Paths to Extremism in America: Empirical Analysis Furthers Our Understanding

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has released its Empirical Assessment of Domestic Radicalization (EADR) to explore causal mechanisms and pathways taken to violent extremism, as well as explore possible applications to countering violent extremism (CVE) programs. The research team used a “mixed-method, nested approach to explore a number of key research questions related to radicalization” which led to the development of an entirely new dataset, the “largest known database on individual radicalization in the United States.” The Profiles of Individual Radicalization (PIRUS) is now available for public use, joining the already widely-utilized Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and other data tools made available by the START Consortium.

The EADR project, which began in early 2013 and relied on open-source information, sought to answer four primary research questions:

  • What are the demographic, background, and radicalization differences between and within the different ideological milieus?
  • Are there important contextual, personal, ideological, or experiential differences between radicals who commit violent acts and those who do not?
  • Is it possible to identify sufficient pathways to violent extremism? and;
  • Are the causal mechanisms highlighted by extant theories of radicalization supported by empirical evidence?

According to the project’s findings, “there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of radicalization.” The research showed a wide array of similarities and differences across various ideological milieus in the paths to radicalization. However, the report does provide some key findings and recommendations for CVE programs.

Some of the key findings are as follows:

  • Significant differences in background characteristics, group affiliations, and radicalization processes exist across the ideological milieus.
  • While the radicalization of individuals on the far left and those motivated by Salafi jihadist ideologies tends to occur in early adulthood, individuals on the far right and those who are motivated by single-issues often radicalize later in life.
  • The conventional wisdom that radicalization is more common among individuals who come from low SES [socioeconomic status] backgrounds and/or lack educational opportunities is generally not supported by the PIRUS data. Most extremists come from middle class backgrounds and have at least some college education. That said, 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.
  • Despite an increase in lone actor behavior in the U.S., radicalization remains a distinctly social process. Group and clique membership rates remain high across the ideological spectrum.
  • While competition between extremist groups in the U.S. is not significantly linked to an increase in violent behavior, group rivalries exist in high numbers on the far right. Research suggests that competition within and between groups can produce disillusionment with extremist movements for certain individuals.
  • Clique membership is high across the ideological spectrum and is linked to an increase in violent behaviors. As peers organize into small, insular groups, common biasing mechanism, such as group think and in-group/out-group bias, often set in, producing increasingly extreme behaviors.
  • The rates of prison radicalization in the U.S. are low and even across the ideological spectrum, suggesting that it is not a common pathway for most extremists nor is it limited to a particular ideology.
  • Radicalization is typically a long process, often lasting years for individuals, most often those on the far right. Recent evidence, however, suggests that online environments may be speeding up radicalization processes, reducing them to several months in many cases.
  • While documented mental illness is relatively uncommon among extremists, our results indicate that mental health conditions may be linked to higher propensities for violent behavior.
  • Individuals who engage in pre-radicalization criminal behaviors are significantly more likely to attempt or commit acts of violence post-radicalization.
  • Radicalization indicators are often the observable effects of underlying psychological and emotional processes. These processes are complex and are driven by feelings of lost significance and community victimization, as well as the intense need for psychological and emotional rewards.
  • CVE counter-narratives need to address feelings of community victimization in a way that challenge myths and misperceptions, but also acknowledges legitimate grievances.
  • Successful CVE programs will need to address the underlying psychological and emotional vulnerabilities that make individuals open to extremist narratives. These vulnerabilities may be the results of traumatic experiences (e.g. the loss of a loved one), or they may result from senses of personal and community marginalization.

The full report is available here on the HSDL. Readers without a login can find the report here.