U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Research Provides Guidance on Building Effective Counterterrorism Programs

With the support of NIJ, researchers organized the largest known database on individual radicalization in the United States.
Date Published
July 8, 2018

There is no “one-size-fits-all” model when it comes to domestic terrorism. The process that leads individuals and groups to engage in terrorist acts is complex. It’s often the result of a host of psychological and emotional factors that are difficult to model.

For law enforcement to succeed in responding to those individuals who do become radicalized and engage in terrorist acts, counter-terrorism programs must be designed to cope with this complexity and need to include all relevant actors and policy options.

To explore these wide-ranging psychological and emotional factors, researchers involved with the Empirical Assessment of Domestic Radicalization project built the largest known database on individual radicalization in the United States. With support from NIJ, this database — Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States — organizes information on 1,473 radicalized individuals — both violent and non-violent — that include a variety of factors, such as each individual’s education level, immigrant status, duration of radicalization, and any history of abuse or mental illness.

Through this data, the researchers looked to identify:

  • The similarities and differences between each individual’s social networks.
  • Characteristics that are shared by or unique to radicalized individuals who commit violent acts as opposed to those who do not.
  • Whether it is possible to determine pathways to terrorism.
  • If previous theories on radicalization are supported by empirical evidence.

In particular, findings from researchers using this database suggest a number of implications for criminal justice policy in the U.S. These findings include:

  • Radicalization is more common among individuals who come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds and/or lack educational opportunities is generally not supported by the data collected. Most extremists come from middle class backgrounds and have at least some college education.
  • Stable employment may decrease the risk that individuals with extreme views will engage in violent behaviors. Stable employment often leads to the development of positive social relationships and places demands on individuals’ time that depress extremist activities. Programs that emphasize the acquisition of job-relevant skills may be effective for promoting sustained employment among at-risk individuals.
  • Radicalization remains a distinctly social process despite an increase in lone-actor behavior in the U.S. Programs and law enforcement interdiction strategies must be aware of the vital role that peer relationships, both face-to-face and online, play in the radicalization processes of lone and group-based individuals.
  • Radicalization is typically a long process, often lasting years. However, recent evidence suggests that online environments may be speeding up radicalization processes, reducing them to several months in many cases. Nevertheless, windows of opportunity exist for interventions by family, friends, community leaders, and others in a position to take notice of radical changes in an individual’s belief system.
  • Documented mental illness is relatively uncommon among radicalized individuals, but researchers say their results indicate that mental health conditions may be linked to higher propensities for violent behavior. Programs based on prevention and intervention may benefit from the inclusion of mental health professionals.
  • Successful programs need to address the underlying psychological and emotional vulnerabilities that make individuals open to radicalized narratives. These vulnerabilities may be the results of traumatic experiences or they may result from a sense of personal or community marginalization.

About This Article

The research described in this article was supported by NIJ grant number 2012-ZA-BX-0005 awarded to the University of Maryland.

This article is based on the grant report Final Report: Empirical Assessment of Domestic Radicalization (EADR) (pdf, 111 pages).

Date Published: July 8, 2018