In the past five years, it has become increasingly common for practitioners and policymakers to draw from the insights of former right-wing extremists (RWEs) to generate knowledge on – and respond to – the threat of violent extremism and terrorism.
By former extremists, we refer to individuals who subscribed to and/or perpetuated violence in the name of a particular extremist ideology and have since publicly and/or privately denounced extremist violence. In short, they no longer identify themselves as adherents of a specific extremist ideology or are affiliated with an extremist group or movement.
While some researchers and practitioners have raised concerns about including former RWEs in this space (e.g., reliability and credibility issues), others have argued that formers can provide valuable, first-hand perspectives into issues concerning terrorism and extremism – opening up the ‘black box’ on what leads to entry and exit from RWE movements, for example . In what follows, we outline some of the key areas of research that have benefited from former RWEs’ experiences and insights.
For one, researchers relying on interviews with former RWEs have revealed a dynamic web of overlapping push and pull factors that predispose the onset of extremist activities. They have identified push factors refer to adverse qualities in the environment that increase one’s susceptibility to extremism, and pull factors that refer to features individuals find attractive about extremism.
One of the most common push factors identified in the RWE literature involves grievances, which refer to real or imagined wrongdoings against an individual and people group. Terrorism and extremism researchers who have incorporated former RWEs into their research designs have highlighted various ideological grievances, including perceptions of reverse discrimination, and feeling attacked by political correctness, multiculturalism, and affirmative action. Moreover, non-ideological grievances associated with childhood trauma have been found to push individuals toward extremist participation, such as family mental illness and maltreatment.
Researchers in this space have also examined other ideological and non-ideological factors that pull people into right-wing extremism. For example, previous studies have found that extremist organizations attract individuals for various reasons, including ideological alignment, protection, and the prospect of thrill-seeking behavior. In addition, social networks have been found to pull individuals toward extremist involvement, with one study finding that racist socialization from caregivers nourished racist knowledge, values, and habits by (both formally and informally) teaching participants their expected racial roles required to maintain a dominant white culture. Such racial messaging contributed to the development of participants’ racial consciousness and normative expectations regarding interracial dynamics and the notion that racism toward non-whites was acceptable. That being said, extremist involvement may be more a product of whom you know rather than what you believe. It is also important to emphasize that push and pull factors work in conjunction with one another – without the presence of push factors, pull factors would likely be much less influential.
Radicalization to violent extremism
Few issues have garnered as much attention in recent years in terrorism and extremism studies as the topic of radicalization. Radicalization generally refers to a multi-faceted, gradual process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs.
Much of the radicalization literature focuses on the channels through which ideologies and beliefs are developed and reinforced, including print, film, and music. However, with advances in the way humans communicate, including online platforms, the Internet has become a major focus among radicalization studies. For example, researchers who interviewed former RWEs found that the Internet serves as an effective venue for information exchange, ideological development, and establishing “echo chambers” that amplify radical beliefs and political activism into extremist involvement. Some work in this space also suggests that the Internet may enhance opportunities to become radicalized and provide a greater chance than offline interactions by confirming existing beliefs.
Extremist violence is another major investigative topic among radicalization studies. Researchers drawing from the insights of former RWEs to examine the development of extremist violence have found a complex process in which individuals progressed through several different pathways, such as racial socialization, incarceration, and mental illness, before becoming radicalized. Researchers, however, found no support for a clear trajectory toward RWE violence. Instead, individuals have been found to differ in terms of the communication channels they are exposed to, their pathways toward extremism, and the barriers that disrupt their violent tendencies. Research that drew from the voices of former RWEs to explore the Internet’s role in facilitating violent radicalization has similarly highlighted these complex pathways.
Leaving violent extremism
In addition to investigating radicalization processes, there has been a growing interest in understanding why people eventually leave violent extremism. Two concepts have been discussed in this regard: deradicalization and disengagement. Deradicalization refers to the process by which an individual is diverted from an extremist ideology, eventually rejecting these beliefs and instead adopting the values of the law-abiding majority. Disengagement is the process by which an individual decides to leave their associated extremist group or movement to reintegrate into society. However, these two processes can occur separately or simultaneously, depending on the context in which they take place.
While research suggests that most people who join violent extremism will eventually leave, less is known regarding how and why people disengage. But some work has incorporated the perspectives of former RWEs and found that leaving extremism is a process that is impacted by multiple experiences. Research has also found that various factors influence an individual’s exit, much of which was facilitated through self-reflection due to contact with law enforcement and the experience of incarceration. In some cases, a shift in social identity away from the RWE group was an influential factor for exiting, while others left extremism due to a disjunction between their initial expectations and realities of extremism. Additionally, the combination of burnout, encouragement from spouses or significant others, and positive individuals and relationships outside of an extremist movement influenced individuals’ decisions to disengage from right-wing extremism.
Three additional areas of research that include interviews with former RWEs are emerging on extremist disengagement. The first area concerns how an individual’s organizational role influences disengagement. The second area relates to the difficulties of leaving right-wing extremism, such as the negative emotionality involved, the chance of ideological relapse, and the lure of maintaining social ties with current extremist members. The third area concerns understanding the process of disengagement across extremist movements, such as a comparison of disengagement between left-wing and right-wing extremists.
Combating violent extremism
A growing industry is combating violent extremism, both in the “real world” and in cyberspace. Known as preventing violent extremism (PVE) and countering violent extremism (CVE), the former consists of efforts to minimize the conditions in which extremism may thrive, while the latter is designed to divert individuals away from radicalization by using “soft” approaches rather than securitized and/or criminal justice responses.
Here it has become common for practitioners and policymakers to draw from former RWEs’ insights in several P/CVE settings, including intelligence gathering, interventions, and counter-narratives. Yet scholars have been much slower to incorporate formers into their research geared towards P/CVE.
Nevertheless, a small but growing body of research is emerging in this space, particularly around the role of former RWEs in P/CVE initiatives. For example, in an assessment of the impact of former RWEs in school based PVE work, researchers found that they were in a position to access juveniles during periods in their lives that adults had difficulty accessing. Researchers have also investigated how former RWEs think violent extremism should be combated. Here they found that, while formers believed that they are in a unique position to educate stakeholders, experts, and the local community about extremism, they also believed that families, teachers, and law enforcement play an essential role in preventing extremism. Formers believed that because extremism is a complex phenomenon, grounded in both individual and social conditions, P/CVE initiatives must be multi-dimensional, building on the strengths and expertise of diverse public sector agencies in order to provide a wholistic and altogether different alternative for former RWEs to participate in.
Indeed, former RWEs have provided researchers, practitioners and policymakers with valuable information about radicalization and counter-radicalization. While we have highlighted several research trends in this space, it is clear that much more work is needed. We hope to have sparked some interest among those in the field to consider working with formers. Doing so may provide them with a unique insider’s perspective into an array of pressing issues that may not be addressed without the insights of those formerly involved in extremism.
Dr Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. He is also an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, a Research Fellow at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence, and an Associate Fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology. His research has been funded by Public Safety Canada, the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, and VOX-Pol. He was a speaker in the CARR-Hedayah De-Radicalization Webinars in Summer 2020.
Dr Steven Windisch is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University. His research relies upon developmental and life-course criminology and symbolic interactionist perspective to examine the overlap between conventional criminal offending and violent extremism.
Dr Pete Simi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University. He has studied extremist groups and violence for more than 20 years, conducting interviews and observation with a range of violent gangs and political extremists.
© Ryan Scrivens, Steven Windisch, and Pete Simi. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
This article was originally published at CARR’s media partner, Rantt Media. See the original article here.