Violent Extremism in America

What leads people to join extremist groups, and what interventions can help them leave?

 masked demonstrator carrying a U.S. flag leaves the Lincoln Memorial after self proclaimed "White Nationalists", white supremacists and members of the "alt-right" gathered for what they called a "Freedom of Speech" rally at the memorial in Washington, June 25, 2017, photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

A masked demonstrator carrying a U.S. flag leaves the Lincoln Memorial after a white nationalist rally at the memorial in Washington, June 25, 2017.

Photo by Jim Bourg / Reuters

Violent extremism presents a serious and complex threat to the United States. Events such as the January 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol and other domestic attacks highlight the need for a better understanding of ideologically inspired violence. What factors lead people to join violent extremist organizations? What prompts them to exit extremist groups, and in some cases joining the fight against radicalization?

RAND researchers conducted interviews with former extremists and their families to better understand why individuals joined extremist groups, how some were able to exit those groups, and what interventions were effective in helping them to change their mind.

The interviews included 24 former extremists and 12 family members or friends. Of the 36 total cases, 24 were white supremacists and eight were Islamic extremists.

This work is among the first studies to incorporate the experiences of extremists and their families to describe pathways in and out of extremism related to multiple different ideologies and groups. It provides insights into the potential risk factors for radicalization—such as financial instability, mental health challenges, and feeling isolated and lonely in their schools or communities—and how some were able to leave.

Many former extremists exited a group after experiencing disillusionment or burnout. They also described punitive or heavy-handed interventions by authorities as leading to increased extremism. In most cases, radicalization was aided by a mixture of happenstance and intentional interventions involving exposure to diversity and unexpected kindness from members of (formerly) hated groups.

Research

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About the Project

Funding

RAND appreciates the generous support for this work from the Ellen Hancock Impact Award for Social and Economic Well-Being, established by longtime RAND Social and Economic Policy Advisory Board member Ellen Hancock. The authors drew from Ellen’s gift to ensure the work reaches a variety of stakeholders and to expand the portfolio. The original research was funded by the National Institute of Justice.