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Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research



This chapter examines how those who study issues related to radicalization and counter-radicalization have recently drawn from the experiences of former extremists to inform our understanding of complex issues in terrorism and extremism studies. The authors synthesize the empirical research on radicalization and counter-radicalization that incorporates formers in the research designs. In doing so, the authors trace these research trends as they unfold throughout the life-course: (1) extremist precursors; (2) radicalization toward extremist violence; (3) leaving violent extremism; and (4) combating violent extremism. While formers have informed our understanding of an array of issues related to radicalization and counter-radicalization, empirical research in this space is in its infancy and requires ongoing analyses. This chapter provides researchers, practitioners, and policymakers with an in-depth account of how formers have informed radicalization and counter-radicalization research in recent years as well as an overview of some of the key gaps in the empirical literature.
Ryan Scrivens, Steven Windisch and Pete Simi
Purpose – This chapter examines how those who study issues related to
radicalization and counter-radicalization have recently drawn from the experi-
ences of former extremists to inform our understanding of complex issues in
terrorism and extremism studies.
Approach – The authors synthesize the empirical research on radicalization
and counter-radicalization that incorporates formers in the research designs.
In doing so, the authors trace these research trends as they unfold throughout
the life-course: (1) extremist precursors; (2) radicalization toward extremist
violence; (3) leaving violent extremism; and (4) combating violent extremism.
Findings – While formers have informed our understanding of an array of
issues related to radicalization and counter-radicalization, empirical research
in this space is in its infancy and requires ongoing analyses.
Value – This chapter provides researchers, practitioners, and policymakers with
an in-depth account of how formers have informed radicalization and counter-
radicalization research in recent years as well as an overview of some of the key
gaps in the empirical literature.
Keywords: Radicalization; counter-radicalization; combating violent
extremism; former extremists; terrorism; extremism
Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 25, 209–224
Copyright © 2020 by Emerald Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1108/S1521-613620200000025012
In the past ve years, it has become increasingly common for practitioners and
policymakers in the Western world to draw from the insights of former extremists to
generate knowledge on – and respond to – the prevalence and contours of extrem-
ism and terrorism (Koehler, 2017; Scrivens, Venkatesh, Bérubé, & Gaudette, 2019;
Tapley & Clubb, 2019). While some researchers and practitioners have raised
concerns about including formers in this space, ranging from discussions about
their reliability and credibility to questions about whether their inclusion could
raise concerns in the public sphere (see Koehler, 2020; see also Radicalisation
Awareness Network, 2017), others have argued that formers can provide valuable
insight into issues that terrorism scholars, amongst many others, are concerned
with (Bjørgo & Horgan, 2008; Braddock & Horgan, 2016). To illustrate, research-
ers have shown a growing interest in drawing from the voices of former extremists
to address key questions in terrorism and extremism studies, including empirical
studies focusing on processes of radicalization to extremism (e.g., Hwang &
Schulze, 2018; Koehler, 2014a, 2014b; Simi, Sporer, & Bubolz, 2016), processes
of deradicalization and disengagement from extremism (Altier, Boyle, & Horgan,
2020; Barrelle, 2015; Bubolz & Simi, 2015; Horgan, Altier, Shortland, & Taylor,
2017; Simi, Blee, DeMichele, & Windisch, 2017; Windisch, Ligon, & Simi, 2019), or
both pathways in and out of extremism (Sieckelinck, Sikkens, van San, Kotnis, & de
Winter, 2017). Researchers have also explored various aspects of the abovemen-
tioned processes via the insights of formers, including the parental inuences on
radicalization and deradicalization (Sikkens, van San, Sieckelinck, & de Winter,
2017), the impact of extremist online content and violent radicalization (Drevon,
2016; Koehler, 2014b; Sikorskaya, 2017; von Behr, Reding, Edwards, & Gribbon,
2013), factors that minimize radicalization to mass-casualty violence (Simi &
Windisch, 2018), the role of formers in preventing terrorism and political violence
in post-conict communities (Clubb, 2014), and an assessment of how former
extremists think that extremism should be prevented and countered (Scrivens et al.,
Indeed, formers have played an increasingly important role in informing
empirical research on terrorism and extremism-related issues. In what follows,
we will explore how those who study issues related to radicalization and counter-
radicalization have incorporated formers into their research designs by trac-
ing current research trends as they unfold throughout the life-course. First, we
explore how researchers relying on interviews with formers reveal a dynamic web
of overlapping push and pull factors that predispose extremist onset. Second, we
discuss how the use of formers to understand the complex and diverse processes
associated with radicalization to extremism has provided valuable insight that
would not have been available through secondary sources and movement propa-
ganda. Third, we explore how the process by which individuals leave extremism
has been better understood by drawing from the insights of formers. Lastly, we
explore some of the ways in which formers have informed research on combating
extremism. But before proceeding, it is necessary to outline how we conceptual-
ize “former extremists.” By former extremists, we refer to individuals who, at one
Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research 211
time in their lives, subscribed to and/or perpetuated violence in the name of a
particular extremist ideology and have since publicly and/or privately denounced
violence in the name of a particular extremist ideology. In short, formers no
longer identify themselves as adherents of a particular extremist ideology or are
afliated with an extremist group or movement.
It is widely accepted in terrorism and extremism studies that ideological and non-
ideological “push” and “pull” factors facilitate extremist onset. Push factors refer
to adverse qualities in the environment that increase one’s susceptibility to extrem-
ism (Crenshaw, 1983). One of the most common push factors identied in the
empirical literature involves grievances, which refer to real or imagined wrongdo-
ings, especially unfair treatment. Terrorism and extremism researchers who have
incorporated former extremists into their research designs have highlighted a
variety of grievances, including perceptions of injustice and discrimination, direct
and war-related trauma, personal disaffection or loss, and disagreements regard-
ing the foreign policies of states. For instance, relying on information collected
from political ethnography and interviews with leaders and members of former
radical groups in Egypt, Drevon (2016) found that the adoption of Sala jihad-
ism by young Egyptians in Syria was facilitated by multiple factors including the
inability of mainstream Salasm to face post-9/11 challenges; the absence of local
militant groups; the availability of alternative literature on the Internet; and the
shared religious creed of jihadi and mainstream Salasm. From this perspective,
extremist ideologies that advocate changing the status quo may appear attractive
among populations who perceive themselves as threatened.
In addition to ideological grievances, non-ideological grievances associated
with childhood trauma have been found to push individuals toward extremist
participation. A notable empirical study pertaining to childhood trauma involves
Simi et al.’s (2016) risk factor model of extremist participation, which was based
on life-history interviews with former members of violent far-right extremist
groups in the United States (US). Instead of focusing on extremism as a unique
and specialized type of violence, Simi et al. (2016) adopted a perspective that
emphasizes the importance of contextualizing extremist participation within the
broader realm of violent and criminal behavior. As a result, the authors focused
their attention on non-ideological experiences occurring throughout an individu-
al’s life, such as family mental illness, maltreatment, and afliation with delinquent
peer groups. In doing so, Simi et al. (2016) found that the cumulative effect of early
childhood risk factors, negative emotionality, and adolescent misconduct creates
a downward spiral that leads individuals to regard extremist groups as a support
system, capable of addressing non-ideological needs. Similar conclusions emerged
from Sieckelinck et al.’s (2017) analysis of former radicals from the Netherlands
and Denmark. In particular, the authors found that their participants’ pathway
into extremism was characterized by a sequence of troubling social-emotional
transitions (e.g., lack of emotional support) from childhood to adulthood.
The benet of these studies is the ability to examine the unfolding nature of life
events and how these experiences shape extremist involvement. Moreover, the focus
on risk factors, negative emotionality, and adolescent misconduct is important
because these ndings indicate that extremist onset does not begin with a single life
event but rather is inuenced by multiple factors throughout the life-course.
Related to but distinct from ideological and non-ideological grievances are
psychological propensities. Terrorism and extremism scholars often suggest that
extremist participation is based on a social-psychological transformation in
which emotions, cognitions, and social inuences push someone to endorse and
engage in extremist activities (see Victoroff, 2005). To better understand this issue,
researchers have examined a variety of psychological propensities that predispose
individuals toward extremist involvement such as narcissism, psychopathy, men-
tal illness, and thrill-seeking behavior (see Post, 2005 for example). While early ter-
rorism studies had little success in identifying a “terrorist mindset” (Borum, 2003),
later developments describe extremists as individuals with “normal” backgrounds
whose rate of mental illness resembles that of the general population (Horgan,
2005). Bubolz and Simi (2019), however, found substantial evidence of men-
tal illness (e.g., depression) among former US far-right extremists prior to their
extremist involvement. The authors argue that classifying extremists as “normal”
is premature, and more research is needed before a consensus can emerge.
In addition to push factors, terrorism and extremism scholars have examined
ideological and non-ideological factors that pull people into extremism. Pull fac-
tors refer to features that individuals nd attractive about the extremist group
(Crenshaw, 1983). Previous studies have found that extremist organizations attract
individuals for a variety of reasons, such as ideological alignment, protection, the
prospect of thrill-seeking behavior, as well as the perception such that it provides
a substitute family and identity (Bjørgo, 1997; Blee, 2002; Koehler, 2014a; Simi &
Futrell, 2015). Researchers, largely due to this function, have become increasingly
more interested in the relationship between cognition and ideological propaganda
as it relates to extremist participation. For instance, relying on life-history inter-
views with former US far-right extremists, Simi, Windisch, and Sporer (2015)
found that “signicance quests” (see Kruglanski & Orehek, 2011) play a pivotal
role in the onset of extremist participation. In particular, participants emphasized
that they were performing a duty by dedicating their lives to the preservation
of the white race. In doing so, participants viewed themselves as “guardians,”
“heroes,” and “warriors,” which increased their level of personal signicance (see
also Blee, 2001).
Social networks have also been found to pull individuals toward extremist
involvement. Social networks refer to pre-existing kinship and friendship ties
between ordinary individuals and extremists (Lim, 2008). In general, terrorism
and extremism scholars agree that the strength and number of networks with
current extremist members is one of the most inuential factors pulling a per-
son toward extremist participation (della Porta, 1995). For instance, Hwang and
Schulze (2018) drew on original eldwork, which included interviews with cur-
rent and former extremists in Syria, and found that kinship bonds with parents,
uncles, and siblings expedited participants’ entry process. In some cases, relatives
Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research 213
targeted younger family members and systematically groomed them, drawing on
in-family love and loyalty to ensure commitment. In other cases, simply having a
parent who fought or was executed by the state was enough to prompt someone
to join an extremist group. In this way, extremist involvement may be more a
product of whom you know rather than what you believe.
Overall, research relying on life-history interviews with former extremists
reveals a dynamic web of overlapping push and pull factors that predispose
extremist onset. Capitalizing on ideological and non-ideological grievances,
extremist organizations increase the appeal of their groups by offering accept-
ance and incentivizing sacrice through heroic redemption. In some situations,
potential recruits were deliberately targeted by peers and/or family members who
tailored recruitment messages and systematically groomed vulnerable youth. It is
important to emphasize that push and pull factors work in conjunction with one
another. That is, without the presence of push factors, pull factors would likely
be much less inuential.
Few issues have garnered as much attention in recent years in terrorism and
extremism studies as the topic of radicalization. Radicalization generally refers
to the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs, whereas “action
pathways” refer to the process of engaging in violence. As Borum (2011) argues,
we need to differentiate radicalization from action pathways because most people
with radical beliefs do not engage in terrorism (see also McCauley & Moskalenko,
2011). In recent years, radicalization has become a household term among the gen-
eral public and media. Academics have also spent substantial time investigating the
empirical dimensions of this process and developing theories to explain how and
why radicalization occurs (e.g., della Porta, 1995; McCauley & Moskalenko, 2011).
One point of relative consensus across the terrorism and extremism literature is
that racialization is a multi-faceted, gradual process (Borum, 2011; Horgan, 2008;
Sageman, 2004). Radicalization appears to be characterized by a slow marginaliza-
tion away from conventional society toward a much narrower atmosphere where
extremism becomes a “totalizing commitment” (see Simi et al., 2017).
Much of the radicalization literature centers on the channels with which
extremist ideologies and beliefs are developed and reinforced. While different
types of media have been essential in the formation and growth of the extremist
beliefs, including numerous print mediums, lms, radio broadcasts, and audio
recorded speeches, terrorism and extremism scholars highlight the role of music
in the radicalization process (Simi & Futrell, 2015). For these individuals, music
creates a “free-space” where extremists can gather to express hostility toward
the powerful and share in their collective identity. Additionally, music provides
recruiters with an alternative way to educate new members about the group’s ide-
ological belief system by using a common form of culture prevalent across most,
if not all, social systems (see Bennett & Peterson, 2004). For example, examining
radicalization processes among former US far-right extremists, Simi et al. (2015)
underscore the signicance of white power music as a channel for expressing
conict, symbolizing resistance and rebellion, framing grievances, communicat-
ing power, and creating boundaries between members and non-members (also
see Windisch & Simi, 2017). In this way, music functions as a propaganda tool
used to spread an alternative lifestyle and various ideological messages to a much
wider audience (Futrell, Simi, & Gottschalk, 2006).
With advances in the way humans communicate on many levels, including
anonymous online platforms, the Internet has also become a major point of focus
among radicalization studies. Prior research indicates that extremist groups use
the Internet for sharing ideology, propaganda, linking to similar sites, recruiting
new converts, advocating violence, and threatening others. For instance, von Behr
et al. (2013) interviews and ethnographic work with those previously exposed to
radicalizing material as well as former extremists suggest that the Internet may
enhance opportunities to become radicalized and provide a greater opportunity
than ofine interactions by conrming existing beliefs. von Behr et al. (2013),
however, did not nd support for the concept of self-radicalization through the
Internet, nor did they nd that the Internet accelerates radicalization or replaces
the need for individuals to meet in person during their radicalization process.
Building on this line of research, Koehler (2014b) examined individual radicali-
zation processes of former right-wing extremists in Germany and found that the
Internet functioned as an effective, anonymous networking venue for information
exchange, ideological development, and training. Moreover, individual radicali-
zation processes were shaped through the Internet by establishing radical motiva-
tional circles, also known as “echo chambers,” that maximized radical beliefs and
translated political activism into extremist involvement.
Extremist violence is another major investigative topic among radicalization
studies. While quantitative studies tend to focus on macro-level factors, such as
economic and social structures, cultural understandings, and national politics,
Blee, DeMichele, Simi, and Latif (2017) qualitatively explored the micro- and
meso-level dynamics of extremist violence. In particular, relying on life-history
interviews with former US far-right extremists, Blee et al. (2017) examined the
pathways in which racist ideologies and violent practices were provoked and chan-
neled through individual experiences, motivations, and actions as well as through
organized group efforts. Overall, their ndings suggest a complex, nuanced pro-
cess in which their participants’ trajectories to racial violence progressed through
several different pathways, such as racial socialization, incarceration, and mental
illness. Similar conclusions emerged from other studies utilizing life-history inter-
views with former violent extremists. In particular, Fahey and Simi’s (2019) investi-
gation of the pathways toward planned (e.g., bombings, shootings) or spontaneous
(e.g., “gay bashings”) violence examined the differences in pre-entry risk factors
(e.g., truancy). The authors found that participants who committed spontaneous
violence possessed higher risk factors than the planned violence sample. No sup-
port, however, was gained for the identication of distinct pathways of homogene-
ous risk factors among either group of extremists. The high degree of heterogeneity
evident among the pathways provides an important cautionary tale as to whether a
clear trajectory toward extremist violence can be discerned.
Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research 215
Despite the enormous amount of research investigating how and why
individuals radicalize to the point of committing extremist violence, the terrorism
and extremism literature is almost completely silent on the constraints or barriers that
prevent radicalization (notable exceptions include Clarke, 1992; Freilich & Cher mak,
2009). To address this issue, Simi and Windisch (2018) focused on internal and
external mechanisms, or barriers, that serve to constrain individuals from mov-
ing toward mass-casualty violence such as the belief that extremist violence was
counter-productive and the inability to morally justify killing innocent women
and children. Each of the ve barriers identied addressed larger issues related
to organizational and leadership characteristics, which hindered the generation
of a shared vision among extremist members. Extending from this investiga-
tion, Windisch, Simi, Blee, and DeMichele (2018) examined the micro-situational
dynamics of extremist violence among a sample of former US far-right extremists
and found that irrespective of their ideological convictions, extremists experienced
similar cognitive pressures (e.g., fear, anxiety) toward interpersonal violence as non-
extremists. To overcome these barriers, participants utilized various cognitive and
emotional suppression techniques such as targeting vulnerable victims, adhering to
an audience that encouraged violence, and utilizing clandestine attacks. Given that
extremists experience similar constraints toward interpersonal violence as non-
extremists, researchers should revisit longstanding assumptions that conceptualize
terrorism as fundamentally distinct from conventional crime.
While there is a consensus among terrorism researchers that extremist radicali-
zation occurs through a process of deepening engagements that can be observed
in changing overt behaviors, a review of the literature indicates a substantial
amount of ambiguity exists regarding the conceptualization of this process. One
of the difculties in theorizing about extremist participation is the wide range of
people who become involved in extremism. These individuals have been found to
differ in terms of the communication channels they are exposed to, the pathways
they take toward extremism, and the barriers that disrupt or constrain their violent
tendencies. Furthermore, the factors that play a pivotal role in one person’s deci-
sion to engage in extremism can play a peripheral role or no part in the decision-
making of others. Having said that, the use of former extremists to understand
these processes has provided insight that would not have been available through
secondary sources and movement propaganda (Blee, 2002).
In addition to investigating extremist radicalization processes, there has been a
growing interest in understanding why people eventually leaving extremism. Two
concepts have oftentimes been discussed in this regard: deradicalization and
disengagement. “Deradicalization” refers to the process by which an individual
is diverted from an extremist ideology, eventually rejecting an extremist ideology
and instead adopting the values of the law-abiding majority (see Horgan, 2009).
“Disengagement,” on the other hand, is the process by which an individual decides
to leave their associated extremist group or movement in order to reintegrate
into society (Bjørgo & Horgan, 2008). As Windisch, Simi, Ligon, and McNeel
(2016) aptly differentiated the two: “deradicalization involves a change in belief,
whereas, disengagement is characterized by a change in behavior” (p. 4). These
two processes, however, can occur separately or simultaneously, depending on the
context in which they take place.
While research overwhelmingly suggests that most people who join extremism
will eventually leave (see Bjørgo, 2013), less is known regarding how and why
people disengage from extremism (Barrelle, 2015; Windisch et al., 2019). As
Bubolz and Simi (2015) further added, “a great deal of ambiguity remains about
the underlying causes and correlates of exit” (p. 1601). Some empirical work,
however, has begun to emerge in this space, much of which has incorporated the
perspectives of former extremists. Such research exploring how individuals leave
extremism tends to conceptualize it as a process that is impacted by a number of
key events and not a single moment (Horgan et al., 2017; Sieckelinck et al., 2017).
Bubolz and Simi (2015), for example, explored the process of leaving extremist
groups by relying on life-history interviews with former US far-right extremists
and found that a variety of complex factors inuenced an individuals’ decision
to leave (see also Horgan et al., 2017), much of which was facilitated, at least in
part, through self-reection as a result of contact with law enforcement and the
experience of incarceration – i.e., “hitting rock bottom” (see also Sieckelinck et al.,
2017). Through this self-reection process, formers in the study noted that expec-
tations associated with being part of the extremist group (such as family, loy-
alty, and unity) were less genuine than originally expected, which inuenced their
decision to leave extremism. Gadd (2006), in his case analysis of a former right-
wing extremist, similarly found that a shifting social identity from the extremist
group was an inuential factor in their decision to leave. Kimmel (2007) during
his in-depth interviews with former neo-Nazis in Scandinavia also found that
individuals often left extremism as a result of a disconnect between their initial
expectations and realities of being involved in extremism. The combination of
burnout (also see Altier et al., 2020), encouragement from spouses or signicant
others (Gadd, 2006; see also Bérubé, Scrivens, Venkatesh, & Gaudette, 2019), and
positive individuals outside of the extremist movement (Sieckelinck et al., 2017)
inuenced these individuals’ decision to disengage.
Although the above research has largely focused on why and how extremists
disengage, a number of important research questions remain unexplored. First,
little attention has been paid to how an individual’s organizational role inuences
disengagement. In response, Altier et al. (2020) examined 87 English-language
autobiographies and 9 interviews with former extremists (i.e., former national-
ists, right-wing extremists, and Islamists) from the US, Canada, and the UK to
examine how an extremist’s role inuenced their probability of – and reasons for
– disengagement. In doing so, the authors found that specic roles, particularly
leadership and violent roles, resulted in fewer alternatives for making exit likely,
while both role conict (i.e., a discrepancy between their abilities and assigned
roles) and role strain (i.e., conicting roles within or outside of the group), as
well as those in support roles, were more likely to disengage. Also uncovered was
an association between certain roles and the experience of different push/pull
Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research 217
factors for disengagement. Altier et al. (2020) concluded that a more nuanced
understanding of the association between terrorist roles and disengagement is
needed to inform policies for responding to extremism – especially interventions
that are tailored to individuals’ motivations and circumstances.
Second, research on the general difculties of leaving extremism is underde-
veloped, but some work is beginning to emerge in this space. For example, rely-
ing on life-history interviews with former US far-right extremists, Bubolz and
Simi (2015) identied numerous difculties associated with disengagement, such
as negative emotionality (e.g., guilt), ideological relapse, and maintaining social
ties with current extremist members. Comparably, Simi et al. (2017) examined
the challenges associated with disengagement after participants exit via life-his-
tory interviews with former US far-right extremists. Here, the authors found that
extremists experienced a number of residual effects that participants described
as a form of addiction. These residual effects were found to intrude on cogni-
tive processes as well as involve long-term effects on emotional and physiological
levels and, in some cases, involved complete relapse into extremist behavior. Simi
et al. (2017) concluded by urging researchers to examine the differences between
individual trajectories of disengagement involving substantial residual compared
to those that do not, as well as the situational dynamics related specic episodes
of residual, the neurocognitive qualities of identity residual, and a comparison
of former activists across an array of social movements, including jihadists and
conventional street gangs.
Third, more comparative research is needed to understand the process of
disengagement across extremist movements. To the best of our knowledge, only
Windisch et al. (2019) have addressed this research question. In particular, the
authors relied on life-history interviews with 10 former left-wing extremists
and 10 right-wing extremists to compare disengagement processes. Focusing on
organizational trust, the authors found a number of substantial similarities and
important differences between left- and right-wing extremists’ decision to leave.
On the one hand, both samples discussed feelings of distrust that stemmed from
a lack of integrity and benevolence among leaders and fellow members. On the
other hand, while left-wing participants discussed distrust as stemming from a
lack of support following victimization from external entities, right-wing par-
ticipants discussed internal violence between members as contributing to per-
ceptions of distrust. These ndings suggest that the organizational dynamics of
each group are indeed different, which in turn impacted disengagement processes.
More cross-case comparisons, however, are needed between different ideological
groups to expand empirical observations and strengthen theoretical conclusions
regarding disengagement processes.
Lastly, an important yet underdeveloped area of research in terrorism and
extremism studies is the development of empirically based models of disengage-
ment. A notable exception includes Barrelle’s (2015) Pro-Integration Model
(PIM) that was derived from interviews with 22 former extremists (e.g., jihadists,
far-right extremists, and Tamil separatists). In particular, the PIM model of
disengagement centered on ve key domains: a fundamental change in the
individual’s social relations and an openness to the “other,” disillusionment from
radical ideas, processes of identity rebuilding, physical and/or psychological
support, and pro-social engagement after leaving extremism. Based on these
ndings, disengagement from violent extremism was understood as an identity
transition wherein sustained disengagement involves proactive, holistic, and
harmonious engagement with the wider society after leaving extremism (i.e.,
pro-integration) (see also Horgan et al., 2017 on the importance of proactive
self-development). While the PIM model has been adopted by some practi-
tioners, policymakers, and researchers, a comparison of other disengagement
models is needed across extremist movements (i.e., Islamist versus right-wing
versus left-wing), across nations (e.g., the US versus the UK versus Europe ver-
sus Australia), and across timeframes in which individuals disengaged (e.g., the
1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and the present).
A growing industry (i.e., research centers, consultancy groups, and government
departments) is combating the problem of 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 extremism may thrive, while the latter is largely designed to divert individ-
uals away from radicalization by using “soft” approaches rather than purely secu-
ritized and/or criminal justice responses (see Harris-Hogan, Barrelle, & Zammit,
2015; see also Stephens, Sieckelinck, & Boutellier, 2019). Commonly, researchers,
practitioners, and policymakers draw from the insights of former extremists in a
number of P/CVE settings, including intelligence gathering, interventions, and
counter-narratives (see Koehler, 2017; see also Tapley & Clubb, 2019).
For example, the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network is a global organ-
ization, made up of former extremists and survivors of violent extremism that
counters extremist narratives and prevents the recruitment of “at-risk” youth.
In short, AVE utilizes lessons, experiences, and networks of those who have
experienced extremism rst-hand. The aim is to engage directly with individuals
on several difcult 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. In addition to conducting interventions to help peo-
ple disengage from extremism, this non-prot consultancy provides organizations
with scalable frameworks needed to implement long-term solutions to combat
all types of extremism and terrorism. Notably, it works with leaders in several
sectors, including foreign and domestic governments, the military, international
security and intelligence, policymakers, law enforcement ofcials, and the private
sector, to name a few.
In addition to public and non-prot organizations, 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 identies those who
are searching for violent extremist content on Google and then exposes them to
Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research 219
counter-narratives, is one illustration. Formers have been involved in this process
on at least two fronts: (1) a small group of formers has developed the list of tar-
geted search terms and (2) many of the counter-narratives that have been offered
to the target audience feature the stories of formers (see Helmus & Klein, 2018).
Formers have also served as intervention providers on online CVE campaigns,
including the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s “One to One” pilot project, in
which formers directly message an array of individuals’ Facebook pages that are
identied as right-wing or Islamist extremist (Davey, Birdwell, & Skellett, 2018;
Frenett & Dow, 2014).
While a small but growing number of entities – particularly in the Western
world – have 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
(see Tapley & Clubb, 2019), scholars in this space have been much slower to
incorporate formers into research designs that are specically geared toward
combating violent extremism. This is an important oversight, as formers can
provide rst-hand accounts of, and insider’s perspectives into, a number of key
issues that terrorism and extremism scholars, amongst many others, are concerned
with (Bjørgo & Horgan, 2008; Braddock & Horgan, 2016; Briggs & Feve, 2013;
Jacoby, 2016), especially those related to ways of combating extremism (Clubb,
2014; Scrivens et al., 2019).
Regardless, a small body of research is beginning to take shape in this regard,
particularly around the role of formers in combating violent extremism, the impact
of formers in school-based PVE work, and formers’ perceptions of P/CVE in gen-
eral. Such work is in its early stages but is showing signs of success. Clubb (2014),
for example, explored the role of formers in preventing terrorism and political
violence in post-conict communities, interviewing former members of the Irish
Republican Army, as well as Loyalists and community workers in Belfast. Overall,
Clubb (2014) found that former combatants are in a unique position to assist in pre-
venting terrorism and violent extremism, particularly through community activism.
For example, formers may provide resources and access to communities that tend
to be supportive or sympathetic to terrorism and political violence – communities
that, on the one hand, the state may nd difcult to engage with and, on the other
hand, communities that alternative community activists may not have credibility
with. Clubb (2014) also found that formers have much more inuence on the com-
munities because of the decade-long relationships that they have cultivated with
them. As a result, formers are perceived as credible and legitimate in the commu-
nity to, in turn, assist in PVE. Walsh and Gansewig (2019) in their assessment of
the impact of a former right-wing extremist in school-based PVE work similarly
found that the former in their study was in a unique position to access juveniles
during periods in their lives that adults had difculty accessing. The authors did,
however, note that the extent to which the former inuenced the juveniles from
PVE remains unknown, concluding that more research is needed to understand
the impact of formers on PVE initiatives.
Lastly, Scrivens et al. (2019) conducted in-depth interviews with 10 former
Canadian right-wing extremists, asking them how they think extremism should
be prevented and countered. Interestingly, while formers believed that they are
in a unique position to educate stakeholders, experts, and the local community
about what draws youth into extremism as well as the factors that give rise to and
minimize extremism, they also believed that various key stakeholders – including
parents and families, teachers and educators, the local community, and in some
cases, law enforcement ofcials – play an important role in preventing young
people from going down similar pathways that they did. Throughout this study,
formers suggested that parents and families can prevent their child’s trajectory
toward extremism if: (1) families invest themselves in their child’s life and are
aware of potential warning signs and (2) families facilitate an inclusive home
environment, which includes discussions of polarizing issues. Similar recommen-
dations 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 toward extremism. Law enforce-
ment, although they may face more challenges than the above-mentioned stake-
holders, can assist in preventing youth from engaging in extremism. Similar to
families and their community, law enforcement should respond to young people
who are expressing radical views and/or drawn to extremist groups. Interactions
between law enforcement and youth should be based on respect and free from
judgment. Indeed, many of the views expressed by these formers echoed ndings
in previous empirical work that highlighted the importance of social and/or fam-
ily support, awareness, and an openness to critical discussions (e.g., Gielen, 2015;
Sikkens et al., 2017; Weine, 2012).
Scrivens et al. (2019) also found that, in discussing ways to counter extrem-
ism, formers believed that they should be central actors helping individuals
disengage – a nding that is largely supported by empirical research on the psy-
chology of victimology and the process of deradicalization (Aarten, Mulder, &
Pemberton, 2017). In discussing the role of formers in this regard, however, the
need for developing infrastructure was oftentimes discussed. Such infrastruc-
ture involves multi-sectoral resources to combating violent extremism consisting
of a team of “credible” and “dedicated” formers who are willing to put in the
time to help people leave, as well as a group of key stakeholders who can assist
these formers in helping people leave (see Dalgaard-Nielsen, 2016; Jacoby, 2016;
Macnair & Frank, 2017; Scrivens & Perry, 2017). Since extremism is a complex
and multi-faceted phenomenon, grounded in both individual and social condi-
tions, P/CVE initiatives must be multi-dimensional, building on the strengths and
expertise of diverse sectors.
Although the above studies provide useful preliminary insights into some of
the ways in which formers can inform research on combating violent extrem-
ism, little work has evaluated the effectiveness of formers in P/CVE initiatives
(Koehler, 2017). Future studies 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 (see Bowers, Gill, Morgan, Meiklejohn, & Johnson, 2018) associated
with formers working in the P/CVE space.
Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research 221
In this chapter, we have highlighted a number of ways that former extremists
have provided valuable insights into key issues on radicalization and counter-
radicalization, ranging from the push and pull factors that radicalize people to
extremist violence, to ways of combating violent extremism. While we have high-
lighted a number of the key research trends in this growing space, it is clear that this
work remains in its infancy, especially the empirical research on disengagement and
combating violent extremism. Our hope, however, is that this chapter has sparked
some interest among those working in the eld to consider including formers into
their research designs. Doing so may provide them with a unique insider’s perspec-
tive into an array of pressing issues in terrorism and extremism studies – issues that
may not be addressed without the insights of formers extremists.
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... The major constraint is the issue of scalability, given the exponential growth of user-generated content on social media [15]. Manual review processes are inherently time-consuming and labor-intensive, making them less practical for large scale operations [16]. Rule-based algorithms, despite being automated, are often rigid, unable to adapt to the evolving nuances of online extremism [17]. ...
... For another, the need for identity change tends to differ from person to person, as the extent to which criminal behavior is absorbed into one's self-image can vary considerably (Anderson & McNeill, 2019). By its very definition, becoming a former extremist entails an identity transition (Barrelle, 2014;Ferguson & McAuley, 2020;Scrivens et al., 2020). Even though identity change relates to a line of inquiry that is yet to be fully explored (K. ...
This article provides a critical comparison of the present knowledge base on desistance from crime and current writings on disengagement and deradicalization from violent extremism. Underlying the comparison is the fundamental premise that while violent extremism is a particular and perhaps egregious form of crime, it is a form of crime nonetheless, meaning that violent extremist offenders are not beyond the remits of the desistance framework. As of yet, however, there have been few attempts to connect these two research domains in a systematic way. Against this background, the present article intends to trace the outlines of both bodies of knowledge so as to determine the degree of overlap between these two kindred literatures. The results of this integrative literature indicate that studies on criminal desistance and violent extremist disengagement echo the same basic mechanisms of change, but also that differences in context affect how these mechanisms take shape. In highlighting the implications for theory, the findings of this review illustrate, above all, how a closer association between these two fields of study enriches our understanding of both.
... Inwiefern die (Wirk-)Annahmen und Zielstellungen der Schulmaßnahmen mit Aussteiger/innen den tatsächlichen Gegebenheiten entsprechen, ist bislang -auch international -bemerkenswerterweise nur marginal wissenschaftlich untersucht worden (vgl. Gansewig und Walsh 2020a, b;Scrivens et al. 2020). Eine differenzierte Betrachtung etwa der vermittelten Maßnahmeninhalte sowie eine gegenstandsangemessene Erhebung der Schüler/innenperspektiven erfolgte bislang nur punktuell. ...
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The engagement of former right-wing extremists in school-based Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) has been taking place in Germany for two decades. Its main objective is the prevention of radicalization and extremism among students. However, it is remarkable that this particular format has to date rarely been empirically investigated. Thus, the (non-)intended effects of such interventions on students and their views remain largely unclear. In light of this, the authors conducted a comprehensive research project on the involvement of former extremists in schools, focusing on the students' perspective. It included a survey of the German status quo and the examination of an exemplary primary prevention seminar by way of an impact and process evaluation at 13 public community schools using a randomized controlled trial (50 classes). This paper presents and discusses certain relevant results of the evaluation, focusing on the student surveys regarding their assessment. The findings of the data collected directly after the school intervention (n = 490) and on average five and a half months later (n = 448) indicate a heterogeneous student perspective and specific factors. Thus, in addition to the mainly positive students' assessments-referring primarily to the former and less to the measure contents-we identified critical aspects. Some students e.g., felt uncomfortable because of detailed descriptions of violence. Furthermore, we noted gender differences. In summary, the results show that the current practice is in need of a paradigm shift toward research-driven modifications. The article ends with recommendations for educators and an outlook on perspectives.
... Favorable assumptions and expected positive outcomes are to be found in numerous publications. 19 It is not our intention to diminish the importance of former extremists' perspectives, and the authors have a host of respect for their positive life changes and appreciate their involvement in P/ CVE, as it could be of significant value. Nevertheless, we believe that it is essential to be conscious of the limits and risks of bringing formers into P/CVE, especially when addressing children and juveniles. ...
During recent years, the inclusion of former extremists in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) has increased internationally. This paper addresses the issue of the involvement of former extremists in school-based work to prevent violent extremism. It provides a media analysis of the content of 151 newspaper articles (published between 2001 and 2019) regarding 133 lectures given by former extremists in German schools. The analysis shows that the lectures contain mostly movement- and biography-based narration and points to some critical aspects (e.g., detailed depictions of violence, insensitive language). Furthermore, the findings indicate that some former extremists engaging in PVE might not have completed the deradicalization process. Moreover, certain former extremists could have further motives for engaging in prevention work in schools, in addition to making amends for previous actions. Among them appears the need for a compensation mechanism or a platform to advertise their activities. Therefore, we emphasize the importance of a differentiated view of former extremists’ role in PVE, especially when working with children and juveniles.
Despite being recognised as the foundational process of an extremist group exit [Morrison, J. F., Silke, A., Maiberg, H., Slay, C., & Stewart, R. (2021). A systematic review of post-2017 research on disengagement and deradicalisation. Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats.], identity transformation is surprisingly under-investigated. This paper therefore explores how identity is represented in the exit process by examining ten autobiographies written by right-wing formers. The data were analysed using thematic analysis, and three themes were developed and named: ‘is this who I am?’, fatherhood, and reinventing the self. Drawing on social identity theory [Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–37). Brooks/Cole], the article proposes that emotionally laden cognitive openers can alter intergroup evaluation and social identity satisfaction. Certain cognitive openers, such as fatherhood, were seen to strongly influence the former’s self-categorisation and personal identity. The analysis also found that rebuilding an alternative identity after leaving the group took significant time and effort. The paper highlights the complexities of identity transformation during and after an extremist group exit and suggests that the process can involve changes to both personal and social identity structures.
The involvement of former extremists in preventing and countering violent extremism has attracted many advocates. Interventions in school settings by or with former extremists have been commonplace for a long time, and in some countries even for decades, which is reason enough to focus on the current research state. We did this through a synoptic examination of the empirical literature on the subject. Hence, we took an in-depth look at four experimental studies with robust samples. These studies investigated projects from Ireland, the Basque Country, Denmark, and Germany. The findings demonstrated two main points: (1) the empirical evidence showed a contrast to the anecdotal evidence, which mostly provided a positive assessment of former extremists in school settings, and (2) thus far, students’ perspectives on these initiatives have not been considered in a sufficiently differentiated way.
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In this research paper, we propose a corpus for the task of detecting religious extremism in social networks and open sources and compare various machine learning algorithms for the binary classification problem using a previously created corpus, thereby checking whether it is possible to detect extremist messages in the Kazakh language. To do this, the authors trained models using six classic machine-learning algorithms such as Support Vector Machine, Decision Tree, Random Forest, K Nearest Neighbors, Naive Bayes, and Logistic Regression. To increase the accuracy of detecting extremist texts, we used various characteristics such as Statistical Features, TF-IDF, POS, LIWC, and applied oversampling and undersampling techniques to handle imbalanced data. As a result, we achieved 98% accuracy in detecting religious extremism in Kazakh texts for the collected dataset. Testing the developed machine learning models in various databases that are often found in everyday life “Jokes”, “News”, “Toxic content”, “Spam”, “Advertising” has also shown high rates of extremism detection.
Technical Report
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This policy note highlights the importance of both identifying and examining the online behaviors of violent and non-violent extremists in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and provides researchers, practitioners, and policymakers with a number of recommendations for detecting and analyzing the online behaviors of violent and non-violent extremists in the future.
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The utilization of former extremists in preventing and countering radicalization and violent extremism has increased internationally. Nonetheless, the question of professionalization in these fields regarding the formers themselves is controversial. However, the issue of staff professionalization within P/CVE organizations and structures has been neglected. This article closely examines the degree of professionalization in the German context, especially regarding school-based P/CVE interventions, with more than twenty-year experience with such tools. The authors conducted interviews with representatives of four German organizations known to facilitate former-based P/CVE workshops as part of their portfolios. In summary, the findings indicate the need for improvement in professionalization.
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While a growing body of evidence suggests that the Internet is a key facilitator of violent extremism, research in this area has rarely incorporated former extremists’ experiences with the Internet when they were involved in violent extremism. To address this gap, in-depth interviews were conducted with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists who were involved in violent racist skinhead groups, with interview questions provided by 30 Canadian law enforcement officials and 10 community activists. Participants were asked about their use of the Internet and the connection between their on- and offline worlds during their involvement in the violent right-wing extremist movement. Overall, our study findings highlight the interplay between the Internet and violent extremism as well as the interactions between the on- and offline worlds of violent extremists. We conclude with a discussion of study limitations and avenues for future research.
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This study extends Clarke and Newman's (2006; Newman and Clarke. 2008) work that applied SCP to terrorism. Their analysis focused on international terrorists, particularly suicide attacks, and only briefly discussed domestic American extremists. The American far-right, however, also poses a significant threat to public safety. This paper applies SCP techniques to two case studies of fatal far-right attacks against law enforcement personnel in the United States. The incidents were purposefully selected from Freilich and Chermak's U.S. Extremist Crime Database (ECDB), a relational database of all crimes committed by far-right extremists in the United States from 1990 to the present reported in an open source. Cornish's "script" analysis is applied to the two cases to devise intervention techniques to prevent such acts. One case illustrates the efficacy of traditional “hard” SCP techniques. Importantly, because some of these attacks were unplanned and occurred during routine incidents that escalated, recent innovations in SCP by Wortley and others are applied to a second case to demonstrate the usefulness of “soft” techniques.
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Research pays little attention to the diverse roles individuals hold within terrorism. This limits our understanding of the varied experiences of the terrorist and their implications. This study examines how a terrorist’s role(s) influence the likelihood of and reasons for disengagement. Using data from autobiographies and in-person interviews with former terrorists, we find that role conflict and role strain increase the probability of disengagement. We show those in certain roles, especially leadership and violent roles, incur greater sunk costs and possess fewer alternatives making exit less likely. Finally, certain roles are associated with the experience of different push/pull factors for disengagement.
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This paper summarizes the findings of a pioneer process and impact evaluation of a school-based Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) initiative conducted by a former right-wing extremist. The goal of the primary prevention seminar was, inter alia, to attain positive effects on extreme right-wing attitudes and delinquent behavior among juveniles. This goal was evaluated using an impact assessment with a post intervention screening after approximately half a year. The sample comprised 564 pupils from 50 school classes, which were randomly assigned to a treatment and a control group. Additionally, we gained further data on the initiative using participant observations and by surveying the participating pupils. This is the first empirical study to evaluate a school-based PVE measure conducted by a former in such a manner. The results of the study do not suggest that the prevention initiative influenced right-wing extremist attitudes and delinquency. The predominantly positive responses of the pupils suggest that this approach can be a tool to facilitate access to pupils in a period of life where adults have difficulties with accessing juveniles. However, the pupils’ statements also highlight critical aspects, which signify that some contents and their illustration do not seem to be adequate for this target group.
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In recent years, research on pathways in and out of violent extremism has grown at a staggering rate. Yet much of what is known about these oftentimes "mysterious" processes does not necessarily shed light on the specific aspects of right-wing extremism, and especially not from a Canadian perspective. In an effort to bridge this gap, we use a life-course criminology approach to draw from the voices of former extremists to gain insights into their respective trajectories in and out of violent extremism. A total of 10 life course interviews were conducted with former Canadian members of violent right-wing extremist groups. Analyses of these data suggest that even if there is no single trajectory in and out of violent extremism, there are still converging patterns such as the attraction for common pull factors and a profound dedication to the right-wing cause. Our analyses also demonstrate that the emotional toll of leaving the movement is often characterized by exhaustion, isolation and regrets.
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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.
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One of the oldest and most controversial issues in the study of terrorism involves the mental health status among actors who commit this type of violence. A consensus has emerged among scholars that terrorists are relatively normal in terms of mental health, and thus, studying mental health is not a useful line of investigation. In contrast, we find a large portion of our sample of former violent U.S. White supremacists report mental health problems before and/or during their involvement. Individuals with mental health problems may be attracted to the White supremacist movement because of the ideological similarities to certain types of mental health symptoms such as paranoia, elevated levels of anger, and a sense of persecution. Additionally, results suggest that violent White supremacist groups do not actively filter prospective or current members for mental health problems. Findings provide evidence for the ongoing need to examine mental health factors among a variety of terrorist organizations and suggest that the emerging consensus may be an example of overgeneralization.