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Research Questions

  1. What factors lead individuals to join violent extremist organizations?
  2. How and why do extremists become deradicalized, leaving their organizations, changing their minds, and in some cases joining the fight against radicalism?
  3. What policies and other efforts are best poised to assist those who have been radicalized and prevent extremist organizations from recruiting new members?

Terrorism and ideologically inspired violence represent persistent and serious threats to U.S. national security. The January 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol and other recent events emphasize the need for more research to inform prevention and deradicalization strategies. In this report, the authors aim to characterize why and how individuals joined extremist organizations, as well as how some of them exited these groups. Semistructured interviews were conducted with former extremists and their family members, representing 32 unique stories of 24 white supremacists and eight Islamic extremists.

Exposure to propaganda on the internet, in music, and in books and literature was present in more than two-thirds of the sample. Although formal, top-down recruitment occurred for three Islamic extremists, the majority of white supremacists actively sought out participation in extremist organizations. Among the sample, 26 had exited the organizations; of those, six were still undergoing cognitive and emotional deradicalization. Among those who exited, 22 mentioned that a person or group intervened to help them by providing diverse cultural and demographic exposures, emotional support, financial stability, or domestic stability.

Interviewees also addressed such systemic issues as unemployment and the need for more-affordable and easily accessible mental health care. These interviews led to recommendations for both research and practice that emphasize the importance of incorporating the voices of those with personal experience and knowledge of ideological extremism into future research designs and efforts to prevent radicalization and promote deradicalization.

Key Findings

Negative life events are part of, but not the sole cause of, radicalization

Abuse or trauma, difficult family situations, bullying, and other negative life events often have psychological and behavioral consequences and are sometimes implicated in radicalization pathways. However, they are never the sole or most direct cause of radicalization.

Those with mental health challenges often had difficulty accessing care

Although not every respondent spoke of mental health problems, those who did mentioned lack of treatment options that were accessible or affordable.

The enduring appeal of extremist groups seems to lie in attending to fundamental human needs

Needs for social bonds, love and acceptance, and having a life purpose go unmet for some people, leaving them prone to become involved with extremist views and groups.

Radical ideology and involvement in extremist activities have addictive properties for many

Physical violence and engaging in extremist activity online have addictive properties that appear linked to the experience of joint risk and struggle against a common enemy.

Recruitment to radical groups deliberately leverages psychological vulnerabilities

Radical groups develop ways to bolster ideological commitment through (1) restriction of access to information or circumstances that challenge ideological constructs and (2) social and cognitive strategies for reinforcing in-group bias and hatred toward people outside the group.

Extremist groups nurture a self-reinforcing social milieu

This includes shared purpose, camaraderie, friendship, and joint activities, all of which can involve both risk and emotional rewards.

Both radicalization and deradicalization are linked to "being in the right place at the right time"

An individual's experience of a dramatic, challenging life event and of highly meaningful social interactions (both negative and positive) play fundamental roles in both processes.

Heavy-handed attempts by formal institutions to deradicalize individuals often fail

Such measures taken by intelligence and law enforcement agencies are understandable because of the need to protect the public but can sometimes deepen ongoing radicalization processes and push potentially salvageable cases to more-extreme behaviors and involvement.

Stigmatization of groups seems mostly to push at-risk individuals further down the extremist path

Punitive measures, banned speech, and indignant public discourse can backfire and increase the drive for radicalization.

Media literacy, access to diverse sources of information, and positive experiences with diversity appear critical for deradicalization

In certain cases, structured and opportunistic interventions that involve exposure to people outside the group who exhibit kindness and generosity have had positive effects.

Recommendations

  • Community organizations should expand opportunities for mental health care.
  • Community organizations should provide opportunities for expanding diversity exposure.
  • Community organizations should help at-risk parents and families to recognize and react to signs of extremist radicalization and engagement.
  • Community organizations should present deradicalization messages at the right time and place.
  • Community organizations should consider the trade-offs between punitive and "soft" law enforcement interventions.
  • Community organizations should organize community-based educational opportunities.
  • Researchers should explore the feasibility of addiction-based programs to address hate and radicalization.
  • Researchers should better identify geographic and demographic hot spots for radicalization.
  • Researchers should explore and develop educational and outreach efforts to help recognize and address signs of radicalization.
  • Researchers should explore and design social network approaches to deradicalization.
  • Researchers should continue to explore and design interventions that foster deliberate exposure to "optimal contact" with groups targeted by hatred.
  • Researchers should conduct research on institutional and societal (environmental) influences of extremism.
  • Researchers should design and assess programs that create safe, mentored spaces for individuals to freely express themselves and challenge one another's beliefs.
  • Researchers should use both data science and ethnographic research to understand current processes of online radicalization to extreme groups.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction and Background

  • Chapter Two

    Overview of the Literature

  • Chapter Three

    Methods

  • Chapter Four

    Background Characteristics of Radical Extremists

  • Chapter Five

    Pathways to Radicalization

  • Chapter Six

    Deradicalizing and Leaving Extremist Organizations

  • Chapter Seven

    Participant Perspectives on Mitigation Strategies

  • Chapter Eight

    Synthesis and Recommendations

  • Appendix A

    Literature Review Methods and Scope

  • Appendix B

    Interview Protocols

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was supported by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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