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Combating Violent Extremism: Voices of Former Right-Wing Extremists



While it has become increasingly common for researchers, practitioners and policymakers to draw from the insights of former extremists to combat violent extremism, overlooked in this evolving space has been an in-depth look at how formers perceive such efforts. To address this gap, interviews were conducted with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists based on a series of questions provided by 30 Canadian law enforcement officials and 10 community activists. Overall, formers suggest that combating violent extremism requires a multidimensional response, largely consisting of support from parents and families, teachers and educators, law enforcement officials, and other credible formers.
Forthcoming in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism
Combating Violent Extremism: Voices of Former Right-Wing Extremists
Ryan Scrivens, Vivek Venkatesh, Maxime Bérubé, and Tiana Gaudette
While it has become increasingly common for researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to
draw from the insights of former extremists to combat violent extremism, overlooked in this
evolving space has been an in-depth look at how formers perceive such efforts. To address this
gap, interviews were conducted with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists based on a series
of questions provided by 30 Canadian law enforcement officials and 10 community activists.
Overall, formers suggest that combating violent extremism requires a multi-dimensional
response, largely consisting of support from parents and families, teachers and educators, law
enforcement officials, and other credible formers.
A growing industry (i.e., research centres, consultancy groups, and government departments) is
combating the problem of violent extremism, both in the “real world” and in cyberspace. Known
in academic and government circles as ‘preventing violent extremism’ (PVE) and ‘countering
violent extremism’ (CVE), the former consists of efforts to minimize the conditions (individual
and/or environmental) in which violent extremism may thrive, while the latter it is largely
designed to divert individuals from radicalization to violence using “soft” approaches rather than
purely securitized and/or criminal justice responses.
Commonly, researchers, practitioners, and
policy-makers draw from the insights of former violent extremists and terrorists – colloquially
known as “formers” – in a number of P/CVE settings, including intelligence gathering,
interventions, and counter-narratives.
For example, the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network is a global organization,
made up of former violent extremists and survivors of violent extremism, that counters extremist
narratives and prevents the recruitment of “at risk” youth. In short, AVE utilizes the lessons,
experiences, and networks of those who have experienced extremism first-hand. Here the aim is
to engage directly with individuals on several difficult issues as well as undercut violent groups’
ability to contact and recruit young people.
Another initiative whose core members are reformed
extremists is Life After Hate (LAH). In addition to conducting interventions to help people
disengage from violent extremism, this non-profit consultancy and speaker agency provide
organizations with scalable frameworks needed to implement long-term solutions to combat all
types of violent extremism and terrorism. Notably, it works with leaders in several sectors,
including foreign and domestic governments, the military, international security and intelligence,
policy makers, law enforcement officials, and the private sector, to name a few.
Social media, tech companies and think tanks have been quick to turn to formers to assist
in the development of online CVE campaigns. The ‘Redirect Method’, which identifies those
who are searching for violent extremist content on Google and then exposes them to counter-
narratives, is one illustration.
Formers have been involved in this process on at least two fronts:
(1) a small group of formers have developed the list of targeted search terms, and (2) many of the
counter-narratives that have been offered to the target audience feature the stories of formers.
Formers have also served as intervention providers on online CVE campaigns, including the
Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s (ISD) “One to One” pilot project, in which formers directly
messaged an array of individuals Facebook identified as right-wing extremists or Islamists.
A number of researchers in recent years have incorporated former extremists in their
research design. By conducting in-depth interviews with formers, researchers have gained insight
into processes of radicalization to violent extremism,
deradicalization and disengagement from
violent extremism,
or both pathways in and out of violent extremism.
In addition, researchers
have explored various aspects of the abovementioned processes, including the parental
influences on radicalization and de-radicalization,
the impact of extremist online content and
violent radicalization,
factors that minimize radicalization to mass casualty violence,
and the
role of formers in preventing terrorism and political violence in post-conflict communities.
Indeed, formers have provided researchers with first-hand accounts of, and insider’s perspectives
into, a number of key issues that terrorism scholars, amongst many others, are concerned with.
Yet in light of these important contributions, overlooked in this evolving space has been an in-
depth look at how formers think that violent extremism can be prevented and countered. This
study seeks to address this gap via a series of in-depth interviews with former right-wing
Current Study
This study is part of a larger project that draws from the experiences of former extremists to in
turn develop empirically-informed strategies to build resilience to violent extremism. First, we
consulted with key stakeholders, namely, Canadian law enforcement officials and community
activists, and they developed a list of interview questions that they would ask former extremists
and those questions were incorporated into the interview guide. Second, Canadian former right-
wing extremists were asked a series of questions about their involvement in and out of violent
extremism, ranging from questions about their pathways in and out of violent extremism to
questions about how they think stakeholders can build resilience to radicalization to violence.
This study represents an original contribution to the academic literature on violent
extremism, as it addresses three gaps in the research on preventing and countering violent
extremism. First, the study addresses an important missing data issue that limits many studies
relying on official and open source data to develop and share ways to combat violent extremism.
Drawing from the voices of insiders (i.e., individuals former involved in violent extremist groups
or movements) not only offers a first-hand account of the strategies that did and did not work
during their process of disengagement, but it also sheds light on the strategies that may have
engaged or diverted formers from getting involved in violent extremist groups or movements in
the first place. Second, a small but growing body of literature – particularly in the Western world
– has sprung up around the project of combating violent extremism which oftentimes draws from
the insights of – and shares the stories of – former extremists in general and former right-wing
extremists and Islamists in particular.
Scholars in this space, however, have been much slower
to ask formers how they think that key stakeholders, including researchers and practitioners
(amongst many others) should build resilience to violent extremism. Third, to date and within a
Western context, little research in terrorism and extremism studies has conducted a needs
analysis with law enforcement officials and community activists in preparation to interview
former extremists. This study, however, does not include an evaluation of the effectiveness of a
particular strategy for combating violent extremism,
nor does it evaluate any of the strategies
that former extremists in the current study suggest to us. Rather, the purpose of this exploratory
study is to provide an in-depth, descriptive account of how former extremists think that violent
extremism should be countered and prevented.
Data Collection and Interview Guide
Prior to conducting the interviews with formers, law enforcement officials and community
activists were asked to generate lists of interview questions that they would ask formers if they
were given the opportunity – questions that they believed, based on their own experiences with
combating violent extremism, would offer valuable insight into some of the ways of combating
violent extremism. The purpose of this approach was simple: rather than developing an interview
guide that was derived from an academic perspective only, we included interview questions from
key stakeholders for the purposes of developing a multidimensional, multi-perspective interview
In an effort to recruit law enforcement and community activists, contacts from across
Canada were contacted to discuss the nature of the project. As a result, a convenience sample of
30 law enforcement officials and 10 community activists were solicited through email
communications with a letter of invitation and “word of mouth” tactics. Law enforcement
officials who participated in the study were working in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia,
Alberta and New Brunswick and were stationed in various law enforcement divisions, including
but not limited to: research and innovation; crime prevention; major crimes; behavior analysis;
federal policing; state protection and intelligence; hate crimes, and; the extremist threat division.
Community activists who participated in the study were situated in Ontario, Quebec, and
Alberta, and were active members of various anti-hate initiatives across Canada.
Approximately 550 questions were collected from these stakeholders, ranging from
questions about the identities, roles, goals and activities of former extremists – both before,
during, and after their time in violent extremism – to questions about formers’ experiences with
leaving extremism, to questions about their perceptions of law enforcement and anti-extremists,
their use of the Internet, and how they think stakeholders can combat violent extremism. Given
the sheer volume of interview questions that were accumulated during this process, they were
organized into the following categories and duplicate questions were removed:
Personal experiences in violent extremism:
Before the radicalization process
Radicalization process
Experiences in the violent extremist movement
Leaving violent extremism
Reflections after leaving violent extremism
Responding to violent extremism:
Disengagement from violent extremism
Deradicalization from violent extremism
Preventing and countering violent extremism
Here the interview guide consisted of a combination of 275 open-ended structured and semi-
structured questions.
Interview questions, however, were not focused on P/CVE efforts in
Canada specifically, nor were they focused on matters pertaining to right-wing extremism.
Rather, the interview questions were framed in such a manner that explored matters relating to
violent extremism in general, all in an effort to have maximum impact within a Western
Once the interview guide was finalized, the next step was to recruit former extremists to
participate in the study. Initially we relied on our contacts from our research on right-wing
extremism in Canada,
which helped us gain access to a few formers. Over time – and through
numerous discussions – we developed a level of trust with these formers and they eventually
connected us with other Canadian formers extremists who they believed would participate in the
study. While we acknowledge the facilitation of snowball sampling to reach a wider group of
former extremists, we understand the risk of selection bias which limits the extent to which we
observe diverse points of view.
A total of 10 former right-wing extremists participated in the current study and were
recruited using a snowball sampling technique. Interviews were conducted either in person or via
telephone or Skype. Interviews were conducted voluntarily between the months of March and
September of 2018. Interviews on average were approximately 4 hours in length, ranging from
approximately 1.5 hours to 7 hours.
All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, and all names were de-identified for
the purpose of ensuring participant anonymity. Pseudonyms were used to protect the identities of
individuals and the violent extremist groups they were associated with. However, transcriptions
were verbatim, all in an effort to stay true to the voices of each respondent. Edits were minimal
and did not affect participants’ vernacular, use of profanity, or slang.
Sample Characteristics
Eight males and two females, ranging from 27 to 44 years old with an average age of 38, were
included in the current study. Each of these participants identified themselves as a ‘former
extremist’, meaning that they no longer identified themselves as ‘white power’ or were affiliated
with a right-wing extremist group or movement. Most were born in either urban or suburban
parts of Canada, but all were involved in violent extremist groups in major Canadian urban
centres. A large proportion of the study participants reported encounters with law enforcement
during their adolescence, from committed petty crimes (e.g., shoplifting, drugs, etc.) to acts of
violence (e.g., assaults). The amount of time that each interviewee spent in the right-wing
extremist movement ranged from approximately 4 years to 22 years with an average of 13 years
in length. Participants’ roles in these mostly racist skinhead groups ranged from presidents and
sergeants, to enforcers, musicians, and spokespersons. The majority of the study participants
were deemed the “upper echelon” of Canada’s right-wing extremist movement and
approximately half described themselves as group leaders.
The majority of the study participants claimed to be part of a violent group but were not
violent themselves. Only a small portion of the sample described themselves as violent. The
majority of the interviewees identified themselves as “off the grid”, meaning that up until the
point that they were being interviewed for the current study, never did they make it publicly
known – either through media or public events – that they, at one point in their lives, were part of
a violent extremist group or movement. Similarly, the majority of interviewees noted that they
had never participated in a research study.
Analysis and Coding Procedure
Results were analyzed via thematic coding, initially utilizing a constructivist grounded theory
approach which allows us to draw from existing literature to validate codes.
Later, as codes
were grouped into themes, we specifically focused on perceptions, attitudes, and experiences
toward/of preventing and countering violent extremism. Central emergent themes – composed of
respondents describing similar experiences or views – were identified, and less relevant data
were omitted (i.e., selective coding).
We coded and analyzed the data independently of one another, identifying the themes and
patterns with collaborative agreement reinforcing each emergent theme. Together, the use of
multiple perspectives enhanced the reliability of our observations and the subsequent
understanding of how former extremists in our sample think that stakeholders should combat
violent extremism. The purpose of this strategy was to authenticate our coding and to
maximizing the robustness of the results.
Preventing Violent Extremism
At the onset of the interviews, all of the study participants – when asked – made it clear that
disenfranchised youths were by far the most vulnerable, susceptible targets for recruitment into
violence extremism. This was especially the case for those who, as one participant explained,
looking for the sense of belonging, and are the ones who feel like they’re missing
out…like they’re not getting their…their piece of the pie. And whether that’s
economically, or socially or whatever, or just feeling like they don’t fit in somewhere, I
think that’s your…your target group [for preventing extremism]. [T]hey just didn’t fit in
somewhere (Participant 1)
As a result, when asked how to prevent such youth from joining violent extremism, 90 percent of
the interviewees noted that they had not given it much thought and took a moment to reflect on
the question. Upon further thinking, these study participants regularly spoke about how the
development of preventative measures was a difficult undertaking, oftentimes by describing their
trajectory into violent extremism as a complex, multi-dimensional and non-linear process.
Approximately three-quarters of the interviewees did, however, believe that a number of key
stakeholders, including themselves, should play a role in preventing young people from going
down similar pathways as they did. Interviewees provided a number of recommendations in this
Parents and Families
Approximately three-quarters of the study participants noted that a fundamental first step in
preventing youth from violent extremism starts at home with parents and more broadly with
families. Consistently discussed here was the need for parents to get involved in their child’s life
– a key component that was missing from approximately three-quarters of the participants’ early
upbringing. When asked, for example, if a family member had ever tried to stop them from
joining a violent extremist group, one former extremist who was involved in the right-wing
extremist movement for over 10 years noted:
I remember a cousin saying to me: “why are you involved in racism? You’ve just got to
love everybody”. It didn’t help that he was a little pipsqueak, right? Because I was trying
to be a tough guy, so I was never going to take advice from this type of guy, right? If only
it had happened to be my father or somebody really close to me who could’ve just
said…just painted the picture for me where this, you know…where this was going.
(Participant 2)
Much like the above study participant, 70 percent of the interviewees described how meaningful
interactions with their parents may have deterred or even prevented them from joining a violent
extremist group. Three participants, on the other hand, were a bit skeptical about whether parents
could prevent their children from joining an extremist group – perhaps, in part, because 80
percent of the interviewees did not have strong relationships with their families. In fact,
approximately three-quarters described feeling isolated and disconnected from their families.
Nonetheless, throughout the interviews, 80 percent of the participants noted that, if parents could
in fact prevent their children from engaging in violent extremism, it would have to be a multi-
faceted effort consisting of several components. In particular, these interviewees noted that
parents – and family members in general – should teach their children, at a young age, about the
complexities of polarizing social issues, including but not limited to the issue of racism,
intolerance, and discrimination. As one participant explained: “Teach your kids from a young
age that, you know what? We are all the same but we’re different and our differences are good
(Participant 2). Three participants – reflecting on their own experiences growing at home –
oftentimes mentioned that families should not be accepting of passive forms of racism in the
home environment. As one participant put it:
I don’t know if you grew up around any of it, but it’s…it’s like this passive racism that
has existed for frickin’ generations that we just accept. “Oh, it’s Grandpa. He just talks
like that.” No, he doesn’t! “Why does he talk like that, right? Why does he…why does
Grandpa hate Jews?” Well, that’s what we should ask him. Not just accept that he denies
the holocaust. […] That passive racism is a huge thing. […] Like why do we accept that
as humans? (Participant 2)
These participants added that, instead of assuming that their children can navigate such issues on
their own, parents should develop – and sustain – a positive home environment in which open,
critical and reflexive discussions are facilitated. When asked, for example, an interview question
about what could have been done to stop or slow their radicalization process, one participant who
was in the right-wing extremist movement for approximately five years noted:
if it was possible for me to ask the questions [at home] …like the politically incorrect,
difficult, offensive questions that we honest to God just want to know, you know…if we
[…] had had a place where we felt we could ask those questions and get an honest answer
without being told, “well you’re an awful person for thinking this”, then maybe I would
have had a different path. (Participant 3)
Critical within this context – according to approximately half of the participants – is for parents
to invest emotional time in, and be aware and conscious of, what is going on in their child’s
lives, regardless of whether or not they suspect their child is going down a path to violent
extremism. Having said that, 80 percent of the study participants noted that their parents were
largely unaware of the level of the violence associated with the extremist groups they hung
around with. As a result, their parents oftentimes turned a blind eye on their child’s involvement
in violent extremism. As one example, in discussing their early involvement in violent
extremism and how they were introduced to radical views and extremist groups, one participant
described how he was oftentimes neglected by his parents – in short, they were in denial about
his involvement in extremist violence. This participant further noted that: “If somebody had at
least pretended they cared about my well-being…because it’s not good for your well-being to
join these groups. […] I think it was a little bit of them saying, ‘well nah, it’s just a fad. It will go
away” (Participant 2).
Four other interviewees, in sharing similar stories about their childhoods, described how
family members should engage with their children by simply listening to them, free from
judgement – unlike the family environment that they grew up in. To illustrate, when asked how
to prevent youth from going down the same path to violent extremism as they did, one
participant noted that “the parents would have to be familiar with what’s going on [in their
children’s life]. Gotta talk to them about it. But pay attention [...] and ask questions but don’t be
condescending” (Participant 9). Similarly, another participant claimed that parents should “see
how they’re [children]…they are doing. See if they’re being picked on. See if they’re being
bullied. See if they feel disconnected. Teach the kids that there’s a better alternative to
disassociating yourself from society” (Participant 5). Also expressed by six participants was the
need for parents to simply accept their children for who they are, otherwise it may further isolate
and push them further into violent extremism. As one participant explained it: “I would say for
parents, definitely however your kid turns out…like sexuality, gender identity, personality and
things like that, just accept them. Because if you try to change them, they’re going to rebel.
They’re going to feel like you don’t accept them” (Participant 6).
Lastly, 80 percent of the study participants noted that it is critical for parents to be
informed of the warning signs of their children going down a path to violent extremism in order
to intervene. In discussing the ways in which families can identify the warning signs, these
interviewees oftentimes discussed the signs that they showed when they were becoming more
ingrained in violent extremism – from the attire they wore and the music they listened to, to their
change in demeanour and whom they associated with. Seven interviewees, for example,
explained that, as they became more involved in violent extremism, they became increasingly
aggressive and anti-social, as well as withdrawn from their families and friends. Four
participants also noted that they started to wear white power clothing and listen to white power
music, as well as branded themselves with racist tattoos. In most cases, though, there were clear
indicators of their interest in an extremist ideology and/or a group. As one participant who was a
member of one of the most violent right-wing extremist groups in Canada explained:
If you’re talking about parents and their kids, you know…you can…there are signs of…if
their [….] child is starting to display behaviors that are…come into question, like
wearing certain clothes or patches, or listening to certain kinds of music, or you know
displaying flags, or even the way they talk, you know? Try and find those identifiers of
behavior because that’s where it starts! So, try to stop it before it grows because as I said,
it is a process so, you know…potentially you could stop it before it got to…you
know…full radicalization. (Participant 1)
Schools and Communities
In an effort to prevent disenfranchised youth from engaging in violent extremism, many of the
abovementioned suggestions extended beyond the household, and into schools and into the local
community. For the former, when asked how to prevent young people from joining violent
extremist groups, half of the participants oftentimes spoke about their own experiences in
schools, noting that they received little to no education on issues about racism and
discrimination, for example. As one former extremist who spent more than 25 years in the right-
wing extremist movement explained it:
People need to understand that there should be some sort of curriculum in schools that
talks about…you know…racism, or anti-racism training or these types of things. I think
that should be in schools…high schools specifically. Even middle school, like grade
seven and eight. They’ll understand it. They just got to be old enough to understand what
it means. So, there was none of that in schools when I was growing up, right? Obviously,
there was that odd thing every year that had some anti-racism campaign for a couple of
days, but then once that was over, back to normal, right? (Participant 9)
Four participants similarly also noted that providing youth with education in schools about the
dangers, consequences, and long-term impact of joining violent extremist groups may prevent
them from joining. Such education, according to five participants, may have altered their
pathway into violent extremism. As one participant explained it:
If only I had had some education beforehand about, you know, what a hate group was
[and how] it just…it profoundly alters you as a person and not in any good way, and it
can put yourself and your family in danger, and there’s huge personal risks involved. If I
had had some kind of education […] I would have been able to look at it […] with at
least a little bit of sophistication instead of just like, “this is the greatest thing I’ve ever
seen”, then maybe I might have had a different path. (Participant 3)
Three participants shared similar views, but based on their experience in violent extremism, they
believed that the focus of the preventative measures should be on the dangers of joining violent
extremist gangs first and foremost. As one participant recommended: “go into schools […] but
talk about staying out of gangs […] Try to convey that message, ‘cause […] if you’re in a gang,
you’re more likely to get in a fight or do something stupid and get hurt or die, or go in jail”
(Participant 9).
Three-quarters of the interviewees believed that those who are working in schools, as
well as in local communities, must be able to identify the signs of someone going down a
pathway to violent extremism in order to intervene, or as one participant – who was in the right-
wing extremist movement for over 20 years – noted: “there should have been some manner of
intervention. I gave off all the signs. Like all the signs were there. Somebody really should have
got in to me at the ground floor” (Participant 7). Commonly expressed by study participants,
however, was that those who show signs of adhering to radical views should not be met with
hostility. This type of reaction, according to 80 percent of the study participants, was very
common when they were involved in violent extremism, not only from their teachers and
classmates but from members of their communities as well. When asked, for example, if
someone had ever tried to prevent them from joining a violent extremist group, as one participant
Quite a few people, but the thing is a lot them had come at me with aggression, like “oh
my God, how could you believe this?” And I remember […] a sit down with the cop
[where] he talked to me in this really patronizing way, like “oh you’re a young little girl,
you don’t know anything” kind of bullshit. But I think some of that was his ego.
(Participant 6)
Eight participants oftentimes discussed how these types of aggressive, judgemental responses
further pushed them into violent extremism and, as a result, they feared that similar reactions
would push others in similar directions. Five of these participants noted that it is important, then,
for people to simply listen to these disenfranchised youth, or as one participant explained it:
If you’re a kid, you don’t listen to an adult, you know? […] As an adult, I’m trying to talk
you out of it [violent extremism]. And if you wanna get in, you’re gonna get in. If I try to
talk you out, that’s gonna make you go in more. And even…you know…with my
experience, I don’t have an answer. […] But I’d say pay attention and just listen. I guess
just listen to what they have to say and maybe that might help – not responding
negatively, you know? (Participant 9)
Three participants further added that, if members of their local community are quick to judge and
chastise people who do not share similar views as them, doing so may have unintended
consequences: furthering the divide between those who hold left-wing and right-wing views.
One of these participant, for example, noted that when “you get people and it’s like if you
disagree with something, then you’re evil. […] For me, that’s what promotes it [radicalization to
violence]. Just that whole thought process of ‘you have to think this way or you’re evil’
(Participant 9). Another interviewee echoed similar sentiment:
The rhetoric on the left normalizes what should be an extreme position. […] Because the
rhetoric is pushing people who are marginally or […] people who are center-right and
beyond. You’re pushing them farther out, creating an antagonistic environment where it’s
the extreme right versus everybody left of center. (Participant 10)
Law Enforcement Officials
Approximately three-quarters of the study participants noted that law enforcement officials may
assist in the process of preventing youth from joining violent extremist groups. All of these
interviewees, however, were rather cautious and, in some cases, skeptical about making this
claim. Four participants, for example, noted that, when they were in the violent extremist
movement, they had experienced a number of negative interactions with law enforcement and, to
this day, still struggled with trust issues. When asked, for example, what advice they had for law
enforcement officials to prevent violent extremism, one participant noted: “Well, they would
never listen to me anyway. […] I would have zero advice” (Participant 4). Three other
participants shared similar views, noting that the violent extremist groups that they were
affiliated with were, by and large, rooted in anti-law enforcement principles. As one participant
explained it:
When someone’s getting involved [in violent extremism], they’re usually gonna hate the
cops. You know, like the big slogans ACAB [all cops are bastards]. The...and especially
if they’re […] hanging out with gang people. A cop trying to approach them and talk to
them is not a good idea. It’s...they’re going to get a negative reaction. (Participant 9)
Four study participants further described the challenges that law enforcement may face if they
approach a young person who they believe is going down a path to violent extremism, noting
that the mere presence of them communicating with police may be seen by the group as
suspicious. One participant, as an example, described a situation in which the group he was part
of saw him communicating with law enforcement and
everybody was like […] “You’re hanging out with the cops!?” So that’s creating
dissension right there…so everybody thinks I’m a snitch type thing. […] Yeah,
it’s...that’s a struggle for the cops. […] If you’re a skin [racist skinhead], you’re not going
to want to be seen talking to a cop. (Participant 9)
Despite these challenges, approximately three-quarters of the study participants believed
that police could play a role in preventing young people from engaging in violent extremism. But
such an undertaking – according to these participants – would require that law enforcement be
aware of the immediate challenges they will most likely face when confronting those who are
going down a path to violent extremism and respond accordingly. Similar to how participants
believed that families and their local community should respond to young people who are
expressing radical views and/or drawn to violent extremist groups, four participants described a
similar approach for law enforcement, where the interactions between law enforcement and
youth should be based on a level of respect, free from judgement. As an example, when
interviewees were asked what advice they had for law enforcement officials to prevent violent
extremism, one former extremist in the study provided a response that summed up the sentiment
expressed by four other participants:
I would definitely say don’t start challenging people on their beliefs should you come
across them ‘cause that’s just one good way to provoke them and it doesn’t help matters
at all. That one police officer that I had dealt with […] talked to me as an adult, didn’t
talk down to me like I was used to from other people outside of the movement, didn’t
challenge my beliefs, did ask me a couple questions the odd time about it [the radical
beliefs]. So, he was almost talking to me like he was a friend of mine as opposed to this
cop that was intervening on me. But regardless of what he thought about me, I still
appreciated the fact that he did treat me with respect. (Participant 6)
Similarly, two study participants described how law enforcement will be effective if they
approach an individual who is going down a path to violent extremism in a non-confrontational
manner. One participant also noted that law enforcement would be effective in this regard if they
approach a youth when he or she is away from the group or large crowd:
But yeah, for the cops I guess not approaching hostile. But that’s hard because how do
you approach a gang? Because they’re going to be on their toes, right? […] Instead, try to
find…try to find guys when they’re walking by themselves or just like one or two of
them and just pull over and talk to them, “hey, what’s up?” and try to be friendly. […]
It’s like give respect, gain respect type thing. (Participant 9)
Three study participants also encouraged law enforcement to engage in the community-based
and educational side of preventing violent extremism, in which law enforcement could educate
people in the local community about how to identify signs of extremism in all its forms. When
asked, for example, how law enforcement could prevent violent extremism, one participant noted
that “…more [police] programs need to be happening around community engagement, trying to
engage the community to learn about types of extremism, [and] warning signs…” (Participant 2).
Collaborative Efforts with Formers
Together, the most effective way of preventing violent extremism, according to 80 percent of the
interviewees, is through collaborative efforts, which would consist of what one participant
described as a “support network for everybody [where] everybody’s equal. We all support each
other, accepting of differences” (Participant 6). When asked what an effective prevention
program would consist of, eight interviewees noted that responding to such a multi-faceted
problem (i.e., violent extremism) requires a multi-faceted response. As one participant put it:
There’s a lot of factors [associated with why people join violent extremist groups]. So, if
you’re talking from my experience, the white power stuff, I think […] having formers,
[…] law enforcement, education, schools, communities [involved in the prevention
program]. What you’d really have to do is get a lot of different people together and kind
of pool your knowledge and resources of what’s happening. Because there’s so many
levels to why this happens. (Participant 1)
Furthermore, in preventing violent extremism in all of its forms, these study participants
consistently noted that former extremists should play a central role by working on the front lines
with a number of key stakeholders, including parents, families, teachers and educators, and local
communities. Again, when asked what an effective prevention program would consist of, one
former extremist in the study noted:
I would probably have a team of formers, right? […] And you’d want a…you’d want to
have an academic research department [and] you’d want to have community groups
involved. […] You need to have…just a multi-dimensional approach, right? And then,
lastly if we could…I don’t even like to say this but there’s got to be a law enforcement
thing […] So, how do we streamline that information to the law enforcement? Not
investigation. Just…obviously if there’s a safety thing, we need to look at that, right? So,
how do we do that? There’d have to be a department that looks at that. (Participant 2)
Lastly, 90 percent of the study participants believed that former extremists could provide key
stakeholders with advice on how to prevent violent extremism, ranging from information on
what draws youth into violent extremism and how to identify signs of risky behavior to ways of
communicating with the youth. When interviewees were asked why former extremists should
play a central role in preventing violent extremism, one participant noted that: “Because we were
all in! We’re the ones with all the experiences. As painful as some of the memories are, I think
it’s important to share them” (Participant 6). Eight interviewees further explained that much can
be learned from former extremists about how to prevent violent extremism, as formers have
insider knowledge about what draws people into violent extremism and “can help steer these kids
on the…you know, better direction. […] They can stop other people from going down the same
path and making the same violent mistakes” (Participant 5).
Countering Violent Extremism
When study participants were asked a series of questions about countering violent extremism
specifically, the focus of the discussions were almost exclusively on the development of exiting
strategies, with formers as the most suitable actors in helping people leave violent extremism. In
particular, 80 percent of former extremists in the study described, at great lengths, how the most
central actor in helping people who want to leave violent extremism should be those who have
first-hand experience in a violent extremist movement or, as one participant put it: “someone
who’s actually […] walked the walk, talked the talk” (Participant 5). Accordingly, one
participant noted:
That would be formers – someone…someone who knows what’s going on in the
movement and [knows] how to talk to them [people who want to leave extremism].
Because you can’t just have…can’t just have a random person go up that doesn’t know
shit about anything. That’s not…you know, you’re going to look like an idiot. But for the
conversations of getting out [of violent extremism], it might be a former. (Participant 9)
In discussing the role of former extremists in countering violent extremism, seven interviewees
described the need for an infrastructure to be put in place for formers to help others leave
extremism. Here they described this arrangement as one that should consist of two key
components: (1) a team of ‘credible formers’ who were willing to put in the time to interact, one-
on-one, with those who wanted to leave violent extremism, and (2) a team of key stakeholders
assisting ‘credible formers’ in helping people leave violent extremism.
Credible Formers
Seven interviewees oftentimes noted that, for adherents who, on the one hand, wanted to leave
violent extremism and who, on the other hand, were seeking support from a former, it was
essential for them to know that the former, first and foremost, is deemed ‘credible’. One
participant, for example, used a scenario to describe how he would view a former if he were still
involved in violent extremism but wanted to leave and was seeking support from a former. He
noted that:
You can’t be fake. I…I would sense it. “This guy’s paying lip service to…to some
ideology.” […] I would definitely have seen right through that crap. […] And he certainly
should have lived the life too – like not a guy that wore a bomber jacket for three months
and then watched two of his friends get beat up then he grew his hair out. It should be
somebody who was actually…had their fuckin’ nose in the dirt. (Participant 7)
Five participants further claimed that a ‘credible former’ was someone who was active and spent
time in the movement because, as one interviewee put it: “they’d had their emotional time
invested in the movements, they’d left the movement, and they know what path they’ve gone
down.” (Participant 5). Interestingly, this “emotional time” was seen by approximately three-
quarters of the interviewees as a form of ‘credibility’ – adherents could relate to formers (and
vice versa) because of their invested time in extremism. Three participants also noted that such
credible voices could encourage others to re-think their involvement in violent extremism. As
one former in the study explained it:
Well I think it’s clear that the people who can help the best are the people who were in it
[violent extremism] and who have left. […] Because I think when people see that these
people have the courage to leave and then they kind of…explain their motivations for
leaving, I think that might encourage a lot of people to say, “you know, maybe this isn’t
the right thing. Maybe...maybe I should consider getting out of this or at least think about
it.” Hearing from someone who hasn’t been in it, it doesn’t really hold as much weight
because they don’t really...they don’t know. But coming from someone who lived it and
was actively a part of it, I think that just…you have a lot more clout. (Participant 1)
This “clout” – according to five participants – was a characteristic that adherents could easily
relate to during their disengagement process.
Four interviewees consistently noted that ‘credible formers’ must also put in the time to
interact, one-on-one, with those who want to leave violent extremism. In other words, formers
who would be involved in helping others leave extremism should be those who can commit to
the oftentimes very intimate and personal process of leaving violent extremism. In describing
how formers could help others leave, one participant, for example, noted that they should be:
someone who has the time to actually sit and talk and listen and spend time because, you
know […] telling anti-racist activists that they need to be compassionate and open-
hearted to racists to help them leave is kind of bullshit and an unfair ask. […] And, you
know, for the people who feel that they can do that, and if they want to do that, you know
that you can’t just have one phone conversation and think that’s going to do it. Like you
need to have repeated interactions. (Participant 3)
Oftentimes discussed within this context was how, when the study participants themselves were
leaving violent extremism, they were apprehensive about who they would ask for help.
Consequently, all four interviewees believed that, while the relationship between the adherent
and former may be developed to suit the needs of the individual leaving extremism, the
intervention itself should be done face-to-face, on a consistent basis, and free from judgement.
The purpose here was to build a level of trust between parties. As two study participants
explained this type of interaction:
I might have first looked at him [the former] like he was really weak for leaving, you
know? Back then, that’s how I…I probably would have thought that at first, but if I was
given that…that controlled environment where it was him and I, really sitting down and
talking, […] him and I one on one, well... (Participant 7)
If a person is hardcore in [a violent extremist group], then they’re hardcore in, you know?
If there was a time when someone approached me and they full-out said, “hey, you need
to get out”, or some of the other guys, if you tried to approach them, they’re gonna get
knocked out! It has to has to be at a time and a place and a certain scenario for that
to happen. Like […] a former could help, but it would […] be a slow process. Just…you
know talk to him. And I think you’d have to let them bring it up though, ‘cause […] a lot
of the guys I hung out with you can’t just walk up to them and try to engage that
conversation. It’s gonna be a negative...a negative outcome. (Participant 9)
Worth adding here was that such interventions were largely unavailable to all study participants
when they were in the process of leaving violent extremism. In fact, little to no exiting programs
were available to them at all. Instead, 80 percent of the interviewees noted that they had to seek
out support from others – primarily family members and/or friends. These were the central
figures who, on the one hand, the formers respected and trusted, and on the other hand, were
those who would not criticize them about their radical view and instead would simply listen to
them and communicate, free from judgement.
Seven study participants did, however, claim that exit programs or formal support may
have helped them leave extremism and when asked what would have been the most helpful for
them during their process, all seven noted that communicating with a former would have been
beneficial. One interviewee further noted that, for formers who would be willing to do outreach
work and help others leave extremism, such efforts
need to be structured. […] You need to have…there needs to be a voice…somebody
relatable and somebody who can…who will…one on one, talk to these guys, you know,
whether they’re young kids or full-grown men. […] [I]t’s not going to be a YouTube
video of somebody who’s famous telling people they should be cool to each other.
It’s…it’s got to be more personal than that I feel. Like, all the slogans you can tout in the
world would not have changed my mind [to leave violent extremism]. You need…I
needed that personal interaction, that back and forth, that bouncing of ideas. (Participant
Collaborations Between Formers and Stakeholders
The second pillar of the described infrastructure was the inclusion of key stakeholders
and experts to assist formers in helping people leave violent extremism. In particular, four
participants in the study discussed how formers, without the assistance of others, are not in a
position to help others leave the movement. As one participant so candidly put it:
we [formers] all have so much of our own baggage. Even if we’ve been out of the
movement for a couple of decades, we might not be the best people […] for somebody to
be taking life skills advice from. But I think…I think we could be a part of the team to
help somebody. (Participant 3)
Having said that, brought up by eight participants was the belief that formers who help people
leave extremism should collaborate with stakeholders and experts. In fact, these interviewees
believed that, in helping individuals leave the movement, formers could not do it on their own.
As one interviewee noted:
I don’t think that it…that a former extremist should be the full point of contact from
somebody who’s trying to get out [of violent extremism]. […] I would want to be doing it
in conjunction with somebody who is, you know, like a trained psychologist who could,
you know, make sure that the person is getting the support that they need, you know,
beyond…just, you know, whatever I could possibly offer, ‘cause I wouldn’t want that
responsibility. I wouldn’t want to be the only person that somebody who’s an extremist is
talking to in trying to get out. Like that’s a huge, you know, that’s a huge thing.
(Participant 3)
Three study participants provided more concrete examples about how various stakeholders could
assist formers in helping people leave the movement. For example, one interviewee described
this collaboration as a “multidimensional approach between actors”, wherein formers should be
involved in some form of community engagement and community outreach at the local level,
working with “community engagement people that are practitioners in the community that are
not law enforcement” (Participant 2).
Interestingly, Participant 2 brought up a point that was consistently raised by study
participants: 90 percent of the interviewees believed that law enforcement should play a minimal,
peripheral role in helping people leave extremism. Three of the interviewees were also hesitant
about having law enforcement play any type role in peoples’ disengagement process. Six
interviewees, however, noted that law enforcement, in certain situations, can play a role in
helping people leave extremism. Specifically, these interviewees noted that it was only when an
adherent decides to leave and is seeking help from law enforcement that they may play a role in
their disengagement process. Such efforts, however, depend on two factors: (1) the level of
violence associated with the extremist group an individual is leaving, and (2) the extent to which
an individual needs protection against a particular violent extremist group(s). In other words, law
enforcement may serve as protection if an individual is trying to leave a violent extremist
movement who, in turn, may retaliate against them or their family. As two participants explained
…so they know who they can go to and feel safe getting out of the movement. So, law
enforcement could assist in that. Maybe they can be, sort of, part of that process. Just,
maybe with the safety side of things so they feel...people…they don’t feel like they’re in
danger if they leave. And in some cases, that might be the case with the more violent
types of people. (Participant 1)
a guy who’s in, you know, the [name of extremist group removed]…when he’s trying to
leave, he might get nailed to some ply wood in the back alley and set on fire or
something. For getting out of that, that might have to be the police or something, right?
‘Cause if you’re…if you’re involved on that level, in that type of [violent] group, to get
out of that…if you have a family, they would have to get moved too. So that would have
to be a police level thing. […] If I [as a former] try to help a guy get out, I can just talk to
him. But I can’t really […] I can’t protect him. So yeah, on that level... it would have to
be a group effort. (Participant 9)
Such a process also requires what one participant described as a “give respect, gain respect”
relationship between law enforcement and a movement adherent, wherein both parties treat each
other with respect and dignity.
In the past five years, it has become increasingly common for practitioners and policy-makers in
the Western world to draw from the insights of former extremists to combat violent extremism.
Researchers too have shown a growing interest in drawing from the voices of former extremists
to address key research questions in terrorism and extremism studies, including studies focusing
on processes of radicalization to violent extremism
and processes of deradicalization and
disengagement from violent extremism,
for example. Yet overlooked in this emerging area of
work has been an in-depth look at how formers think that violent extremism should be prevented
and countered. The purpose of this study was to address this gap by drawing from the voices of
those who have engaged in hatred, namely, former right-wing extremists, asking them questions
about how to combat violent extremism as well as leverage their lessons learned to develop
empirically-driven strategies to build resilience to violent extremism. Several conclusions can be
drawn from this study.
First, formers in the current study believe that disenfranchised youth, by far, are the most
vulnerable of and susceptible to being recruited into violent extremism and, as such, they believe
that preventative measures should target this population. These views align with empirical
studies that claim that disenfranchised youths are vulnerable to extremist messaging and
Second, formers believe that various key stakeholders – including parents and families,
teachers and educators, the local community, and in some cases, law enforcement officials – play
an important role in preventing young people from going down similar pathways that they did. In
particular, formers suggest that parents and families can prevent their children from violent
extremism if: (1) parents and families invest themselves in their child’s life and are aware of
potential warning signs of their children going down a path to violent extremism, and (2) parents
and families facilitate an inclusive home environment, which includes discussions of polarizing
issues. Similar recommendations extend to the school and community setting, wherein schools
and, by extension, the local community must be one of inclusivity – individuals, even if they
maintain radical views that are counter to the mainstream, should not be judged, otherwise they
may be further pushed into violent extremism. Law enforcement, although they may face more
challenges than the previously, can assist in preventing youth from engaging in violent
extremism, but similar to families and their community should respond to young people who are
expressing radical views and/or drawn to violent extremist groups, the interactions between law
enforcement and youth should be based on a level of respect, and free from judgement. Indeed,
many of views expressed by formers in the current study echo the findings in previous empirical
work highlighting the importance of social and/or family support and awareness, paired with
openness to critical discussions, all in an effort to prevent violent extremism.
Third, in discussing ways to counter violent extremism, formers in the current study are
largely concerned about helping others leave violent extremism, and they believe that formers
should be the central actors helping individuals to leave – a finding that is largely supported by
empirical research on the psychology of victimology and the process of deradicalization.
However, in discussing the role of former extremists in this regard, the need for an infrastructure
be put in place was oftentimes discussed, which consists of (1) a team of ‘credible’ and
‘dedicated’ formers who are willing to put in the time to help people leave, and (2) a group of
key stakeholders who can assist these formers in helping people leave. What formers are
referring to here is what has been conceptualized in terrorism and extremism research as multi-
sectoral approaches to combating violent extremism.
Indeed, violent extremism is a complex
and multi-faceted phenomenon, grounded in both individual and social conditions. P/CVE
initiatives, then, must be multi-dimensional, building on the strengths and expertise of diverse
sectors, including but not limited to local community organizations, police officers, and policy-
makers. In other words, efforts to counter violent extremism cannot only be seen as a law
enforcement or intelligence issue. It is a social issue. As a result, law enforcement officials
should partner with various local community organizations, human rights activists, and
academics, sharing knowledge and ideas for enhancing and/or developing P/CVE initiatives.
Fourth and finally, formers in the current study believe that they are in a unique position
in which they can educate stakeholders and experts, as well as the local community, about what
draws youth into violent extremism, as well as the factors that give rise to and minimize violent
extremism. Former extremists also believe that they can offer insight into the warning signs of
individuals going down a pathway to violent extremism, and they believe that they can help
others leave – provided they have the proper infrastructure. Together, the results of the study
suggest that formers believe that combating violent extremism cannot be done without what they
perceive as the appropriate actors at the table.
Limitations and Future Research
This study represents a first step in exploring how former extremists think that violent extremism
should be prevented and countered. While this study is not without its limitations, they can be
leveraged to generate new knowledge on ways to combat violent extremism.
First, the study sample consisted of a group of formers who were deeply entrenched in
violent extremism for an extensive period of time. Indeed, their views about preventing and
countering violent extremism may differ from those who were active in violent extremism for a
short period of time. Having said that, future studies may consist of in-depth, life history
interviews with those who quickly “came and left” violent extremism, all in an effort to identify
and unpick the factors that deterred them from going further into violent extremism and what
made them leave extremism.
Second, the study sample was limited to former extremists who were from one country,
were active in one type of violent extremist movement, and who may be deemed as the “older
guard” of the Canadian right-wing extremist movement (i.e., adherents from the 1990s and early
2000s). Moving ahead, future research should compare former extremists’ perceptions about
combating violent extremism across movements (i.e., former Islamist extremists versus right-
wing extremists versus left-wing extremists), across nations (e.g., the United States versus
United Kingdom versus Europe versus Australia), and across time frames in which they were
active in a particular violent extremist movement (e.g., 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and now).
Third, some researchers and practitioners have raised concerns about including formers in
CVE efforts, ranging from discussions about their reliability and credibility to questions about
whether their inclusion could raise concerns in the public sphere.
Likewise, others have noted
that little research has evaluated the effectiveness of formers in CVE initiatives.
Future studies,
then, should conduct evaluations of mechanisms (e.g., an understanding of how these efforts
have an effect on different stakeholders), moderators (e.g., the contexts in which they work best),
implementation burdens, and costs
associated with formers working in the P/CVE space.
Lastly, while formers in the current study provided a number of broad yet noteworthy
recommendations that may assist in the development of prevention strategies for combating
violent extremism in various settings and contexts, several of these recommendations raise more
questions than answers. How, for example, can many of the recommendations be implemented?
Schools, for example, may not have the funding nor resources to host educational campaigns
about the consequences of joining violent extremist groups. Teachers require specific
professional development which includes training on pluralism, inclusive dialogues as well as
development of critical thinking and cognitive tools to discuss difficult topics like extremism,
racism, discrimination and other forms of marginalization in society. Community groups may not
feel comfortable working with former extremists (and vice versa) to combat violent extremism.
Parents and families may not be able to create inclusive home environments that encourage
discussions about polarizing issues. At the very least, however, our hope is that these
recommendations spark the interest of those who are concerned with developing ways to combat
violent extremism.
See Shandon Harris-Hogan, Kate Barrelle, and Andrew Zammit, “What is Countering Violent
Extremism? Exploring CVE Policy and Practice in Australia,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism
and Political Aggression 8 (2015): 6-24; see also William Stephens, Stijn Sieckelinck, and Hans
Boutellier, “Preventing Violent Extremism: A Review of the Literature,” Studies in Conflict &
Terrorism. Ahead of Print.
See Daniel Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization: Methods, Tools and Programs for
Countering Violent Extremism (London: Routledge, 2017); see also Marian Tapley and Gordon
Clubb, The Role of Formers in Countering Violent Extremism (The Hague: International Centre
for Counter-Terrorism, 2019).
For more information on AVE, visit
For more information on LAH, visit
A dedicated Redirect Method website is at
See Todd C. Helmus and Kurt Klein, Assessing Outcomes of Online Campaigns Countering
Violent Extremism: A Case Study of the Redirect Method (Santa Monica: RAND
Corporation, 2018).
Jacob Davey, Jonathan Birdwell, and Rebecca Skellett, Counter Conversations: A Model for
Direct Engagement with Individuals Showing Signs of Radicalization Online (London: Institute
for Strategic Dialogue, 2018); Ross Frenett and Moli Dow, One to One Interventions: A Pilot
CVE Methodology (London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Curtain University, 2014).
Julie Chernov Hwang and Kirsten E. Schulze, “Why They Join: Pathways into Indonesian
Jihadist Organizations,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 30 (2018): 911-932; Daniel Koehler,
“Right-Wing Extremist Radicalization Processes: The Formers’ Perspective,” JEX Journal
EXIT-Deutschland 1 (2014): 307-377; Daniel Koehler, “The Radical Online: Individual
Radicalization Processes and the Role of the Internet,” Journal for Deradicalization 1 (2014):
116-134; Pete Simi, Karyn Sporer, and Bryan F. Bubolz, “Narratives of Childhood Adversity
and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism: A Life-Course Criminological
Approach,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 53 (2016): 536-563.
Kate Barrelle, “Pro-Integration: Disengagement from and Life After Extremism,” Behavioral
Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 7 (2015): 129-142; Bryan F. Bubolz and Pete
Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate: Life-Course Transitions and Self-Change,” American
Behavioral Scientist 59 (2015): 1588-1608; Froukje Demant, Marieke Slootman, Frank Buijs,
and Jean Tillie, Decline and Disengagement: An Analysis of Processes of Deradicalisation
(Amsterdam: IMES Amsterdam, 2018); John Horgan, Mary Beth Altier, Neil Shortland, and
Max Taylor, “Walking Away: The Disengagement and De-Radicalization of a Violent Right-
Wing Extremist,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 9 (2017):63-77;
Pete Simi, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch, “Addicted to Hate:
Identity Residual among Former White Supremacists,” American Sociological Review 82 (2017):
1167-1187; Steven Windisch, Gina Scott Ligon, and Pete Simi, “Organizational [Dis]trust:
Comparing Disengagement Among Former Left-Wing and Right-Wing Violent Extremists,”
Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 42 (2019): 559-580.
Stijn Sieckelinck, Elga Sikkens, Marion van San, Sita Kotnis, and Micha de Winter,
“Transitional Journeys Into and Out of Extremism. A Biographical Approach,” Studies in
Conflict & Terrorism 42 (2019): 662-682.
Elga Sikkens, Marion van San, Stijn Sieckelinck, and Micha de Winter, “Parental Influence on
Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the Lived Experiences of Former Extremists
and Their Families,” Journal for Deradicalization 12 (2017): 192-226.
Jerome Drevon, “Embracing Salafi Jihadism in Egypt and Mobilizing in the Syrian Jihad,”
Middle East Critique 25 (2016): 321-339; Koehler, “The Radical Online”; Inga Sikorskaya,
Messages, Images and Media Channels Promoting Youth Radicalization in Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek:
Search for Common Ground, 2017); Ines von Behr, Anaïs Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke
Gribbon, Radicalization in the Digital Era: The Use of the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and
Extremism (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2013).
Pete Simi and Steven Windisch, “Why Radicalization Fails: Barriers to Mass Casualty
Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence. Ahead of Print.
Gordon Clubb, “‘From Terrorists to Peacekeepers’: The IRA's Disengagement and the Role of
Community Networks,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37 (2014): 842-861.
Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan, eds. Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective
Disengagement (London: Routledge, 2008); Kurt Braddock and John Horgan, “Towards a Guide
for Constructing and Disseminating Counternarratives to Reduce Support for Terrorism,” Studies
in Conflict & Terrorism 39 (2016): 381-404; Rachel Briggs and Sebastien Feve, Review of
Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism: What Works and What are the
Implications for Government (London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2013); Tami Amanda
Jacoby, “How the War Was ‘One’: Countering Violent Extremism and the Social Dimensions of
Counter-Terrorism in Canada,” Journal for Deradicalization 6 (2016): 272-304; Logan Macnair
and Richard Frank, “Voices Against Extremism: A Case Study of a Community-Based CVE
Counter-Narrative Campaign,” Journal for Deradicalization 10 (2017): 147-174.
Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization; Tapley and Gordon Clubb, The Role of Formers in
Countering Violent Extremism.
See Amy- Jane Gielen, “Countering Violent Extremism: A Realist Review for Assessing What
Works, for Whom, in What Circumstances, and How?” Terrorism and Political Violence. Ahead
of Print.
While certain terms, such as ‘radicalization’ and ‘de-radicalization’, were included in the
initial interview guide, we were concerned that some of the study participants may be put off by
these terms. Other participants may have been involved in violent extremism prior to such terms
being used in the mainstream. As a result, our interview guide, while systematic, was also
flexible and dynamic. As but one way to account for the above concerns, within our interview
guide we included a side list of alternative terms and ways of framing the questions. For terms
associated with ‘radicalization’, as an example, alternative terms included ‘indoctrination’ or
alternative wording such as ‘adhering to radical views’ or ‘thinking differently than other
people.’ For terms associated with ‘de-radicalization’, alternative wording included ‘being open-
minded’ or ‘thinking differently.’
It is important to highlight that, while the interview guide consisted of a set of questions that
corresponded specifically with the interview guide categories noted above (such as “how old
were you when you were first introduced to radical beliefs), the guide also consisted of a similar
and rigours set of questions within and across categories. For example, the guide included a
systematic series of questions about friendship networks, belief systems, use of the Internet, and
interactions with law enforcement (amongst many other topics of discussion) both before,
during, and after being involved in violent extremism.
See Perry, Barbara, and Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada (Cham,
Switzerland: Palgrave, 2019).
See Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory (London: Sage, 2006).
Norman K. Denzin, The Research Act in Sociology (Chicago: Aldine, 1970).
Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization; Tapley and Gordon Clubb, The Role of Formers in
Countering Violent Extremism.
Koehler, “Right-Wing Extremist Radicalization Processes”; Simi et al., “Narratives of
Childhood Adversity and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism.”
Barrelle, “Pro-Integration”; Horgan et al., “Walking Away.
Demant et al., Decline and Disengagement; Melissa Finn, Bessma Momani, Michael
Opatowski, and Michael Opondo, “Youth Evaluations of CVE/PVE Programming in Kenya in
Context,” Journal for Deradicalization 7 (2016): 164-224; Hwang and Schulze, “Why They
Join”; Perry and Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada; Sieckelinck et al., “Transitional
Journeys Into and Out of Extremism”; Simi et al., “Narratives of Childhood Adversity and
Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism.”
Amy-Jane Gielen, “Supporting Families of Foreign Fighter: A Realistic Approach for
Measuring the Effectiveness,” Journal for Deradicalization 2 (2015): 21-48; Sikkens, et al.,
“Parental Influence on Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the Lived Experiences
of Former Extremists and Their Families”; Steven Weine, “Building Resilience to Violent
Extremism in Muslim Diaspora Communities in the United States,” Dynamics of Asymmetric
Conflict 5 (2012): 60-73.
Pauline G. M. Aarten, Eva Mulder, and Antony Pemberton, “The Narrative of Victimization
and Deradicalization: An Expert View,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 41 (2017): 557-572.
Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen, “Countering Violent Extremism with Governance Networks,”
Perspectives on Terrorism 10 (2016): 135-139; Jacoby, “How the War Was ‘One’”; Macnair and
Frank, “Voices Against Extremism”; Scrivens, Ryan, and Barbara Perry, “Resisting the Right:
Countering Right-Wing Extremism in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal
Justice 59 (2017): 534-558.
See Scrivens and Perry, “Resisting the Right.”
See Radicalisation Awareness Network, Dos and Don’ts of Involving Formers in PVE/CVE
Work (Bordeaux: RAN Centre of Excellence, 2017).
See Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization.
See Kate Bowers, Paul Gill, Ruth Morgan, Sarah Meiklejohn, and Shane D. Johnson,
“Challenges for EMMIE as a Realist Evaluation Framework,” in Graham Farrell and Aiden
Sidebottom, eds., Realist Evaluation for Crime Science: Essays in Honour of Nick Tilley
(London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 98-118.
... Gesellschaftsebene, konnte in bisherigen quantitativen Studien ebenfalls eine Reihe radikalisierungsbezogener Risikofaktoren herausgearbeitet werden, wobei es auch hier deutlich weniger sind als auf Mikroebene. Davolio & Drilling, 2009;Decker et al., 2008;Fangen, 1998;Gaudette et al., 2020;Heitmeyer et al., 1993;Hopf, 1993;Hopf et al., 1995;Horgan et al., 2017;Kaletta, 2008;Klandermans, 2020;Kleeberg-Niepage, 2012;Koehler, 2014;Mrozowicki et al., 2019;Rieker, 1996;Scrivens et al., 2019;Sigl, 2013;Sommer, 2010;Flecker et al., 2004). Acht Studien untersuchten Islamismus (Abbas & Siddique, 2012;Akkuş et al., 2020;Aslan et al., 2018;Larsen, 2020;Lützinger, 2010;Neumann, 2019;Reiter et al., 2021). ...
... Als Resilienzfaktoren der Mesoebene sind in der qualitativen Forschung die Beziehungsebene bzw. Erziehungserfahrungen auszumachen (Fangen, 1998;Gaudette et al., 2020;Heitmeyer et al., 1993;Hopf, 1993;Hopf et al., 1995;Mrozowicki et al., 2019;Reiter et al., 2021;Rieker, 1996;Scrivens et al., 2019;Sigl, 2013 ...
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Politischer Extremismus, sowohl im rechtsextremen als auch im islamistischen Spektrum, bleibt eine gesellschaftliche Herausforderung, die die Erforschung effektiver Präventionsmethoden notwendig macht, die ressourcenorientiert und nicht stigmatisierend, praxisnah und universell anwendbar sind. Im vorliegenden Projekt nahmen wir eine Resilienzperspektive auf Radikalisierungsprozesse ein, um wesentliche Schutz- bzw. Resilienzfaktoren zu identifizieren, die junge Menschen widerstandsfähig gegenüber Umständen und Einflüssen machen, die Radikalisierung begünstigen können.
... 2 Formers supposedly possess higher levels of milieu specific knowledge, personal experience and expertise in detecting and countering extremist radicalization, as well as a strong intrinsic credibility when preventing entry into or persuading to exit from extremist milieus. 3 As a result, a long tradition of formers' involvement in P/CVE work exists in the assumption formers are more credible than alternative messengers. ...
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Former extremists and terrorists (‘formers’) are seen as key messengers and mentors in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). Their assumed effectiveness rests on their unique, intrinsic source credibility due to their biography. Having ‘walked the walk’ and ‘talked the talk’, it is widely assumed that such individuals are ideal to present counter messages. Formers are typically viewed as more credible and effective messengers in contrast to other messengers, in particular the police, when targeting ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences. This study presents findings from an experimental survey that tested whether far-right former extremists and police officers are perceived as credible sources in P/CVE communications among the general population and among a far-right milieu. Challenging wide-held assumptions in the P/CVE field, the present study found that far-right former extremists are perceived as neither credible nor lacking credibility among the general population, nor are they perceived as credible among a far-right milieu. Further, police officers were found to have the highest credibility in P/CVE communication. The paper outlines policy options for engaging with former extremists in P/CVE: detailing ways to embed former extremists with messengers who have institutional expertise.
... Finally, literature examining defectors, returnees, and resocialization are primarily occupied with assessing the potential security threat and the challenges returnees bring [1,16,59] (e.g., Hegghammer 2013; Malet and Hayes 2018; Pokalova 2020). Concerning addressing those issues and challenges, studies dealing with the handling of returnees in a legal perspective emerge (see [17,75] [85] for a study of how former right-wing extremists perceive efforts at combatting violent extremism). Greenwood (2018:217) [11] finds that the foreign fighter returnees she interviewed experienced a return to "an unfriendly terrain in which the foreign fighters were viewed with suspicion as would-be terrorists", which challenged their meaning formation. ...
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Since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, an increasing number of European youth have joined Salafi-jihadist milieus in their home countries and/or in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict zone. Some are ardent believers in ending their days as—what they perceive to be—martyrs. Others renege on their commitment, return, and resocialize into conventional society. While engagement, disengagement, and resocialization have each been explored as phases separately within the existing literature, a coherent, criminological study of how those sequences are interconnected has still not been explored in a Danish context from an empirical angle. On the basis of qualitative interviews with three Danish Salafi-jihadist defectors (for example, from the Islamic State), this article unravels the connection and disconnection between engagement, disengagement, and resocialization. The analysis is theoretically informed by David Matza’s theory of drift (1964). However, the theory does have its limitations. As the commitment to Salafi-jihadism entails more than simply an “episodic release from moral constraint”, which defines drift, the informants are only part-time drifters, and here it is argued that the informants are rather entering and exiting a spiraling vortex of Salafi-jihadism. These entries and exits are fueled by the returnees’ nurtured and fractured fantasies.
... P/CVE professionals have participated in a multitude of studies, including qualitative accounts based on interviews with practitioners (Johansen 2018;Haugstvedt 2020;Weeks 2018), formers (Christensen 2015;Scrivens et al. 2019;Bérubé et al. 2019), families of foreign fighters (Amarasingam and Dawson 2018), government officials (Warrington 2018;Meier 2020), Muslim community leaders (Rashid 2014), and other intervention providers (Liesbeth and Schuurman 2018;Madriaza and Ponsot 2015). Some of the studies also include a discussion of problems practitioners face in their work and how they attempt to deal with them (Haugstvedt 2020;Johansen 2018), how they understand important concepts such as extremism (Mattsson 2018), and how they experience their local surroundings (Wimelius et al. 2020). ...
The P/CVE sector is a growing and increasingly professionalised field in many countries affected by "homegrown" extremism. While opinions of individuals working and researching in the P/ CVE sector have informed many studies, little is known about these professionals as people. This is problematic, because P/CVE employees are not black boxes; they have personal motivations, opinions, and experiences, which potentially influence their work and therefore the development and implementation of prevention and counter -extremism efforts. The present study offers a preliminary glimpse into P/CVE professionals as individuals by reporting the analysis of 27 experts interviews with academics and practitioners working in P/CVE, who describe their personal motivation for working in this particular field. These motivational factors range from childhood experiences to personal interest in the topic, anger, the wish for a positive personal impact, the desire to use research to improve social ills, and personalised responsibility to protect democracy
... Jeg benyttede en tematisk kod-ningsstrategi, hvor jeg løbende gennemgik interviewene på skrift, trak temaer ud, vendte tilbage til mit interviewmateriale og derefter praeciserede temaerne yderligere, indtil der tegnede sig et mønster af tvaergående temaer, overlap og forskelligheder mellem interviewene (jf. Scrivens et al. 2019). De fleste fund kunne identificeres på tvaers af interviewene. ...
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Siden 2012 er 161 personer udrejst fra Danmark til krigszonen i Syrien eller Irak for at tilslutte sig islamisk ekstremistiske grupperinger (Politiets Efterretningstjeneste 2022). Forskning inden for islamisk radikalisering og terrorisme har i en årrække beskæftiget sig med, hvordan fremmedkrigeres vej til salafi-jihadisme kan forklares. Kun en meget lille del af denne litteratur beskæftiger sig med fremmedkrigernes pårørende og deres indblik i, hvordan deres familiemedlemmer endte i et salafi-jihadistisk miljø. Baseret på kvalitative interviews med fire kvindelige pårørende til fire danske, mandlige fremmedkrigere har denne artikel til formål at undersøge, hvordan de pårørende forklarer deres familiemedlemmers vej til og fortsatte engagement i salafi-jihadisme. Blandt andet mændenes svære livssituationer, personlighedstræk og mentale lidelser er med til at gøre dem åbne over for en række rekrutteringstaktikker, som samlet set er afgørende for deres vej til salafi-jihadisme. Negative og positive følelsesmæssige oplevelser er derudover essentielle for den forsatte tilknytning til terrororganisationerne. Artiklen analyserer desuden den måde, hvorpå informanterne forholder sig til fremmedkrigernes egne retfærdiggørende narrativer. Artiklen viser, at de pårørendes indsigter skal forstås som vidneudsagn snarere end som forsøg på at retfærdiggøre og normalisere fremmedkrigernes handlinger.
... The involvement of former extremists as P/CVE practitioners has a long track record but only recently become the focus of research looking at the effects and potential risks, as well as their own perspectives on this field (e.g. Scrivens et al., 2019;Tapley and Clubb, Fall 2021 No. 28 ISSN: 2363-9849 2019; Walsh and Gansewig, 2019;Gansewig and Walsh, 2021;. Their experience and time spent inside extremist movements can produce credibility, e.g. by knowing the movement's organisational structure or being familiar with the ideology (Tapley and Clubb, 2019: 10). ...
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The involvement of former extremists or family members of terrorists in measures aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) has recently gained more attention in research and practice. However, little is yet known about the motivations of these individuals as to why they chose to engage in P/CVE activities. Understanding what drives such engagement could provide a better appreciation of the potential impact of such deployment, whether beneficial or detrimental to both the individuals involved and their respective P/CVE-target audience – and contribute to the evolving discourse regarding the effectiveness and potential risks of such P/CVE interventions. This article draws on eight biographical-narrative interviews with four former right-wing extremists and with four relatives of jihadist foreign fighters, all of whom are currently engaged in P/CVE work. Through qualitative reconstructive methods, a combination of narrative and thematic approaches was used to reconstruct the action-relevant orientations for the interviewees' activism. Results indicate that family members are motivated by coping mechanisms for traumatic stress, by social relatedness derived from a ‘positive marginality’, and in response to situational demands. Motivations of former extremists include finding their way back into society, having their new identity mirrored back to them, or maintaining a sense of self-continuity through ‘role residuals’. The results show that, in the case of family members, motivation is affected by exposure to traumatic stress. They also suggest that a locus of control among former extremists can signify different stages of deradicalisation in some forms of exit pathways and thus help to identify different risks depending on a former’s P/CVE role.
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Research has overwhelmingly focused on pathways into violent extremism, but few empirically grounded analyses have examined pathways out of violent extremism. Even less is empirically known about the interactions between processes of disengagement and deradicalization from violent extremism. To address this gap, in-depth interviews were conducted with ten Canadian former right-wing extremists who were actively involved in violent racist skinhead groups, with interview questions provided by thirty Canadian law enforcement officials and ten local community activists. Participants were asked about their pathways out of violent extremism with a particular emphasis on processes of disengagement and deradicalization. Overall, our study findings highlight the multifaceted and multidimensional nature of pathways out of violent extremism as well as how radical beliefs persist beyond disengagement from violent extremism. We conclude with a discussion of the study limitations and avenues for future research.
What makes a neo-Nazi become a convinced anti-fascist or a radical left-winger become a devout Salafist? How do they manage to fit into their new environment and gain acceptance as a former enemy? The people featured in this book made highly puzzling journeys, first venturing into extremist milieus and then deciding to switch to the opposite side. By using their extraordinary life-stories and their own narratives, this book provides the first in-depth analysis of how and why people move between seemingly opposing extremist environments that can sometimes overlap and influence each other. It aims to understand how these extremists manage to convince their new group that they can be trusted, which also allows us to dive deep into the psychology of extremism and terrorism. This fascinating work will be of immense value to those studying radicalization and counter-radicalization in terrorism studies, social psychology and political science.
This chapter looks at how the Far Right appeals to the imagination of young people by leveraging the fantasy genre in popular culture. Thus, the ordinary young white man is invited to become a hero fighting for his people and his land. Aryan and Viking warrior myths grant heroic masculine status and the promise of transcendence. The chapter provides coverage of some extreme Far Right groups and utopian fantasies. Although small in size, hyper-violent Neo-Nazi, and militant vigilante groups represent a subcultural vanguard in the Far Right movement. The extreme renegade identities and actions of their primarily male members provoke the imagination of a range of white youth, drawing them towards less extreme fantasy strands of the Far Right movement such as the Soldiers of Odin and the online cult of the Frog-God Kek.
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Why do Indonesian Muslims join Islamist extremist groups? This article explores four pathways to entry into Indonesian militant groups: study sessions, local conflict, kinship, and schools. It argues that within all four of these pathways, social bonds and relationships are the common thread in encouraging entry as well as in fostering commitment. Specifically, these relationships contribute to the formation and eventual consolidation of one’s identity as a member of the jihadi group through regular participation in activities, attending meetings, narrowing the circle of friends to those within the group, and participating in increasingly risky and possibly violent activities together. Drawing on original fieldwork including 49 interviews with current and former members of Jemaah Islamiyah, Mujahidin KOMPAK, Darul Islam, Mujahidin Tanah Runtuh, Indonesia’s pro-ISIS network, and other jihadist groups as well as 57 depositions and court documents, this article explores the development and evolution of these pathways and how relational ties play a role in each.
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Few issues have garnered as much attention in recent years as the topic of violent extremism (VE). Although substantial attention has been devoted to investigating the radicalization process, few scholars have examined the obstacles that hinder VE radicalization. Based on indepth life history interviews, the current study examines five types of barriers that hinder radicalization toward mass casualty violence (MCV): mass casualty violence as counter-productive; preferences toward interpersonal violence; changes in focus and availability; internal organizational conflict; and moral apprehension. In general, we address each barrier’s unique contribution to hindering the likelihood of MCV. Finally, we discuss how our findings could be used as part of initiatives aimed at countering violent extremism (CVE).
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In order to move beyond the existing push/pull framework to understand disengagement, we apply a systematic coding scheme derived from Mayer and colleagues’ integrative model of organizational trust to examine why people leave extremist groups. In doing so, we also rely on in-depth life history interviews with 20 former left and right-wing extremists to examine whether antecedents of distrust vary between the two groups. Findings suggest substantial similarities and important differences between left and right-wing extremists’ decision to leave. In particular, perceptions of poor planning and organization, low-quality personnel and vindictive behavior generate perceptions of organizational distrust and disillusionment. Although findings from the current study are based on a relatively small sample, notable similarities were identified between both groups regarding sources of distrust (e.g., leaders, group members). We also identified differences regarding the role of violence in weakening solidarity and nurturing disillusionment with extremist activities. We conclude this paper with suggestions for future research that extend the study of terrorism and that may have significance for how practitioners address countering violent extremism initiatives.
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EU member-states target families in order to prevent or counter radicalization. However, there is little empirical knowledge to confirm that parents influence the radicalization and de-radicalization process. Because there is little known about the role that parents play in radicalization and de-radicalization, this qualitative study explored the family dynamics in these processes together with 11 former radicals and their families. The study consists of 21 in-depth interviews with Dutch former radicals and their family members and it was found that formers and their families do not recognize a direct influence of parents on radicalization and de-radicalization. However, a more indirect influence seems to be in place: a (problematic) family situation may influence the radicalization process and family support can possibly play a role in de-radicalization. It is also stressed that parents have need for knowledge about the different ideologies and for tools on how to respond to their children’s radicalization. Family support programs could focus on these lacunas in order to help families counter radicalization.
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The process of leaving deeply meaningful and embodied identities can be experienced as a struggle against addiction, with continuing cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses that are involuntary, unwanted, and triggered by environmental factors. Using data derived from a unique set of in-depth life history interviews with 89 former U.S. white supremacists, as well as theories derived from recent advances in cognitive sociology, we examine how a rejected identity can persist despite a desire to change. Disengagement from white supremacy is characterized by substantial lingering effects that subjects describe as addiction. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of identity residual for understanding how people leave and for theories of the self.
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Recent world events seem to have motivated renewed activity of and public attention to right-wing extremism, not only within a global context but in Canada as well. In a national study involving interviews with Canadian law enforcement officials, community organizations, and right-wing activists, paired with analyses of open source intelligence, we observed that the foundations of right-wing extremism are complex and multifaceted, grounded in both individual and social conditions. This suggests that so too must counter-extremist initiatives be multidimensional, building on the strengths and expertise of diverse sectors: law enforcement, certainly, but also education, social services, public health, youth workers, and victim service providers, to name a few. In this article, we suggest strategies intended to directly exploit identified patterns inherent in right-wing extremist groups and their environments to disrupt the growth and sustainability of those groups.
This book comprehensively examines right-wing extremism (RWE) in Canada, discussing the lengthy history of violence and distribution, ideological bases, actions, organizational capacity and connectivity of these extremist groups. It explores the current landscape, the factors that give rise to and minimise these extremist groups, strategies for countering these groups, and the emergence of the ‘Alt-Right’. It draws on interviews with law enforcement officials, community activists, and current and former right-wing activists to inform and offer practical advice, paired with analyses of open source intelligence on the state of the RWE movement in Canada. The historical and contemporary contours of right-wing extremism in Canada are situated within the social, political, and cultural landscape that has shaped the movement. It will be of particular interest to students and researchers of criminology, sociology, social justice, terrorism and political violence.