Former Extremists Describe What Led Them to Radicalization — and What Led Them Out

Negative life events or exposure to propaganda can lead an individual to radicalization and, subsequently, extremist ideologies, according to a new report released by RAND Corp. based on interviews with more than two dozen former extremists.

Many efforts have been taken to combat this, with the most effective strategies being increasing mental health care, educating individuals on media literacy, and creating spaces to allow diverse cultural groups, according to Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and Their Families on Radicalization and Deradicalization.

Of the methods that have been tested, the least effective was harsh law enforcement actions.

“It may be difficult to observe noticeable changes in individuals until they are radicalized and those changes often are a surprise to their family,” said Ryan Andrew Brown, the study’s lead author and a senior social scientist at RAND. “It is only after the radicalization takes place that family members and friends may understand what has happened.”

RAND said the study is one of the first to reveal to the public firsthand accounts of individuals who were involved in extremist groups through interviews intended to better understand how the environment in which one grows up can lead them to join extremist groups. This understanding can hopefully better prevent people from joining.

Brown’s study interviewed included 24 white supremacists, 8 Islamic extremists, 10 family members, and 2 friends. The study focuses on four areas: background characteristics of radical extremists, pathways to radicalization, deradicalization and leaving organizations, and participant perspectives on mitigation strategies.

From these interviews, the study singles out several factors that could contribute to radicalization including financial instability, mental health challenges, and social factors. In most cases (18 of 32), recruitment was a “bottom-up” process, wherein the individuals became radicalized on their own through consuming propaganda online, as well as though books and music. Participants mentioned benefiting socially from joining these groups through a newfound sense of camaraderie and friendship.

Most interviewees mentioned disillusionment and burnout as the reason why they finally ended up leaving extremist movements. Oftentimes, it is groups – including religious groups, law enforcement, and secular nonprofits – who coordinate intentional interventions. These groups use intervention techniques such as providing emotional support, encouraging exposure to a culturally diverse environment, and aiding in achieving a more stable life in terms of finances or relationships. The interventions that failed, according to the interviewees, were ones coordinated by family members and punitive law enforcement.

Brown’s study includes suggestions on how to prevent radicalization within communities, such as expanding community mental health services and exploring whether interventions based on an addiction treatment model can help deter radicalization. Increasing exposure to diverse populations also was suggested as a way to derail extremism.

Read the RAND report

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