As concerns over domestic extremism have intensified, research is building a broader, deeper understanding of the causes and effects of domestic radicalization and radicalization-to-violent-extremism pathways. One recent study has combined the perspectives of those who chose an extremist path with the unique insights of family and friends to gain knowledge of why people radicalize or exit extremism.
Some key insights from the study by the RAND Corporation, supported by the National Institute of Justice, are:
- Financial instability, mental health issues, and social factors contributed to the radicalization of significant segments of people covered by the study. Social factors include victimization, stigmatization, or marginalization.
- More than half the former extremists in the study had experienced a “reorienting event” — a dramatic or traumatic life event — that had pushed them to reject former views and adopt radicalized beliefs.
- Most described consuming propaganda during their radicalization process, including mainly online materials but also books and music.
- Some study subjects had been recruited to extremism.
- In a majority of cases, forming new social bonds motivated individuals to join an extremist group.
- Some subjects noted positive aspects of the radicalization experience, such as feeling connected, and a new sense of power.
Another key insight from the interview-based study was that many respondents had exited extremism with the aid of their own or others’ “homegrown approaches” to deradicalization. Individuals formerly engaged in extremism created such approaches themselves and were employing them informally to assist others in deradicalizing. One research recommendation from the study called for the “scaling up and testing” of such approaches that had been found to work for the study subjects. The approaches include:
- Addiction-based programs countering hate and radicalization, including buddy systems designed to deter relapse.
- Educational and outreach efforts to help family, friends, and others identify early signs of radicalization.
- Social network approaches to individuals in radical organizations who might be ready to deradicalize.
- Deliberate exposure of radicalized individuals to positive contact with groups that were the targets of their hatred. (Former extremists reported that such exposure could be transformative.)
- Programs that create a safe, mentored space for individuals to freely express themselves and challenge each other’s beliefs.
The new research addresses a data gap in existing literature in terms of first-hand accounts of radicalization and deradicalization experiences.
The RAND team interviewed 36 subjects covering 32 separate incidents of radicalization or deradicalization. Twenty-four of those interviewed were formerly engaged in extremism, 10 were family members, and two were friends. Across the 32 cases, 24 individuals had engaged in white supremacist activity and eight had engaged in Islamist extremist activity. In the 32 cases, 17 were involved in extremist organizations in the 2000s, six prior to 2000, and six across both time frames. Sixteen individuals had violent intent, meaning they had engaged in or planned violent activities while in their organization.
The researchers worked with two organizations, Parents for Peace and Beyond Barriers, to recruit interview respondents.
The interviews were informed by the research team’s review of current studies focused on radicalized U.S. citizens living in the United States. Most of those studies used interviews, surveys, or other targeted data on radicalized or deradicalized individuals, family members, or peers. The team also reviewed information in the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) database.
The researchers examined radicalization and its prevention at four levels: individual, relational, institutional, and societal. The team structured the interviews to follow the “psychological autopsy approach,” involving systematic interviews with family and friends designed to learn about a person who died by suicide as well as events leading up to the death.
The RAND team acknowledged that the study’s reliance on convenience sampling of individuals referred by activist organizations working to counter extremism brought inherent bias to the study sample. They also noted that the research, by design, did not include cases in which subject individuals were still active in radical activities or organizations.
The study found that certain factors influencing radicalization or deradicalization were common across time, community, age, demographics, and life circumstances and experience.
Factors influencing radicalization:
- Abuse or trauma, difficult family life, economic struggles, bullying, and discrimination along with other negative life events, leading to distress, delinquency, and mental health struggles. (None of these life events, however, are ever the sole or most direct cause of radicalization).
- Recruitment to radical groups, leveraging personal vulnerabilities such as psychological distress and social marginalization.
- Extremist groups’ nurturing of a self-reinforcing social milieu that includes shared purpose, camaraderie, friendship, and joint activities.
- Addictive properties of radical ideology and involvement in extremist activities, whether those activities involve physical violence or trading insults online.
- Stigmatization of groups, whether Islamist, rural white, or other, pushes individuals at risk for radicalization further down the path.
- The enduring appeal of radical ideological movements, seemingly tied to the fact that they attend to fundamental human needs that sometimes go unmet.
Factors that influenced deradicalization include the critical importance of media literacy and open access to diverse information sources.
- The importance of childhood as a time to be exposed to diverse ideas, develop critical thinking skills, and engage in prosocial activities.
- The need to reach extremists at the right time and place to promote deradicalization.
Two factors influenced both radicalization and deradicalization:
- Triggering of the radicalization or deradicalization process by the individual’s experience of a dramatic, challenging life event.
- Attempts by formal institutions to deradicalize, which sometimes work, but often only deepen radical sentiments.
Other Findings on Interventions
The RAND study’s other key findings included:
- Deradicalizing and Leaving Extremist Organizations: The respondents in 20 out of 32 cases had exited a radical organization and had undergone a process of psychological and social deradicalization. Most of the 20 (12) were currently engaged in deradicalizing others. As with radicalization, the RAND report said, there is no standard model of how people turn away from extremist views or groups.
- Help and Intervention to Exit: Individuals or groups helped 22 individuals in cases collected in the RAND sample exit extremist groups. Those providing support included acquaintances, life partners, other formerly radicalized persons, friends, journalists, children, other family members, religious authorities, persons currently radicalized, therapists, and school officials.
- Failed Interventions: In 19 cases, respondents indicated they had experienced attempted interventions that failed. Most involved family members. Punitive interventions by law enforcement sometimes led to increased extremism.
Policy Implications and Future Research Directions
The study concluded with several recommendations for changes in policies and practices:
- Carefully consider trade-offs and appropriate balance between punitive and “soft” law enforcement interventions against radicalization.
- Increase advertisements and public service announcements about resources to help people deradicalize.
- Organize community-based educational opportunities that cultivate media literacy and responsible internet use.
- Expand opportunities for mental health care.
- Help at-risk parents and families recognize and react to signs of extremist radicalization.
- Provide opportunities for expanding diversity exposure to those at risk of ideological radicalization.
Given the exploratory nature of the study and the small convenience sample on which it was based, the RAND team recommended that future research should:
- Use both data science and ethnographic research to understand current processes of online radicalization.
- Conduct research on institutional and societal influences of extremism.
- Better identify geographic and demographic hotspots for radicalization.
Effective efforts to counter violent extremism will be better informed by the voices of those who took part in radical organizations as well as their family members and acquaintances. This RAND study carefully captured a sampling of those voices, gaining unique insights that can inform policy and practice recommendations supporting deradicalization and broader efforts to stem extremist violence.
Obtaining narratives from individuals formerly engaged in extremism, as well as family members and acquaintances, illuminates how factors often viewed as quantitative in nature have complex, time-dependent, and at times counter-intuitive effects on individual radicalization and deradicalization processes. The narratives also expose novel, causal processes that may be missed by other research methods.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2017-ZA-CX-0005, awarded to the RAND Corporation. This article is based on the grantee report “Research on Domestic Radicalization to Violent Extremism: Insights from Family and Friends of Current and Former Extremists” by Ryan Brown, principal investigator.