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.


  • Violent Extremism in America: Firsthand Accounts

    The January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol emphasized the need for more research to inform violent extremism prevention and deradicalization strategies. Interviews with former extremists and their family members shed light on what leads people to join—and later leave—extremist groups.

    Apr 1, 2021

  • What Former Extremists and Their Families Say About Radicalization in America

    Violent extremism is an evolving, ongoing threat in the United States. Interviews with former extremists—and their families and friends—offer insights into how individuals become radicalized, how they leave extremist groups, and what communities can do to stop the growth of extremism in their area.

    Jun 25, 2021

  • Can Extremism Be Addictive?

    Why do former extremists feel drawn back to radical ideological thoughts and long for reengagement with the movements they left? Is it like an addiction? There could be opportunities to apply lessons from addiction research and treatment to efforts to counter hate and violent extremism.

    Jan 5, 2022

Commentary and Multimedia

  • Violent Extremism in America: Pathways to Deradicalization

    Ideologically inspired violence is a serious threat to U.S. national security. Research on effective strategies to fight it has often failed to engage the people who might know best: those who have lived that life and left it behind. Researchers partnered with antiextremism support groups to change that.

    Sep 8, 2021

  • Help, Not Just Hunt, Violent Extremists in the Military

    The Pentagon is working to rid itself of violent extremist members. In addition to strengthening the chain of command to detect and remove extremist members from its ranks, the military could also empower military family members to intervene.

    Aug 5, 2021

  • Exiting Extremism: What Binds People to Extremist Groups and How Organizations Help Them Leave

    What leads people to join violent extremist groups? How and why do they exit these groups and stop believing in radical ideologies? This one-hour webinar explores the forces that pull individuals to extremist groups, the binds that keep them connected, and why leaving can be so difficult.

    Jun 16, 2021

  • Human Intelligence: The Key to Ferreting Out Extremism in the Ranks

    The U.S. military is fighting extremism—including white supremacists and violent anti-government radicals—in its own ranks. De-radicalized former extremists can provide crucial first-hand intelligence on extremist groups' recruiting tactics.

    Mar 18, 2021

More RAND research and commentary on violent extremism

Art + Data

  • Describing (De)Radicalization

    RAND artist-in-residence Gabrielle Mérite has created visual essays that show the personal experiences of individuals involved with violent extremism. These essays are based on interviews that RAND researchers conducted to learn more about what leads people to join—and later leave—extremist groups.

    Jan 18, 2022

About the Project


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.