Interviews with Former Extremists Reveal Multiple Paths to Developing Extreme Ideologies; Rejection of Extremism Often Aided by Friends and Groups
Apr 2, 2021
Terrorism and ideologically inspired violence represent persistent and serious threats to U.S. national security. In this report, the authors aim to characterize why and how 32 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.
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.
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.
Although not every respondent spoke of mental health problems, those who did mentioned lack of treatment options that were accessible or affordable.
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.
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.
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.
This includes shared purpose, camaraderie, friendship, and joint activities, all of which can involve both risk and emotional rewards.
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.
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.
Punitive measures, banned speech, and indignant public discourse can backfire and increase the drive for radicalization.
In certain cases, structured and opportunistic interventions that involve exposure to people outside the group who exhibit kindness and generosity have had positive effects.
Introduction and Background
Overview of the Literature
Background Characteristics of Radical Extremists
Pathways to Radicalization
Deradicalizing and Leaving Extremist Organizations
Participant Perspectives on Mitigation Strategies
Synthesis and Recommendations
Literature Review Methods and Scope