Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and their Families on Radicalization and Deradicalization

July 2021 No Comments

Speaker(s): Brown, R. (RAND); Helmus, T. (RAND)

Date: 4 August 2021

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a speaker session with Dr. Ryan Brown (RAND) and Dr. Todd C. Helmus (RAND) as part of its SMA General Speaker Series.

Dr. Brown stated that homegrown extremism has increased in the US during recent years. Both the lethality of attacks and number of domestic terrorist attacks have increased, which has resulted in several notable cases in recent history. The group’s presentation focused on identifying existential factors of radicalization, how individuals are radicalized, how individuals become deradicalized, and overall recommendations to counter radicalization. Dr. Helmus stated that financial challenges, mental health issues, and social factors such as marginalization are indicators of radicalization. Most of the 32 former extremists interviewed claimed they were radicalized through propaganda, music, literature, or social bonds with other extremists.

Dr. Brown commented that in almost half of the interviews disillusionment and burnout were the leading drivers for individuals to deradicalize. The interviewees identified group hypocrisy, infighting, and ineffectiveness as key drivers for their disillusionment. Most interviewees stated that they ultimately experienced successful interventions by life partners, friends, former radicals, or acquaintances from different racial or ethnic groups. These successful interventions included diverse demographic exposure, emotional support and kindness, and financial support or domestic stability. Interventions done by family, authority figures, or government agencies were generally ineffective and frequently increased extremists’ radical beliefs. Dr. Helmus emphasized that childhood is the most important time to expose people to diversity and ideas to decrease the chance of an individual’s radicalization. Dr. Brown stated that interventions based off an addiction like approach that using existing social networks are recommended. The group concluded by emphasizing that future research is needed to blend data science and ethnography with a geographic approach to better understand drivers of extremism at the ground level.

Speaker Session Recording

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Briefing Materials


RAND Report:


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