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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The Three Ps of Amplifying and Accelerating Domestic Extremism in the United States

When communities are polarized, they increasingly see those on the other side of any issue as being completely unlike them and opposing their sacred values.

The question of the rise of domestic extremism in the United States is one which is regularly commented upon by journalists, political pundits, and scholars of numerous academic fields. The data supports a sharp rise in hate crimes over the past five years, including those directed at Asian-Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Violent extremist groups that have existed in the United States for decades if not centuries like the Ku Klux Klan and National Socialist Movement continue to gain members and sympathizers but are increasingly joined at rallies and protests, and in violent crime, by newer groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. Notably, members of the latter two groups have been charged with seditious conspiracy for their actions during the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol; their violent attempt to keep former President Trump in power was one never seen since the end of the Civil War. What is it that has contributed to the observed rise in domestic extremism, in the United States in particular?

Our own research, as well as that of others, has consistently shown that the making of a terrorist or violent extremist consists of four parts: the group, its violence-justifying ideology, social support for that ideology which may exist in one’s local community or online, and individual needs and vulnerabilities. For those living outside of active combat zones, such as those becoming radicalized in the United States, those individual needs and vulnerabilities often include those for belonging, dignity, meaning, purpose, and significance. This “lethal cocktail of terrorism” is a psychosocial one which applies equally to violent extremists of all ideologies, whether they are militant jihadists, white supremacists, incel shooters, single-issue terrorists, or those on the far left. Presently, we present an additional model which applies to the broader social milieu in the United States and has brought about the recent rise of domestic extremism described above. This model may appear to be sociological or political in nature, yet each of its components can affect the individual psychology of any American. Under these conditions, the ingredients of the lethal cocktail are made all the more potent, and any American can be at risk for radicalization to violent extremism. We have entitled this lethal cocktail-amplifying model the “3P” model of domestic extremism.

The first component of the 3P model is polarization. It is important to note that there is legitimate pushback against “both-sidesism” as well as some media outlets’ portrayal as each side of a polarized argument being supported by approximately equal numbers of people (as a relevant example, 61 percent of Americans think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases). Nevertheless, it is clear that Americans are becoming more and more polarized, increasingly shifting their ideologies toward what may have been considered the fringes in decades past. The further away from one another Americans grow ideologically, the stronger and thicker the in-group/out-group boundary becomes. By this, we mean, Americans on opposite sides of the political spectrum see each other less and less as sharing common sacred values or even sharing a common reality and truth. This becomes even more relevant when social media algorithms and news outlets feed this polarization by creating echo chambers[1] and isolating divergent views of reality and truth around issues, which are sacred for many. Whereas the boundary may previously have been blurred under the idea that everyone belongs to the greater in-group of Americans, talk of a “national divorce” indicates that the most polarized Americans view themselves as belonging to mutually exclusive groups, albeit with the same title. Indeed, extensive research has found that creating strict in-groups even based on the most trivial differences (i.e., the “minimal group paradigm”) can induce preference for one’s own group members and bias against if not outright animosity toward the out-group.[2]

The second component of the 3P model is propaganda. Propaganda, as well as mis- and dis-information, has been an important topic of discussion in considering American polarization and the rise of domestic extremism. Propaganda is certainly not unique to the 21st century but has been amplified through the advent of social media. Social media not only allows for the rapid spread of falsehoods across the country, but also for the enabling of echo chambers. People who get their news from social media will see the information posted by those they follow – typically, those with whom they already agree. They will also see the posts recommended to them by the social media platforms’ algorithm which is designed not to present accurate, objective information, or both sides of an issue, but rather to present information which keeps the individual on the platform. Typically, this information is that with which the user agrees or that which enrages the user, thus leading them to engage more with other users. After the main social media platforms found themselves used by ISIS for massive spread of their propaganda for terrorist recruitment and incitement these platforms found ways to carry out takedowns, but clearly social media continues as a hotbed of propaganda for many groups and a dangerous one: 36 percent of U.S. adults report that they get their news from Facebook. With some overlap, 23 percent of U.S. adults say that they get their news from YouTube, 15 percent from Twitter, and 11 percent from Instagram. Thus, at least one-third of American adults are taking what they see on social media to be factual information regarding current events without realizing they may have been funneled into an isolation and echo chamber, and many lack the media literacy skills to discern which so-called “news” stories are true, what the other side of the story could be, and which are designed to rile them up and make them feel scared and threatened. Given the aforementioned polarization, these individuals are apt to believe that which they hear or see from their own side of the political spectrum, particularly stories that portray those on the opposing side as deranged or dangerous. Such propaganda is often disguised as legitimate news but actually contains vicious conspiracy theories which appeal to the existing beliefs of the target audience and are designed to convince them that their sacred values are at risk.

In a polarized environment inundated with propaganda, the final component of an environment ripe for domestic extremism is promotion of violence. As previously mentioned, polarization includes the perception that one’s in-group does not share sacred values with those in the out-group, and propaganda is often designed to convince the reader or viewer that their sacred values are at risk. We use the term “sacred values” here intentionally. Anthropologist Scott Atran describes sacred values, defined as beliefs, whether religious or secular, held by a particular group which serve to bind the group’s members to one another through ritual or understanding that such beliefs are supernaturally ordained. These beliefs are also strongly emotionally evocative for those who hold them. According to Atran, “sacred values act as moral imperatives that inspire non-rational sacrifices in cooperative endeavors and war, generating outsize commitment in low-power groups to resist and often prevail against materially stronger foes” (p. 855).[3] For example, those who have killed doctors who perform abortions believe that their actions are righteous because they believe that abortion is murder and that they are saving thousands of lives by committing such a crime. Similarly, those who attack drag queens or pride parades may believe that they are protecting children from pedophilia if they believe rhetoric which says that LGBTQ+ people are “groomers.”

When thinking about sacred values in the American context, it is easy to see how perceived threats toward such could inspire violence. Broadly speaking, America’s “European (i.e., white) heritage” is frequently used by far-right violent extremist groups as a sacred value which must be defended against immigrants (particularly from the Middle East or South and Central America) as well as from the threats of increased voting power of Americans of color. These claims by white supremacists of a white genocide or white replacement being orchestrated by enemies of white people can underlie violent actions designed to incite a race war. For those who do not consider themselves to be racist or xenophobic, these threats about immigrants overtaking their country, as portrayed in the propaganda they see, can nevertheless ring true. In 2012, Ronald Brownstein wrote for The Atlantic that the American political landscape consisted of the “coalition of transformation” and the “coalition of restoration.” For those in the latter category, who had been served well by the status quo in the United States, those in the former group, who were advocating for systemic change, posed a threat to the America they knew and loved, one which prioritized the interests of white, straight, Christian men. It is clear to see the path from this perceived threat to white supremacist violence, including that committed under a slogan emblematic of “restoration”: Make America Great Again. This becomes dangerous when violence is promoted as the only way to defend their threatened sacred values. Similar promotions of violence in defense of sacred values can be seen among those who bomb abortion clinics, those who call for gun owners to defend their Second Amendment rights, and those who massacre Jewish worshippers because they believe that Jews are orchestrating white genocide or white replacement with an invasion of undocumented immigrants across the southern border.  Polarization has also been tied to the promotion of violence among those who ascribe to the Antifa ideology and movement, following such advice as “Punch a Nazi [or a MAGA] in the face,” engaging in serious property damage, engaging in street brawls, and arming themselves for street protests, all framed as defensive violence on behalf of Black lives, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, etc.

Numerous federal agencies have made clear that white supremacist domestic violent extremism has greatly surpassed the threats posed by militant jihadist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS as the largest threat to national security. The Department of Homeland Security has also recently issued warnings about counter attacks by far-left actors against crisis pregnancy centers. Thus, although far-left attacks have historically been far less abundant and less lethal than those from those on the far right, it is clear that our 3P model can certainly be applied to domestic violent extremism of any ideology. For example, many on the liberal end of the political spectrum view bodily autonomy as a sacred value which has been violated by their out-group, represented by conservative Supreme Court justices, in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In the presence of propaganda which promotes violence as a means of protecting that sacred value, domestic extremism may fester – for instance, in the case in which a man allegedly attempted to kill Justice Brett Kavanaugh after the decision was leaked but before it was finalized. Similarly, even foreign actors have tried to exploit polarization and the sacred values of justice and dignity as held by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement by using propaganda promoting violence reportedly spread by agents of the Russian government.

To conclude, then, our 3P model can be considered one that describes the social context in which the lethal cocktail of terrorism is amplified and accelerated. When communities are polarized, they increasingly see those on the other side of any issue as being completely unlike them and opposing their sacred values. They are thus primed to believe the propaganda they see which portrays members of the outgroup as not only opposing, but actively threatening those values. When that propaganda and those who disseminate it promote the idea that violence can and should be used to defend their sacred values against such threats, individuals who ascribe to an ideology that is supported by their network, and have needs which they believe will be met through association with a violent extremist group, are likely to engage in domestic violent extremism. The 3P model in which the terrorism threat is both amplified and accelerated needs to be taken seriously if we wish to preserve our democracy.

[1] Cinelli, M., De Francisci Morales, G., Galeazzi, A., Quattrociocchi, W., & Starnini, M. (2021). The echo chamber effect on social media. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences118(9), e2023301118.

[2] Diehl, M. (1990). The minimal group paradigm: Theoretical explanations and empirical findings. European review of social psychology1(1), 263-292.

[3] Atran, S., & Ginges, J. (2012). Religious and sacred imperatives in human conflict. Science336(6083), 855-857.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].

Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard. Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.

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