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Domestic Extremism: No One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Disengagement From Extremism Activity or Beliefs, Study Finds

NIJ-supported research notes stark division in extremism disengagement pathways for persons with and without prison experience.
Date Published
April 18, 2022

For those engaged in domestic extremism, the process of exiting an extremist life can be relatively fast, or it can take a decade or longer, but always with a risk of relapse into extremist crime, affiliations, or beliefs.

Disengagement from extremist activity and associations can be facilitated by positive developments such as better pay, the birth of a child, or a new, non-extremist life partner; cutting back on substance use; or simple disillusionment with the extremist group. But it can also be blocked or delayed by factors such as membership in a close-knit extremist group or family, a criminal history, or poor educational attainment.

The diversity of influences and outcomes informing the prospects of exiting extremism suggests there is no one-size-fits-all model of disengagement.

Those are among key insights from research, supported by the National Institute of Justice, to better understand the process by which individuals move away from extremist beliefs, behaviors, and associations. The study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Responses to Terrorism, or START, provides a baseline for creating and assessing programs and practices to help individuals exit extremism. A key aim of the research was filling knowledge gaps on individual disengagement and deradicalization processes.

Using multiple research methods, the researchers studied individuals who formerly engaged in extremism but had desisted from crime, exited an extremist group, or moved away from extremist beliefs or affiliations. The study covered individuals who had taken part in far-right, far-left, jihadist, and single-issue extremism.

The research was done in three parts:

  • An examination of data related to 300 people engaged in extremism across the ideological spectrum.
  • Case studies of 50 people with right-wing ideologies engaged in extremism.
  • Life-course interviews with 41 individuals formerly engaged in extremism.

Measuring Success in Desisting and Disengaging

The first part of the study examined data on 300 people engaged in extremism[1] spanning the ideological spectrum – far-right, far-left, Islamist, and single-issue – and measured subjects’ success in:

  1. Desisting from crime
  2. Disengaging from an extremist group
  3. Shedding an extremist belief

The study team found that one third (33.7%) had attained all three outcomes. In the same study population, another 21.7% desisted from crime but stayed engaged with an extremist group, or persisted in extremist beliefs, or both.

The researchers found that barriers to disengagement and deradicalization could vary with ideological milieus. For example, individuals engaged in far-right extremism and those who were jihadists stood out in these respects:

  • Far-right: 80% struggled with social mobility.
  • Islamist: 77.1% belonged to close extremist cliques.

See Table 1 for barriers faced across the entire sample.

Table 1: The average individual faced multiple barriers to disengagement from extremism

Barrier to Disengagement

Percent of Subjects

Poor educational attainment


Member of close-knit extremist family or group


Non-ideological criminal history


Unstable work history


Substance abuse


Mental illness


The rates of deradicalization overall were relatively low, the researchers found, but that result likely reflected insufficient information from open sources on individuals’ beliefs.

The time required for an individual to disengage from an extremism path varied across the large sample, with 25.8% taking 10 or more years to disengage. See Table 2.

Table 2: Average time required to disengage after the individual’s initial extremist event

Time Required to Disengage

Percentage of Subjects

<1 year


1-3 years


3-10 years


10+ years


The Path to Disengagement Differs for those with Prison Records

In a second part, case studies of 50 right-wing domestic extremists[2] in the United States revealed a sharp divide in disengagement prospects and pathways between those with prison records and those never incarcerated. Those with a prison past were most likely to remain involved with extremist groups because of poor social mobility, substance abuse, trauma, and mental illness, the research found.

By comparison, those with no prison history faced obstacles to disengagement related to their identity associations and relationships.

The analysis showed how push/pull factors influenced exit pathways for prison and non-prison subgroups. For those with a prison record, push/pull factors (disillusionment with extremism, for example) only assisted exit from extremism when combined with improved social mobility, enabled by factors such as educational attainment, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and mental health support services. Social mobility played no role, in contrast, in the extremism exit processes of people with no prison history, the report said. Rather, development of a positive relationship with a non-extremist was a necessary condition for disengagement by far-right extremists with no record of incarceration, the researchers reported.

Life-Course Interviews Shed Light on Disengagement

A third part of the study, built on a total of 41 life-course interviews with 21 far-right, 13 far-left, and seven Jihadi-inspired individuals, elaborated on subjects’ experience as former extremists. Analysis of the interviews indicated:

  • Factors that help some extremist groups disengage or reject extremist beliefs may not be effective for others.
  • Individuals who leave prison face significantly different exit barriers than those with no prison experience.

Implications: Risks of Recidivism High

A primary implication of the research, the team found, is that for those attempting to disengage from domestic extremism, the risks of recidivism and re-engagement are potentially quite high, and many of those individuals are likely not to succeed in disengaging.

Moreover, the team’s research report said that “our results suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all model of disengagement.” Exit pathways are rarely fast or linear.

The researchers recommended that policies and programs to support the exit process be directed to key areas of support, including:

  • Mental health counseling
  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation
  • Job and educational assistance
  • Effective monitoring of social affiliations

Push/Pull Factors

A major focus area of the research was the impact of “push/pull factors” on extremism exit processes and outcomes. The term “push/pull,” a common concept in criminology research, in this context refers to the distinction between perceived negative factors that “push” individuals away from extremist conduct or beliefs and perceived positive external conditions that “pull” individuals away from extremism and toward a non-extremist life.

An example of a push factor would be disillusionment with one’s extremist group. Examples of pull factors would be development of a personal relationship with a non-extremist person and the birth of a child. See table 3.

The research team cautioned that, in light of the interview results, disengagement programs are likely to fail if they introduce push/pull factors without considering how individuals’ background characteristics and experiences condition their exit pathways. They also found that factors that help some individuals exit extremism are ineffective for others. See table 4.

Table 3: Impact of push/pull factors on the extremism exit process

Push-Pull Factor

Percent of Subjects

Increase in children 50.3
Positive advancements in socioeconomic standing and the birth of children were present in the exit process 48.6
Ending relationships with extremists or starting relationships with non-extremists 36.1
A change in religiosity contributed to disengagement from extremism 35.3
Decrease in substance abuse 25.9
Disillusionment with an extremist group 24
Table 4: Push-pull factors more common to particular groups within the sample
Push-Pull Factor Percent Far Right Individuals Percent Far Left Individuals Percent Jihadist Individuals
Positive change in relationships 43.9 41.1 14.3
Disillusionment with an extremist group or cause 25.6 18.3 33.9


The research team noted that data collection for the study was “significantly hindered” by:

  • Lack of information on extremist disengagement in open sources.
  • Difficulty finding participants willing to be interviewed.
  • Barriers to access to incarcerated subjects.
  • Limited access to official criminal justice data.

About this Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ awards 2014-ZA-BX-0003, awarded to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland. This article is based on the grantee report “Empirical Assessment of Domestic Disengagement and Deradicalization (EAD3),” by Michael Jensen and Peter Simi.

Date Published: April 18, 2022