Preventing Domestic Violent Extremism: Insights from RAND Research

RAND researchers Pauline Moore, Todd Helmus, and Alexandra Evans discuss the complex challenges of countering domestic violent extremism in the United States. Their research offers insights into trends, key actors in the extremist community, and factors that lead to joining or leaving extremist groups.


Pauline Moore, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation

Charleston, South Carolina. Charlottesville, Virginia. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. El Paso, Texas. Buffalo, New York. Violent attacks across the United States have raised concern that the country is confronting a growing national security threat — the rise of homegrown terrorism and ideologically inspired violence. In early 2021, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that diverse domestic violent extremists posed, quote, an elevated threat to the homeland. Anti-Semitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2022 and hate crimes based on race and ethnicity are also increasing. In October 2022, the scale of the problem lead U.S. government officials to make countering violent extremism a national security priority.

Domestic violent extremism in the U.S. takes many forms and is inspired by diverse causes. Racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, or REMVE, is typically characterized by xenophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic sentiment. Together with anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism, REMVE makes up the majority of domestic terrorism-related incidents in the U.S. But violent extremism can also stem from grievances and biases related to religion, reproductive rights, or environmental crises.

Various U.S. government agencies and private corporations like Google have asked RAND to help them better understand the problem. We've also used our own funding to expand research around domestic violent extremism. As a non-governmental, nonpartisan, and objective research entity, RAND is well-placed to engage in new important work in this area that might otherwise be difficult to conduct. Our research touches on many topics, such as important trends in the domestic violent extremist landscape in the U.S., key actors or organizations in the violent extremist community, and factors that lead individuals to join violent extremist groups and those that lead to deradicalization. What does some of RAND’s research find?

Todd Helmus, Senior Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation

We talked to 36 former violent extremists and the friends and family members of violent extremists, mostly from white supremacist groups to better understand what factors drove people to join violent extremist movements and to understand how and why people left. We learned that social bonds play a critical role in the radicalization process. However, many ultimately leave extremism. For some, the initially strong bonds between members become fragmented over time by infighting and perceptions of the group's hypocrisy. In about two thirds of our cases we found that interventions by family and friends played a critical role in helping cases walk away from extremism.

Alexandra Evans, Policy Researcher, RAND Corporation

Our research also shows that the Internet plays an important role in disseminating extremist ideas, recruiting new adherents, and maintaining these movements. RAND researchers have sought, therefore, to better understand the role social media in particular plays in the broader extremist ecosystem. We found that extremists largely use the same platforms as the average Internet user and for the same purposes. In other words, this notion that a separate dark Internet populated by violent extremists exists is a myth.

Mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook are actually critical to extremists because of the volume of activity that they host and the size of their audiences. And a number of tools are available to social media companies and others to identify, isolate, and even remove extremist content from public spaces. To help Internet users understand the nature of the problem and to reduce their exposure, RAND also created a framework to help categorize virtual platforms and understand the likelihood of encountering extremist content online across all of them.

Pauline Moore, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation

Domestic violent extremism is likely to persist in the United States as it is in many other countries. There's still much that can be done to improve how we counter and prevent it, and our research only touches the tip of the iceberg. Our work has helped identify key areas for future research. First, researchers should continue to improve our understanding of radicalization towards violent extremism. Second, we need to improve our understanding of extremist behaviors. Third, research should focus on identifying, designing, and evaluating promising approaches to violence prevention and deradicalization.

The challenge posed by domestic extremism is a complex problem. Research alone won't solve it, but it can help chart a way forward in an informed and objective way.