Threat detection is a lot like playing chess. You have to know what to look for before you can look for it. It’s a way of weaponizing your senses. When you apply those honed instincts to the dangers and deceptions that occur every day, it offers insight into the proverbial “tells” and how to make a move before your opponent knows you’re onto their strategy. There’s a feeling we all get when behaviors such as body language, nervousness, and verbal articulation make that little voice in your head whisper, “Something ain’t right.”
Up until recently, Yousef Badou was a subject-matter expert only known and accessible to a select few groups. His forte is unique. While most of the population is oblivious to the onset of danger, Yousef knows what to look for. His specialty is calculating risk factors, recognizing the indicators of nefarious action, and undermining the manifestation of those potential threats to stop them in their tracks. His background has given him the ability to anticipate danger with such a stellar track record that he’s called upon by major companies, agencies, and government officials to help craft their proactive playbook.
Photos by Joey Skibel
In our “First Line of Defense” article in Issue 37 you’ll get a better idea of how after being inculcated with his wisdom, you begin to see the world through different eyes. There are certain elements indicative of impending danger that just can’t be ignored. Yousef is an instructor’s instructor. He’s a trusted resource who gets called upon to lecture and consult on situations that would keep most people up at night. Remember that little voice we mentioned — Yousef teaches the master’s degree of understanding how to sharpen those reflexes and act on them.
Our Interview with Yousef Badou
RECOIL OFFGRID: Tell us a little about your childhood and where you grew up.
Yousef Badou: My dad is Kuwaiti and my mom’s American. I was born a U.S. citizen. I spent much of my youth living in Kuwait City. I went to elementary and middle school there till about summer of ’98 when me and my mom moved back to the States. We have family in Michigan, so I actually went to high school in Michigan for four years. Close to the end of my time in high school, I enlisted in a military academy for my senior year because military was always kind of a thing for me.
We were in Kuwait during Desert Storm. I was about 7 or 8 when that happened. We got evacuated and smuggled out by Canadians, which is a whole other story. So the military is something I was very used to. We came back after the invasion and I lived there for several more years and was in the Boy Scouts. Because of the Army rotations in Kuwait, my Boy Scout troop leaders were basically all soldiers. I was pretty intimate with the military. All the friends I went to school with were American and British kids whose families had been stationed there with the military or State Department. While I was in the military academy during my senior year, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. This was right before the invasion.
How did your military experience lead to involvement with the Marine Combat Hunter Program?
Yousef Badou: I’m a native Arabic speaker because I grew up in Kuwait, but I joined the infantry. That’s all I wanted to do. Lo and behold when I was in boot camp to the school of infantry training, which is right after boot camp, the invasion kicked off. I got out of the School of Infantry and basically had to hitch a ride to catch up with my unit during the invasion. Me and some of those same guys got put on a plane and headed over to Kuwait. We had to hitch a ride up to the northern part of Iraq in the Tikrit area, Saddam’s hometown, until we caught up with our unit. That was my introduction to the Marines as a 19-year-old PFC. I spent the rest of the invasion there, came back, and subsequently did two more combat tours over there in the western region of Iraq.
I got out after four years and had been out for about a year and a half when I got a FedEx with original orders and a plane ticket from the Marine Corps. I was being involuntarily recalled and had to fly back — they wanted infantrymen who had a background in combat because a surge was happening. When I got there, I was going to go back for a fourth tour when a friend contacted me and told me that they were planning to set up this schoolhouse within the School of Infantry, needed instructors, and asked if I was interested. It was in California and I wouldn’t have to deploy, which my wife was understandably nervous about. I checked it out and long story short, I interviewed with them and the command staff and then joined the unit. I went to Combat Instructor school and shortly after that started teaching at the Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program.
What did your work with that unit entail?
Yousef Badou: Combat Hunter was specifically in the Marine Corps that started out as just infantry, but it also expanded to not just combat arms, but basically everyone in the Marines. The Combat Hunter Program was a three-tier program. The first tier is observation skills and building situational awareness because we were often operating in these ambiguous environments with little to no information. We were dealing with guerilla insurgency forces that didn’t wear a uniform, and we had to minimize civilian casualties as well as staying survivable ourselves. General Mattis is the one who kind of enacted Combat Hunter — that was his baby. He said go find me anybody who has anything to say about situational awareness. It turned into the three components of enhanced observation, behavior analysis, and tracking.
Above: A graduating class of Combat Hunter trainers with legendary tracker David Scott-Donelan as a guest instructor.
I started out teaching the enhanced observation portion because we had other subject-matter experts teaching profiling and tracking. There were six teams of Marines running around doing these courses with contractor support, but our unit didn’t really get much support in the beginning, so we had to pick up a lot of these subjects ourselves. They also sent us to tracking school in Fort Huachuca with David Scott-Donelan, who is kind of the grandfather of tactical tracking. So we all became certified tracking instructors, went back, and were not only teaching the tracking and enhanced portion, but then due to some turnover we basically ended up teaching everything including the behavioral analysis part. We still had contractor support when we could get it, but were in a situation where we ended up teaching everything.
How did those experiences influence the training you offer now?
Yousef Badou: Greatly, especially on the prevention mindset side. Obviously, Combat Hunter is a more aggressive military program where you’re dealing with kinetic, violent threats from insurgency groups, which is a different beast than something you’d give to the public, so I had to clean up some of the rough edges and make it apply to our community. It’s definitely heavily influenced in the sense of looking for pre-event indicators, so not only do I train community members, churches, or businesses to look for potential threats, but we’ve also expanded a bit to start talking about more internal issues.
Yes, we want to focus on violent threats and make sure everyone is aware of their surroundings and any impending danger, but then we go deeper into it. For example, we talk about things like suicidal ideation, or identifying some type of harassment or workplace violence incident. With all the statistics you read, there are always these pre-event indicators and, if you can just disrupt one of these things along the chain of events, you can minimize or stop some of these incidents.
How would you describe your curriculum?
Yousef Badou: Specifically for the S.A.F.E. Training system — that’s the instructor program I have — the first part is understanding the prevention mindset, understanding that there are pre-event indicators attached to these bad events that we deal with. We can definitely teach people who don’t have a military background in a relatively efficient manner to look out for these indicators. The 10,000-foot view is developing the mindset. Then, we talk about the indicators themselves and we get a bit more granular and talk about specific behaviors tied to fear, threat, or discomfort, and things of that nature. So they understand the mindset, the concept, what to look for with pre-event indicators, developing a planning phase for some type of bad event, and we give them some presentation techniques.
In the instructor course, I developed it to where I’m going to give you the skills to go out and teach your communities or your houses of worship and have the presentation techniques on how to get students to change their behavior. It’s one thing to teach a good class, but with this type of class you really need to change your students’ behavior. You need them to walk away and understand they need to do things differently from now on. How do you do that? Dynamic instruction and engaging them. The instructor program — it’s really unique and something no one’s doing right now — is about understanding that even though you have all this wisdom, how do you get out there and build a business around it and make money? That’s how you vitalize the information.
Above: Yousef overseeing training with the Marines in Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii.
I’ve been teaching this for years by myself and realized I’m never going to get enough people to learn this stuff fast enough if it’s only me. That’s why I developed the instructor course in conjunction with the lessons I’ve learned over the years in business. That’s the vehicle to really get the message out there, get people involved in the program, but at the end of the day my mission is to get this information as far and wide to as many people as I can.
How did you recognize the need for this kind of training in the public sector?
Yousef Badou: Going back to Combat Hunter, when I was teaching it as a Marine, 2012 came up and I was going to get out again, but because there was such a tiny amount of people trained in this stuff, personnel retention was kind of tough, especially in the military because you rotate every few years. They brought me back as a civilian for another five years, and I ended up becoming a course chief as a contractor in the Marine program. Deployments were very high at the time. I was training military who were immediately deploying to a combat zone. Casualties were high, and we were really training the heck out of people. Then, it ramped up even further once we started getting into some other regions. Libya kicked off, then there were ISIS and Syria, so I spent a lot of years at the program just with deploying military.
As time progressed and things started to die down — we were traveling 60 to 70 percent of the year teaching people this stuff — I finally took a deep breath, looked around, and noticed the kinetic events that were going down. What was happening over here were things like active shooter situations and other criminal events that started to occur more at home. I started to realize it wasn’t just the military who needed these skills and that’s what really prompted me to teach the public. I still train military, police, and first responders, but if I had to choose between them and the community, I’d choose the community. Even though military and LEOs really need these skills, the community members are often starting from zero. At least with military and law enforcement you have some type of training, but with civilians who don’t have this background, if I can enhance that at all, that’s a good day in my book.
Above: Training SWAT with Victor Lopez of Sierra Element.
Do you think of your coursework as counterintelligence?
Yousef Badou: I think of it as counteroffensive. It can be used in some circles for intelligence purposes by reading things like body language, but I think of it as picking up more information. When I think of intelligence, I think of uncovering things that might not be super obvious — digging, investigating, looking — but my thing is I’m trying to increase everyone’s efficiency. There’s so much information flying around at any given moment, if I can increase the amount of good information you’re taking in, that’s a win to me. There are community members out walking around and taking in maybe 5 to 10 percent of information, but if they walked away from my training and are taking in 40 to 60 percent of better information, that’s what I’m after.
How would you differentiate between an offensive and defensive mindset?
Yousef Badou: You can go back to [Lt. Col. Jeff] Cooper’s Color Codes. When I think of offensive, I think of people who are empowered to do things. Security, law enforcement, military — a lot of times these people are armed and their job is to disrupt, minimize, or stop certain events from happening. You’d spot a pre-event indicator and be empowered to act on it. A defensive mindset would apply more to community members. A lot of times people ask me what they should do if they see these anomalies, and if they should confront the potential threat. I tell them to let security or law enforcement know so you can get yourself and your family the heck out of there. Don’t engage, because in most cases, you don’t have the power, preparation, or support to do that. It’s still the same info, you’re still taking in more information, better information with the pre-event indicators and behaviors, but [an offensive] person is more empowered to do that. With a defensive mindset, it’s more safety oriented and not being in that situation.
Above: More SWAT training in the desert.
What kind of organizations retain your services the most?
Yousef Badou: There’s definitely been a transition. In the beginning it was exclusively military, but when I started the business myself about three years ago, I was doing a lot of law enforcement. Now military is creeping back up. I’ll be doing stuff with the Navy and Air Force this coming year. The biggest transition has really been with the community members, and I’m really seeing more interest from houses of worship, because they’re on the edge of some of these incidents that’ve happened recently.
Businesses are requesting my training more frequently as well. The S.A.F.E. Training system stands for “situational awareness for employees.” If I go to a business with a couple thousand people in it, I have more bang for buck, as opposed to training a class with 18 people in it at a police department because it’s hard to pull cops off the line. Businesses have mandatory yearly training and I can reach more people.
What do you think are the most common threats people face in their daily lives that you provide training to protect against?
Yousef Badou: I want to train people to look for those violent threats like terrorism or active shooters, which are all very real threats, but oftentimes it’s just basic awareness of your everyday life. Here’s an example. One of my former students is a cop near San Francisco. He emailed me and told me that he and his wife were on vacation in nice part of Mexico at a café. I tell people to start establishing the baselines of an area and then start looking for those anomalies. They were watching the crowd and everyone was playing by the rules in that context and acting normal. Then two individuals showed up on a dirt bike, both of them get off, one keeps his helmet on while another walks over to a vendor. He was acting like he was looking at what was going on in front of him, but he was also peering behind him, making eye contact with this cop I’m talking about, and then goes back to where all his friends are. He stands there with his helmet on the whole time.
So he’s getting all the indicators that something’s up, grabs his wife, and says “We’re outta here.” The wife was like, “What’s going on?” and he was like, “Don’t worry about it,” and they leave. What’s the culmination of all that? Nothing, absolutely nothing. He had no idea if those guys are good or bad, but he felt he had enough indicators that he didn’t have the support, didn’t have the jurisdiction there, and knew he should get his wife and get the heck out of there. He knew not to even put himself in the situation long enough to figure out what was happening.
A friend of mine had a homeless person accost her. She already had her eyes on him, she already was watching his behavior, and she already had a verbal response ready to go to make sure that this person knew she wasn’t going to be an easy target. She was telling me that if she hadn’t paid attention and seen him start to approach, she wouldn’t have had time to come up with anything else, so she was already planning her escape and verbal response before he got closer to her. She fired it off, and he moved along. People worry about terrorism and active shooters, especially with incidents like [the December 2019 attack at the Naval Air Station in] Pensacola, but it’s often the everyday, innocuous-looking situations that you don’t even realize.
Above: Yousef teaching over 30 industry-recognized executive protection agents in California.
Do you think there are any fundamental differences between threat detection for men versus women?
Yousef Badou: Women are much better at it than men, I’ll tell you that much. [laughs] There’s actually some research-based evidence behind why women are better at threat detection than men when it comes to certain instances. Think about how women are treated as they’re growing up. Women know they might be walking around in a high-threat environment. They’re taught at a very young age not to talk to strangers and to be on the lookout for various things. Men really don’t get that as much from their parents when they’re growing up.
Women are always assessing behaviors, looking at things, and much more attuned to their environment than men are. Men tend to puff their chest out a bit, but when it comes to nonverbal threat detection and picking up on certain cues, women are much better at it. Anyone can be trained to look for these pre-event indicators. Women have the innate ability to do this stuff, but I can greatly enhance that for men or women who train with me, whether it’s innate or not.
What are the most common blind spots you see in people’s ability to recognize danger?
Yousef Badou: People who explain away other people’s behavior. This is a big one. I’ll teach people to analyze and establish baselines, to look for anomalies within their setting or their context, and make a decision. Once you have a baseline and an anomaly you have to make a decision. Where I see a big disconnect is with people who are untrained falling into a state of denial. They’ll absorb a behavior that doesn’t fit the setting or context, and they’ll fill in the blank by saying, “Oh, well, that person’s just doing A, B, C, or D.” That’s the biggest mistake you can make. Never explain away someone’s behavior or actions. If anything, you let them explain it. It’s not up to you to fill in the blank because we have a habit of deferring to the less-threatening option there.
You see this all the time when it comes to active shooter events when you talk to witnesses. They’ll say they thought it was a prank, or a movie, or whatever or it was, but in reality, can you look at the situation and explain why there were popping sounds at 9 o’clock in the morning at a middle school? Why would you defer to fireworks? People will make excuses that it couldn’t possibly be anyone in the building shooting. The brain will try and tell you what you want to hear sometimes, but you know in reality the situation doesn’t make any sense. Dismissing obvious warning signs as non-threats is a big problem.
Above: Yousef speaking at Byron Rodger’s Protector Symposium.
What bad habits do people instinctively acquiesce to in a threatening situation?
Yousef Badou: Denial. It’s not people’s fault really. If you’ve never seen or observed a certain event or action, we classify that as a non-standard observation. If Bigfoot fell through the ceiling right now and started slapping you in the face, most people wouldn’t know what to do. They’ve never thought about it, never planned on it, and now it’s happening in front of them, so it’s not people’s fault they often go into denial. What I want people to do is observe the baseline, spot the anomaly, and then make a decision.
The biggest disconnect I saw training military is the decision portion. Cops are better at it because they operate in ambiguous environments and have to make decisions quickly by themselves, but in the military what I saw was spotting the baseline, spotting the anomaly, and then not doing something. Same thing with community members. Something’s ringing the bells, but what are you doing? The 70-percent solution right now is better than the 100-percent solution that’s too late. While you’re sitting there thinking of your action plan, that event is rolling right over you. I don’t even care if it makes sense — just get out there, do something, and provide some type of action.
Profiling tends to have negative connotations, especially in the U.S. How do you reconcile that in your instruction during a time of social justice when people are afraid of being accused of stereotyping others, or being the next Richard Jewell where they’re scapegoated for something incorrectly?
Yousef Badou: I can’t even call it “profiling” when it comes to law enforcement because there’s such a negative connotation attached to it. What does anyone automatically want to do when they hear the word “profiling?” It’s a buzzword right now that they attach the word “racial” to. That’s absolutely not what I’m doing in the program.
If you think about racial profiling on its face, it’s kind of a dumb tactic that doesn’t really work. Let’s put it in terms of who the enemies of America are right now. You think of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, or whatever. I ask in my classes things like, “Who is fighting in ISIS right now? Is it just dark-haired, bearded Arab males?” It’ll get quiet for a second and someone will go, “No, there’s more than that.” OK, who? Are there Americans, Danish, Swedes, Australians? Yes. When people put the racial blinders on, they might be missing the real threat. You’re looking for someone who has the typical bad guy look of a trench coat with a detonator in hand, but that doesn’t exist. I don’t focus on race or what people look like. I care about behavior. Race is not an indicator of threat, behavior is. Stop looking for what movies are telling you to look for, because in reality that’s probably not going to be the person who’ll present the threat.
This information is provided in a new fashion, but none of the core information is really new. It’s caveman information that many of us have just forgotten. Coming from the military, and seeing where society’s going, technology is a good thing that can help us if utilized correctly. However, we’ve swung so far to the other end of the spectrum that we’ve forgotten some of these basic skills that kept us alive for a long time. These are hardwired survival mechanisms — all I do us brush off some of the rust and remind everyone we didn’t always used to be on top of the food chain, so we developed these mechanisms. Technology can enhance this, but I focus on the soft skills.
Does your coursework have to be modified to address cultural differences or is threat detection pretty consistent?
Yousef Badou: This works anywhere in the world. There are ways we’re different, but there’s tons of ways we’re similar, such as our body’s physiological response to fear or threat. I’d ask people in the military where they were deploying to and they’d tell me. I’d laugh and say “You have no idea where you’re going. You think you know where you’re going, but in reality you have no idea. All your boat has to do is hook a right and you’re in Africa instead of Spain or wherever.” Cultural stuff is for people to pick up on the ground when they’re in that specific environment. I zoom out and teach patterns of behavior that are shared by humans all over the world.
What are some of the myths you see perpetuated about situational awareness and threat recognition?
Yousef Badou: It’s not necessarily a myth, but I like to talk about the common buzzwords or terms we hear like, “Keep your head on a swivel,” “Complacency kills,” “Get your head out of your phone,” and so on. Those are all good pieces of advice, but what do they mean? What does it mean from you to me to another person who doesn’t have that background? Everyone has a different definition. I want to go deeper into what situational awareness actually means. What is a pre-event indicator and what does it look like? It’s not rocket science, but it’s not common sense. All it takes is for someone to show you this one time and then you can’t unsee it. Then you’re always analyzing and looking for stuff, so let’s get away from the catchphrases and develop a common verbiage that everyone can use to define situational awareness and what it means to them.
Do you have courses designed for children or families?
Yousef Badou: The instructor course is developed to be a business in a box. It’s for the instructors to pick a target market and teach them. Right now I have teachers, coaches, and church congregations modifying it to fit their group and teaching middle and high schoolers. That’s what I’m seeing a lot of. With young kids, they probably can’t grasp some of the concepts, but getting into middle and high school I can have people in my instructor group actively teaching them.
What do you think the most common threat indicators are?
YB: I don’t just teach you situational awareness, I want you to look for it in other people. If someone is indicating situational awareness, they’re not necessarily an imminent threat. There are two types of people in this world — good and bad. Ninety-nine percent of the population is walking around completely unaware with their heads in their phones. If I see someone exhibiting situational awareness, now I know I’ve got a player on the field. That person has my full attention. I don’t know if they’re good or bad yet, all I know is they’re situationally aware. What does that look like? Someone walking into a building and looking up. Are they looking at cameras? Are they looking at exits? Someone who’s checking their 6 o’clock a lot and continuously aware of their background. Someone who walks into a restaurant, bypasses a bunch of empty tables, and sits at a table by himself with his back against the wall. These are all indicators of situational awareness. I don’t know if you’re good or bad, but I’m gonna pull on that thread, as I like to call it.
Another one is pacifying behavior. If you’re scanning a crowd and trying to figure out what the baseline is — who’s playing by the rules and who isn’t — if you see someone exhibiting pacifying behavior, that’s someone you need to pay attention to. Pacifying behavior could be a lot of things — rubbing the back of the neck, rubbing hands vigorously on the pantlegs, pinching the bridge of their nose, rubbing their temples, any kind of repetitive self-touching, ticky kinds of motions. Those are all pacifying behaviors. Again, I don’t know if they’re good or bad, if they’re going to pull out a gun, if they’re sick, but I can tell you if someone’s exhibiting pacifying behavior that in their brain at that moment there’s some type of fear or threat there. I don’t know what that fear or threat is, but if I had to look at a whole crowd of people in a mall or something and I only have one individual exhibiting pacifying behaviors, I’m going to focus my attention on that person, dig a little deeper, and see if they’re carrying anything.
What do you think parents should be aware of the most in teaching their kids about threat indicators and situational awareness?
Yousef Badou: Trusting your gut, but also acting on that gut feeling. Doing something about it and not just realizing you have a bad feeling. Bad feelings are our limbic system’s response to fear or threat. It’s your body looking at a situation and recognizing that the last time you saw A plus B plus C, bad things happened. People get that gut feeling, but actually acting on it and leaving the area is something they need to learn.
I have a guy I trained with these skills and he in turn trained his daughter on it when she was just beginning college. He called me and told me about how his daughter was at the Las Vegas massacre with a group of friends on the periphery of the crowd. The first string of shots rang out, and she had a bad gut feeling. She grabbed her boyfriend’s hand, and acted on that feeling just like her dad taught her. She said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but we’re getting out of here.” This is before anyone realized something bad was happening. There was some confusion, people were partying, the music was still playing, and her boyfriend and other friends tried to dismiss it as fireworks. She stood strong, knew something was going wrong, grabbed her boyfriend’s hand, basically pulled him out, and they got to the edge of the barrier area to leave the crowd. That’s when the second volley of rounds went off, and that’s when people started running around screaming and realized that people are dying. She and her boyfriend were already at the fence and away from the crowded area. Trust your gut, but also act on it.
About Yousef Badou
Hometown: Kuwait City
Family: Wife and a dog
Recommended reading list:
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
- Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
- Brain Rules by John Medina
- Spark by John Ratey
- Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions by Gary Klein
Favorite quote: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” — Teddy Roosevelt
Favorite band: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Favorite cartoon characters: Rick and Morty
Favorite firearms: Glock and AR-15
Favorite holiday: New Year’s
Favorite car: Tesla