United Kingdom cities of Oldham, Burnley, and Bradford, primarily involving young, Pakistani Muslim males and young, Caucasian males.6

Shortly after the 2001 riots, the 9/11 attacks on the United States caused greater scrutiny of Muslim communities, and intense media speculation only exacerbated tension. Security concerns in the United Kingdom, including West Yorkshire, remained high during the four years between the Bradford Riots and the July 7, 2005, attacks. Notably, select British Muslims were unabashedly aggressive, as the quote from one young man made over a year prior to the terrorism attack suggests. “As far as I'm concerned, when they bomb London, the bigger the better,” said Abdul Haq, a social worker. “I know it's going to happen because Sheikh bin Laden said so. Like Bali, like Turkey, like Madrid—I pray for it, I look forward to the day.”7

Accordingly, the West Yorkshire police force took proactive steps to counter terrorist attacks, but they also sought to engage more fully with an increasingly complex, diverse British Muslim community that was experiencing social growing pains. The fear among many British police officers after the Bradford Riots was that a major terrorist attack might provoke more rioting, race-related attacks, or a cycle of terrorist attacks, which could have led to an upward spiral of violence. Yet four years later, even though the July 7, 2005, bombers were from West Yorkshire, that violence did not come to pass. In fact, no major incidents occurred, and to the contrary, there were even some displays of solidarity between Muslim communities and other communities during the period immediately following the attacks. Improved community-police relations, due to the implementation of aggressive NPTs, likely reduced hate crimes and other potential violent acts.8

Understanding Pressures on Muslim Communities in the West

Muslim communities are extremely diverse, with varied national, ethnic, and cultural roots. Members speak different languages, although they often may know Arabic because of their study of the Koran. Too often, and particularly after 9/11, they have been lumped together as the Muslim community, which does not recognize that for local police departments, Muslim communities in one jurisdiction may be quite different than those in another, thus requiring different levels of response and types of services.

Islam has two major divisions, Sunni and Shi’i, but also numerous sects, traditions, movements, and schools of thought.9 Equally complex is the relationship among the large number of political and private organizations that represent Muslim communities and interests both in the United States and around the world.

Particularly when coupled with the fact that many Muslim communities in the West have only recently immigrated to the United States, the impact of globalization and transnationalism on these communities is significant. The 2007 Pew Report estimates that 65 percent of American-Muslims are first generation immigrants.10

Thanks to the availability of cheap, fast air travel and improved communications technologies such as satellite and cable television, cell phones, and the Internet, these Muslim communities are able to maintain physical and emotional contact with their homelands. Events in foreign countries now have a significant impact on diaspora communities. For example, in December 2007, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto reverberated through American Pakistani communities, causing them concern for the future of their native land.11 The impact of globalization on law enforcement is undeniable; consequently, it is essential that U.S. police monitor how global events impact their local communities.

With the advent of enhanced communications technologies in the 1980s and 1990s, that which Muslim immigrants in the West observed on their televisions and later over the Internet was perceived as global Muslim persecution in Afghanistan, Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya. Extremist terrorist groups used these images to their own political and military advantage. Furthermore, these communities perceived Muslim portrayals in film and on television as negatively biased against their cultures. 12 Similarly, cable news and talk radio are sometimes viewed as particularly biased and have a major negative impact in Muslim communities.

Government responses to terrorist attacks, such as the U.K. Terrorist Act of 2001 and the U.S. Patriot Act are considered by many members of Muslim communities to infringe on individual civil liberties.13 Since 9/11, concerns of racial profiling occurring in the transportation industries against Muslim travelers have surfaced.14 Whether institutional discrimination against Muslim communities is real or perceived, law enforcement personnel may feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in Muslim communities because antiterrorist laws are enforced by police agencies.15

The good news is that, despite these negative pressures on Muslim communities, individual contacts between police officers and Muslims in the United States are generally positive, and both groups are working to improve relations.16 This fact reinforces the need for continued positive contacts between law enforcement and Muslim communities. A community policing approach should focus on problem solving and the inclusion of community members in fighting terrorism, in a similar fashion to the police-community partnerships that officers have built to fight gangs.

Dr. Martin Innes of Surrey University, Guildford, England, wrote a convincing article championing community policing in the fight against terrorism called “ Policing Uncertainty: Countering Terror through Community Intelligence and Democratic Policing.” In his article, Innes states:

Al Qaeda attacks are deliberately attempting to create fissures along religious lines. Police have recognized that they need to mitigate any perceptual harm that may result from terrorism exacerbating and inflaming interethnic and interfaith community tensions.17

Innes contends that community policing is more democratic, and therefore inclusive, so it is less likely to erode civil rights and is less invasive than covert policing methods. On this point, LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security’s and Governmental Affairs, stated:

We need to show that our democratic principles built on the values, practices, and lives of American citizens are sacred and worthy of embracing. We need to show our belief in human dignity, the family and the value of the individual. We need to show how we honor the meaning of our lives by what we contribute to others’ lives. We need to show that behind the badges of American law enforcement are caring Americans “doing” law enforcement. To do this we need to go into the community and get to know peoples’ names. We need to walk into homes, neighborhoods, mosques, and businesses. We need to know how Islam expresses itself in Los Angeles if we expect to forge bonds of community support.18

Understanding Local Muslim Communities

T. E. Lawrence, a British military officer most commonly referred to as Lawrence of Arabia, realized that it was imperative that individuals working in Arab communities understand the communities in order to positively influence them. Personal relationships, not institutions, have the most profound effect on these individuals. Understanding local Muslim communities’ issues and concerns, especially as they relate to law enforcement, will take the dedicated efforts of community-based police officers.

Local community engagement begins with an understanding of a community’s history, country of origin, demographics, social structure, religious background, immigration pattern, cultural nuances, and its relationship with other communities. This process has been referred to in academic circles as community mapping and is a critical step for local law enforcement officers attempting community outreach.

Outreach in Muslim communities is more than just knowing where the mosques are; it also requires understanding how the community is organized and how it functions in the larger society—a process that will involve some academic study. Local colleges and universities are key resources in truly understanding the history of various communities. Local communities are often the subject of research by professors and students in criminal justice, sociology, history, geography, and religion, so academia may be an excellent resource.

Local community engagement is best done on a personal level. A community may never truly trust the police as an organization, but cultural norms in many Muslim communities may dictate that close, personal associations with individuals can move mountains. The key is finding the right community leaders who can be trusted and who will act as allies to the police. The community also must trust these individuals. Because of unique dynamics in Muslim communities, additional energy and special relationships will need to be formed between police representatives and young Muslim men—and especially Muslim women—who are under unique sets of pressures.

Indirect Community Engagement Strategies

Police engagement with Muslim communities does not always need to follow a direct path. Because some Muslims, like some members of any other community, may never come to completely trust law enforcement organizations, a third-party approach can be employed.

Police officers may encounter Muslims who are wary of police corruption. Many immigrant communities carry forward the same fears about police in the United States based on experiences in their homelands. In the current context, terrorist arrests are widely publicized, causing fear in the Muslim community that Muslims might be targeted by law enforcement. American Muslims in Maine, for example, reported after 9/11, a fear of being watched or being under suspicion by the police. If they were interviewed by law enforcement, they feared that their friends, neighbors, or coworkers might find out and the result would be embarrassment—or worse.19

Several advantages exist in police-community partnerships. By using faith-based initiatives or communicating with social service organizations (both public and private), police can find new routes into Muslim communities. For example, a police representative could attend interfaith forums to monitor community tensions or to assist in conflict resolution between communities. Additionally, some community members may not report hate crimes to the police, but may feel more comfortable reporting them to social service agencies. Interacting with other governmental agencies and nongovernmental agencies can be an avenue into building police relationships with Muslim communities.

Media Communications Strategies

Before engaging a Muslim community, try to understand how Muslims may perceive the media and the world around them. Muslim communities generally do not find themselves reflected in the mainstream media; therefore, many Muslims may be distrustful and seek their news from nontraditional sources.20

This is important for two reasons. First, they may feel like they are unfairly treated in the mainstream media and that they are characterized as being the enemy in what they perceive as the conflict between the West and Islam. This idea of a clash of civilizations was originally suggested in the 1990s by Professor Samuel Huntington, and, although hotly debated, it is a starting point for understanding differing cultures and the stresses of globalization and transnationalism.21

Second, Muslim communities may not regularly follow the media sources that the police generally use to calm the community or to spread general information. British police in West Yorkshire were surprised to find that during a search of Muslim houses, televisions were tuned to Al-Jazeera rather than the BBC or Sky news.22

On the first point, the police need to monitor media sources the community uses to gain an understanding of community members’ local and world views. On the second point, the police need to take advantage of more resources to disseminate information to the community.

In the event of another terrorist attack in the United States, Muslim communities may be fearful of police retaliation. Police agencies with significant Muslim communities should consider a pre-determined media crisis action plan to communicate via every available medium and in applicable languages.

When direct action, such as suspected terrorist arrests or search warrant execution, must be taken within a Muslim community, many negative effects can be mitigated by having a community reassurance plan in place. A reassurance plan includes the following: (1) briefing community leaders on the situation prior to briefing the media, thus reducing rumors and speculation; (2) providing extra patrols in the areas affected; (3) arming police officers with information, including leaflets for distribution; (4) conducting a series of open community forums to address fears and concerns; and (5) continuously updating agency Web sites on the status of the investigation. Both the London Metropolitan Police, through the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU), and the West Yorkshire Police Force, through localized NPTs, have used these strategies with great success.

A reassurance plan should not be an afterthought, but should be as well prepared and detailed as the operations plan. Operational security of the investigation remains a key issue, so coordination and communication between those leading the reassurance measures and the investigation teams are vital. Reassurance teams can easily cause hate and discontent among agency investigators if sensitive information on a case is released. Community reassurance and calming should immediately go into effect after the direct action is completed and security concerns for the operation are reduced.

Muslim communities recognize hate crimes are more prevalent after terrorist attacks or terrorist-related arrests, so they will appreciate the extra security, as long as it is done in a positive and respectful manner. Officers in the field can make a huge impact by visiting local mosques and letting the congregations know that the extra police officers are in the area for their security. Appropriate protocols, such as removing shoes before entering prayer areas (when not in tactical or emergency situations), should be followed.

Many communities in the United States have been affected by terrorism, but possibly none in so many ways as American Muslim communities. The law enforcement profession must realize that Muslim communities in the United States are under both real and perceived scrutiny from the media and government, which sometimes makes positive police-community relations difficult to achieve. Agencies must also engage in some level of specialization to understand the factors underlying this scrutiny and to reduce mistakes during outreach. Further, local police, using time-tested community policing methods, are the best suited to prevent violent extremism in any form.

Local police agencies should focus on the more practical side of counterterrorism by continuing to engage their local communities with accurate information, serious dialogue, and committed outreach, thereby reducing the prevalence of terrorist-friendly environments. ?


1New York City Police Department, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (New York: NYPD, 2007), (accessed March 4, 2010).
2Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream (Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2007), 53, (accessed March 4, 2010).
3William J. Bratton and George L. Kelling, “Policing Terrorism,” Civic Bulletin 43 (New York: Manhattan Institute, September 2006), (accessed March 4, 2010).
4Bradford Vision, Community Pride, Not Prejudice: Making Diversity Work in Bradford, report of the Bradford District Race Review (Bradford, U.K.: Bradford Vision, 2001),; Ted Cantle et al., Community Cohesion (London: Cantle Commission, 2001), 19, (accessed March 4, 2010); and British Home Office, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, (London: Lawrence Commission, 1999), (accessed March 4, 2010).
5Home Office, Communication Directorate, Policing: Building Safer Communities Together (London: November 2003), (accessed March 4, 2010).
6It should be noted that American Muslims tend to be economically, socially, and educationally more integrated into American society. This example is used to highlight the tension between police and Muslim communities in the United Kingdom, not to suggest that American Muslim communities are similarly disenfranchised.
7David Cohen, “Terror on the Dole,” London Evening Standard (April 20, 2004), (accessed March 5, 2010).
8Martin Baines and P. Read (police-community relations in Bradford), interview by Mark Stainbrook, May 2007.
9For example, Sunni Islam is divided into four schools of thought: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafii. Shi’ii divisions include the Zaydis (Fivers), the Ismailis (Seveners), and the Ithna Ashari (Twelvers), John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Knows about Islam (New York: Oxford Press, 2002), 39–48.
10Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans.
11Charisse Jones, “Pakistani-American Communities Fear for Future of Homeland,” USA Today, December 27, 2007, (accessed September 24, 2008).
12Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001).
13Ilyas Ba-Yunus and Kassim Kone, Muslims in the United States (New York: Greenwood Press, 2006).
14“Amnesty Condemns US Anti-Muslim Racial Profiling,”, September 14, 2004, (accessed March 5, 2010).
15Mark Stainbrook, “Perceptions of American-Muslims towards Law Enforcement: The Aftermath of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks,” unpublished, 2006.
16Nicole J. Henderson et al., Law Enforcement & Arab American Community Relations after September 11, 2001: Engagement in a Time of Uncertainty (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2006), (accessed March 5, 2010).
17Martin Innes, “Policing Uncertainty: Countering Terror through Community Intelligence and Democratic Policing,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 605, no. 1 (May 2006): 222–241.
18Michael P. Downing, “Statement of Michael P. Downing,” before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 110th Cong., 1st sess., October 30, 2007, (accessed March 5, 2010).
19Stephen Wessler, After 9-11: Understanding the Impact on Muslim Communities in Maine (Portland: Center for the Study and Prevention of Hate and Violence, University of Maine, 2002).
20Ann Clayton (West Yorkshire Police Force Media Realtions Director), interview by Mark Stainbrook, March 2007.
21Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996).
22Graham Archer (Inspector West Yorkshire Police: Al-Jazeera), interview by Mark Stainbrook, February 18, 2007.

Please cite as:

Mark G. Stainbrook, "Policing with Muslim Communities in the Age of Terrorism," The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 32–40, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 4, April 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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