Disengaged but Still Radical? Pathways Out of Violent Right-Wing Extremism
School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan, USA
School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan, USA
UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism
Project SOMEONE, Concordia University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
This work was supported by Public Safety Canada under the Community Resilience Fund [8000-
18863] and Concordia University’s Horizon Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.
The authors thank Steven Chermak for his valuable feedback on earlier versions of this article.
The authors also thank the two anonymous reviewers and editors John Horgan and Max Taylor
for their valuable and constructive feedback.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Disengaged but Still Radical? Pathways Out of Violent Right-Wing Extremism
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.
This study examines pathways out of violent extremism in general and the interactions between
processes of disengagement and deradicalization from violent extremism in particular via in-
depth interviews with Canadian former right-wing extremists (RWEs), and with interview
questions provided by Canadian law enforcement officials and local community activists. This
study represents an original contribution to the academic literature on disengagement and
deradicalization from violent extremism on three fronts.
First, research in terrorism and extremism studies has tended to focus on processes of
violent radicalization – particularly the motivations for individuals joining violent extremist
Yet over the past two decades, many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers
have turned their attention to how, why, and when individuals leave violent extremism.
concepts are oftentimes 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 moderating their beliefs.
‘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.
As Windisch and
distinguish the two: “deradicalization involves a change in belief; whereas,
disengagement is characterized by a change in behavior.” While these two processes can occur
separately or simultaneously depending on the context in which they take place,
correctly point out that “a great deal of ambiguity remains about the underlying causes and
correlates of exit.” Understandably, there has been a growing interest among researchers,
practitioners, and policymakers to develop a more nuanced understanding of this complex
However, to-date far more is empirically known about why people join violent
extremist movements than why they leave them.
Fortunately, some empirical research has
emerged in this space, much of which has incorporated the perspectives of former extremists.
The current study adds to this emerging evidence base by interviewing former RWEs about their
pathways out of violent extremism.
Second, over the past decade it has become increasingly common for researchers,
practitioners and policymakers in the Western world to draw from the insights of former
extremists – colloquially known as ‘formers’ – to generate knowledge on the prevalence and
contours of extremism and terrorism.
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
others have argued that formers can provide valuable insight into issues that terrorism
scholars, among many others, are concerned with.
To illustrate, researchers 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,
processes of deradicalization and disengagement from
or both pathways in and out of extremism.
Researchers have also explored
various aspects of the abovementioned processes via the insights of formers, including the
parental influences on radicalization and de-radicalization,
the impact of extremist online
content and violent radicalization,
the experiences of women in groups that advocate racial and
factors that minimize radicalization to mass-casualty violence,
the role of
formers in preventing terrorism and political violence in post-conflict communities,
assessment of how former extremists think that extremism should be prevented and countered.
Despite these developments in terrorism and extremism studies, relatively few
empirically driven studies have drawn from the insights of former extremists to examine the
interactions between their disengagement and deradicalization processes. Instead, much of the
focus has been on examining pathways into violent extremism and processes of radicalization.
For empirical studies that have interviewed former extremists about their pathways out of violent
extremism, they tend to focus on processes of disengagement
specifically on the interactions between both. A search using dedicated academic research
databases produced eight studies that interviewed or drew from the accounts of former extremists
with an emphasis on the relationship between processes of disengagement and deradicalization.
Bubolz and Simi
conducted life history interviews with 34 American former white
supremacists and found that processes of disengagement and deradicalization were multifaceted
and influenced by a variety of factors. Sieckelinck and colleagues
conducted interviews with 34
Dutch and Danish former extremists (RWEs and Islamists primarily) and their families, and they
similarly found that a set of complex factors played a role in disengagement and deradicalization
processes. Brown and colleagues
interviewed 36 American former RWEs and Islamists as well
as their families and friends and also found a wide variety of journeys out of violent extremism.
Horgan and colleagues
conducted an in-depth interview with one former violent RWE and
similarly found that multiple push and pull interactions shaped disengagement and
deradicalization decisions. Barrelle
conducted interviews with 22 former extremists (e.g.,
jihadists, RWEs, and Tamil separatists) and concluded that sustained disengagement involves
“pro-integration” – i.e., meaningful connections with civil society. Mattssona and Johansson
conducted in-depth interviews with two Swedish former extremists and found that
disengagement involves a combination of “fateful moments” and interventions by significant
others. Simi and colleagues
examined the challenges associated with leaving white supremacy
via 89 life-history interviews with former U.S. far-right extremists and found that extremists
experienced several residual effects that were described as a form of addiction. These residual
effects were found to intrude on cognitive processes as well as involve long-term effects on
emotional and physiological levels and, in some cases, involved complete relapse into extremist
behavior. Lastly, Altier and colleagues
drew from 87 autobiographical accounts to examine
terrorist disengagement and found that certain push factors, such as disillusionment with the
movement and burnout, were more likely to drive disengagement decisions than de-
radicalization. Despite these foundational studies, there remains a need to closely examine the
interplay between disengagement and deradicalization processes via the insights of former
Third, the study addresses an important missing data issue that limits many studies in
terrorism and extremism studies relying on official and open-source data to generate knowledge
on the prevalence and contours of extremism and terrorism in general
and research on
disengagement and deradicalization in particular.
Drawing from the voices of individuals
formerly involved in violent extremist groups or movements who have experience with – and
insight into – the dynamics of violent extremism offer a first-hand account of why and how
individuals leave violent extremism, among other things.
Notably, Morrison and colleagues
their systematic review of post 2017-research on disengagement and deradicalization found that
their sample was dominated by literature reviews and theoretical development, with a very small
proportion of studies carrying out any form of data collection with disengaged individuals for the
purpose of conducting interviews with them. There can be little doubt, then, that more empirical
research is needed that is derived from primary source data to enhance our understanding of
processes of disengagement and deradicalization. This is a critical area of research that many
researchers, practitioners, and policymakers continue to be concerned with.
Data collection and interview guide
This study is part of a broader project that draws from the perspectives of former extremists to
develop empirically informed strategies to combat violent extremism.
Data collection efforts
for the project consisted of two central components.
First, prior to conducting the interviews with formers, we consulted with key
stakeholders, namely Canadian law enforcement officials and local community activists, and
they developed a list of interview questions that they would ask formers and those questions
were incorporated into the interview guide. 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 guide. Here a convenience sample of 30 law enforcement officials
and 10 local community activists were solicited through email communications with a letter of
invitation and “word of mouth” tactics.
Approximately 550 questions were collected from these
stakeholders which ranged 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, questions were categorized and duplicate questions were removed. Here the
interview guide consisted of a combination of approximately 275 open-ended structured and
semi-structured questions and follow-up questions. Each participant was asked to answer the
same initial set of interview questions, with follow-up questions asked depending on their
response to an initial question.
Interview questions, however, did not focus specifically on
violent right-wing extremism in Canada in an effort to have maximum impact within a Western
For more on the interview guide, see the Appendix.
Second, 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
to gain access to a few formers. We developed a level of trust
with these formers over a period of time and through several discussions, 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 RWEs participated in the current study and were recruited using a
snowball sampling technique. Interviews were conducted voluntarily in person or via telephone
or Skype between the months of March and September of 2018.
Interviews ranged from
approximately 1.5 hours to 7 hours in length with an average of approximately 4 hours. All
interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, and all names were de-identified for the purpose
of ensuring participant confidentiality. Pseudonyms were used to protect the identities of
individuals and the violent extremist groups they were associated with. But transcriptions were
verbatim, all in an effort to stay true to the voices of each respondent.
Included in the current study were eight males and two females, ranging from 27 to 44 years old
with an average age of 38. Each of these participants identified themselves as a ‘former
extremist’, meaning that were individuals who, at one time in their lives, subscribed to and/or
perpetuated violence in the name of a particular extremist ideology and violent extremist group
or movement. To illustrate, all ten study participants were actively involved in violent racist
skinhead groups in Canada. Study participants are best described by Simi and Futrell’s
conception of racist skinheads, which they defined as:
…the youngest branch of the white power movement. They derive from a distinct youth
subculture, and since the late 1980s racist skinheads have synthesized neo-Nazi ideals
and symbolism. Racist skinheads persist in loosely organized gangs and activist networks
that congregate in skinhead crash pads and white power music gatherings. The largest
organized groups, such as the Hammerskin Nation, produce white power concerts and
festivals and have active cells around the world and an extensive Internet presence.
Furthermore, our sample reflects Perliger’s
understanding of racist skinheads, in that the former
racist skinheads in our study tended to be incredibly violent and were amongst the most violent
factions of the Canadian right-wing extremist movement. Seven participants, for example,
discussed a number of instances in which they used violence or the threat of violence in support
of the racist skinhead group’s mission, which ranged from vandalizing mosques to violent
attacks against minorities groups to bombmaking efforts targeting government officials.
Additionally, all study participants described several instances in which spontaneous violence
was part of the daily routine of the group to which they belonged, which ranged from armed
robberies against rival groups to acts of violence against specific minority groups. Together,
these instances of violence align with Bjørgo and Ravndal’s understanding of extreme-right
violence, which they describe as “violent attacks whose target selection is based on extreme-right
beliefs and corresponding enemy categories—immigrants, minorities, political opponents, or
governments [...] [or] vandalism and spontaneous violence.”
Participants’ roles in the violent groups ranged from presidents and sergeants, to
enforcers, musicians, and spokespersons. The majority of the study participants described
themselves as the “upper echelon” of Canada’s racist skinhead movement and approximately
half noted that they were group leaders. Most of the study participants were born in urban or
suburban parts of Canada, but all were involved in group activity in major Canadian urban
centers. While some participants were members of several racist skinhead groups throughout
their involvement in the violent right-wing extremist movement, five of the study participants
were mostly part of one particular group, which was arguably the most conspicuous racist
skinhead group in Canada. Three participants were part another racist skinhead group and two
participants were involved with another group, both of which were amongst the most violent
right-wing extremist groups in Canada.
The amount of time that each interviewee was involved in the violent right-wing
extremist movement ranged from approximately 4 years to 22 years with an average of 13 years
in length. Participants joined violent extremist groups at approximately age 18 on average (range
of approximately 16 to 20 years of age), and participants began to leave violent extremism at
approximately age 29 on average (range of approximately 21 to 39 years of age). In addition, on
average their involvement began in 1997 and they disengaged from the movement in 2009.
Figure 1 provides an illustration of the time frame that participants were involved in the violent
right-wing extremist movement.
As ‘former extremists’, the participants have since publicly and/or privately denounced
violence in the name of a particular extremist ideology. In short, they no longer identify
themselves as adherents of a particular violent extremist ideology or are affiliated with an
extremist group or movement. The majority of the interviewees also 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.
Figure 1. Time period that study participants were involved in the violent right-wing extremist
Analysis and coding procedure
The data were analyzed using thematic analysis.
As we reviewed each study participant’s
interview, codes were assigned to the sections of text that related to their pathways out of violent
extremism. This descriptive coding technique proceeded in a sequential, line-by-line manner,
which was a suitable choice for the current study because it allowed us to organize the vast
amounts of textual data garnered from the interviews into more manageable topic-based clusters.
As codes were later grouped into themes, we specifically focused on perceptions, attitudes, and
experiences of study participants’ pathways out of violent extremism. Central emergent themes
which composed of respondents describing similar experiences or views were identified, and less
relevant data were omitted (i.e., selective coding). Here we coded and analyzed the data
1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012
Periods Active in Violent Extremism
independently of one another, identifying the themes and patterns with collaborative agreement,
all of which reinforced each emergent theme. The use of multiple perspectives enhanced the
reliability of our observations and our subsequent understanding of how former extremists in our
sample left violent extremism. The purpose of this strategy was to authenticate our coding and to
maximize the robustness of the results.
Disengaging from violent extremism
When study participants were asked to describe their pathways out of violent extremism, most
initially discussed the reasons for why they decided to disengage from the RWE movement,
noting that they did not leave for one reason only. Rather, they outlined a number of overlapping
reasons for leaving which ranged from birth of a child that drew them away, to fatigue and
burnout from being involved in violent extremism, to disillusionment with the movement (see
Table 1. Study participants’ reasons for disengaging from violent extremism.
Birth of a child
Reuniting with family
Importantly, interviewees also detailed several strategies that helped them disengage from
violent extremism and suggested that it was a combination of strategies that played an important
role in their disengagement process, which included taking time away from and placing physical
distance between themselves and other movement adherents, being supported by family and
friends, and reforming their identities – and with positive alternatives.
Reasons for disengaging
When asked to explain why they disengaged from violent extremism, four interviewees reported
that the birth of a child played an important role in their decision to leave. These participants
explained that they did not want to raise their child in an environment where violence and the
threat of violence were the norm. In short, the RWE movement was described as a “bad scene to
raise children”, as one participant explained it. Another participant noted that they could not
consider “putting my own children at risk, just because of…you know, wanting to be in…a cool
group of guys. That’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? (Participant 2). Another factor that played a role in
their decision to disengage from violent extremism following the birth of a child was that they
did not want their children to “follow in their footsteps” into a violent extremist lifestyle and end
up with a criminal record. To illustrate, when asked why he left the movement, one interviewee
described that it was in part because he “didn’t want them [his children] to be like me. I don’t
want them to have criminal records” (Participant 7). Similarly, three participants were concerned
about being separated from their child(ren), either as the result of being arrested or imprisoned,
or death. For instance, one participant discussed how they left the violent extremist movement
shortly after realizing they had to avoid taking their child to the park out of fear of being
identified and arrested by the police in front of their child. This was a scenario that was described
by one former who was active in violent racist skinhead groups for approximately
fifteen years as “devastating” (Participant 10). Another participant similarly explained that they
“can’t be a father” if they are imprisoned and unable to provide for their children:
...once I had kids, I’m like, “okay, well if I do something and something does go stupid,
or if I get injured and can’t go to work, or if I’m in jail and can’t go to work, I can’t be a
father.” That was a major kind of thing for me leaving. (Participant 9)
In addition, another study participant noted that they were given a second chance to reunite with
their family after being estranged from them for several years, which they described as playing a
key role in their decision to disengage from violent extremism: “I give a lot of credit to my
family for accepting me back, and…letting me come back home, even though I didn’t deserve it.
Like that was pretty big of them and it helped me leave the movement” (Participant 6).
Three of the participants noted that they disengaged from violent extremism in part
because of physical and mental/emotional fatigue and burnout associated with being part of the
movement. One participant, for example, noted that they left in part due to the physical toll that
violence was taking on his body. As this interviewee aged, they described how it became
increasingly difficult to keep up with the physical violence that characterized his role in the
violent extremist movement. In particular, once this individual entered into his thirties, he
explained that he generally felt “too fucking old for this shit,” or as he explained in more detail:
My neck was broken, and my back…I fucking torn it to shreds a couple times. My hands
hurt because I got old, you know? I would just break [after a physical altercation]. When
I was younger, I could get into a bar fight, break a couple of ribs, my nose, and my hand
and be at work the next morning, laughing and joking about it. Now, you know…I get
hurt and I’m a whining, complaining limp for a week. (Participant 10)
Two interviewees also noted that, after spending years – even decades – involved in an
incredibly ‘negative’ violent extremist movement, they in part left because they were feeling
mentally and emotionally drained from their participation there. For example, when asked why
they left the movement, one participant noted that, among several reasons for disengaging, one
key reason was feeling exhausted from “all the hate, and all the negativity and the violence” that
they experienced during their involvement in violent extremism (Participant 2). Similarly,
another participant “just got tired of the violence”. As this interviewee further noted:
I just got tired of it – got tired of the negativity, got tired of the…bullshit, realizing…you
know, that I was limiting myself because of the people that I know. So, I just basically
said that “enough is enough.” It’s just a very negative movement! It’s just constant
pissing and moaning about how shit people’s lives are, how crappy the world is
and…you know, how crappy the world is perceived for white people and…you know,
just it’s a very negative. It’s very narrow…narrow-minded, and I just got tired of that,
just tired of the stupid idiots, tired of the ideology…tired of uneducated morons, tired of
people with mental health issues, tired of… the constant drinking, and the infighting
between the groups. I just got tired of…just, you know after two decades or so [of being
involved in violent extremism], I was just tired of everything in general. It’s just a bunch
of people going nowhere, talking in circles…about an ideology that’s dead. (Participant
Six of the study participants noted that they left violent extremism in part due to
disillusionment. Here they were motivated to leave after realizing that their relationships with
other movement adherents were unexpected or, as one participant noted, “not what I signed up
for.” To illustrate, while these interviewees expected to join a close-knit ‘brotherhood’ of like-
minded extremists, they realized that members of the same group or movement could be
unfriendly, and even hostile, toward one another. As an example, one participant explained that
while they expected to join a “brotherhood who were all on the same side”, in reality their
experience was that other members would “threaten you or try to ‘blackmail’ you over
something really menial. You know, like, ‘I’ll tattle?’ type thing” (Participant 4). Another
participant similarly described their so-called “brothers” in the movement as generally
untrustworthy and even unreliable in times of need, including during violent altercations. This
too played a key role in their decision to disengage, or as this participant put it:
Well, people stab each other in the back who are supposed to be your brothers. And
everybody’s trying to one-up you or get something on you. [...] Or people…you know,
they talk hard and when something goes down and you need backup, nobody shows up
[…] It’s just stuff like that […] That bothered me. That just bothered me more and more,
and I just had enough. I used to put up with it, but now I just can’t deal with it.
Strategies for disengaging
Interestingly, when discussing disengagement strategies, most study participants did not describe
their disengagement process as “clean cut that happened all at once”, as one interviewee
explained. To illustrate, one interviewee who discussed the early periods in their disengagement
process explained that “there was no…no incident, or one day I woke up and said, ‘I’m done’,
and hung up everything and walked away. That’s just not how it worked for me.” (Participant 9).
Rather, participants oftentimes described their disengagement as a process that unfolded over an
extensive period of time. Within this context, a key element of their disengagement process
involved slowly decreasing contact with members of the extremist movement over time,
according to four participants. This strategy enabled them to “fade out” of extremism, as two
participants put it, and avoid potentially dangerous conflict that could arise from more overt
attempts to leave a violent group or the movement in general. As one participant best explained
It wasn’t like, ‘I’m leaving the movement’, and that’s it. It was just like, ‘I kind of need
to step away for a bit,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s cool.’ And then I’d keep
dodging phone calls, and then visits and stuff were less and less and less. I still saw them
a little bit, and then it just kind of became less and less and less. And I think they
realized, ‘oh my god, I think he’s done!’ I didn’t want to have a big scene. I was worried
about having a big incident. So, I just kind of wanted to…just kind of fade out, as
opposed to being like, ‘I’m leaving because this is over!’ I don’t want to do that. I just
wanted to kind of like…disappear. (Participant 1)
Along the same lines, two participants noted that moving to a new city or town, far away from
the rest of the violent extremist group, not only helped them to disengage from violent extremism
initially, but it also helped keep them disengaged once they decided to leave. In other words, the
physical distance between themselves and the rest of the group gave these participants “a
reasonable excuse”, as one interviewee explained it, for not attending meetings and events, or not
keeping in touch with members – not as frequently, at least. This too allowed them to fade out of
Worth further highlighting is that, at the early stages of their disengagement process,
study participants were apprehensive about who they would ask for help. However, eight of the
participants noted that they sought support from others – primarily family members and/or
friends. These were described as 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
views and instead would simply listen to them and communicate, free from judgement. In
addition, at the early stages of their disengagement process, most began to invest their emotional
time and energy – that they would have spent on extremist-related activities – in positive
activities and experiences, such as post-secondary education, their careers, and family bonding.
Importantly, most participants who invested their time in positive activities when they
disengaged from violent extremism noted that it was helpful in rebuilding their identity outside
of the RWE movement and it provided meaningful direction to their lives. Three participants, for
example, pursued post-secondary education, which helped them develop an identity outside of
extremism, or as one interviewee noted: “school helped me leave [violent extremism] and find
myself a little bit” (Participant 4). Similarly, three participants became career-driven, either
working countless hours or working multiple jobs to “stay busy”, as one interviewee explained it.
Immersing themselves in their careers offered them much-needed direction to their lives because
they oftentimes “didn’t know what to do after leaving the movement”, as one participant
described. As another participant added: “a huge part of my life was gone [after leaving
extremism]. And like…there’s no, there was no exit strategies to speak of [formal EXIT
programs]. There was nothing in terms of support. So, I just worked” (Participant 7). Two study
participants also noted that, when they left violent extremism, they invested much of their time in
family bonding, with family becoming “all that mattered”, as Participant 2 described it.
Importantly, instead of participating in and investing their time and energy in movement-related
activities, these participants spent “lots more time with family” (Participant 2). Another
participant further added that their priorities changed once the left violent extremism, noting that
their lives no longer revolved around the violent extremist movement but instead “life was just
my family. So, everything was invested into my…you know my wife and kids” (Participant 1).
Deradicalizing from violent extremism
To gain insight into the relationship between processes of disengagement and deradicalization
from violent extremism, study participants were asked to describe how the two interacted.
Commonly discussed in this regard was that much like disengagement, deradicalization was a
complex, lengthy process that was influenced by pivotal movements and experiences. Worth
noting, though, is that most participants admitted that they still maintained some radical views
despite disengaging from the RWE movement.
Eight of the study participants described their deradicalization as a lengthy, drawn-out process
spanning numerous years and was linked, in large part, to what one participant referred to as
“level of involvement” or the amount of time engaged in violent extremism. As one participant
…[deradicalization] is such a process. And it’s probably different for everybody, and that
might depend on the level of involvement in something – the level of extremism, the
number of years involved, you know? […] Like…there were some people that were in
there for twenty years. Bet that would be a lot tougher to get out of. (Participant 1)
Within this context, several participants noted that amount of time that an individual spent
engaged in violent extremism plays a key role in their identify formation and in turn influences
their deradicalization process. To illustrate, one interviewee described how it was “more than a
decade I spent talking a certain way, thinking a certain way, doing certain things that most
people would never do” (Participant 2). As a result, deradicalization was a lengthy process
because it created what one participant referred to as an “identity crisis.” Here their entire belief
system and, by extension, their identity was put into question and in turn they were unsure of
how, if at all, to rebuild or recreate themselves outside of violent extremism. One interviewee
described this as “los[ing] the compass by which I lived my life” (Participant 3). Another
participant noted that, during the lengthy deradicalization process, they had to figure out “who
[they] really are” and further added that:
…you’ve got to start all over again. But the problem is you don’t even know who you
are. You’ve believed in all of this garbage for so long that it’s all you know. So how do
you escape from that? And that…that’s the hardest part [of leaving violent extremism] I
think. It’s just…breaking all of this down and rebuilding yourself, just kind of finding out
who you really are. (Participant 1)
When asked about the relationship between their deradicalization and disengagement
processes, participant responses were mixed. On the one hand, two participants believed that
their deradicalization and disengagement processes were separate from one another and that their
deradicalization process happened after they disengaged from the RWE movement. To illustrate,
one interviewee described “officially” leaving the movement at age 22, but it was not until they
were “about to turn 23” that their process of deradicalization began (Participant 6). Further, these
participants described their deradicalization process as linear in that their extremist beliefs slowly
diminished, sequentially, over time. As one of these participants explained, they described their
deradicalization process as “just day by day, just don’t care as much about the whole race issue”
(Participant 4). On the other hand, four participants described their deradicalization process as
non-linear and complex, wherein their radical beliefs did not weaken over time, but instead were
“all over the map”, as one participant put it, and tended to resurface sporadically following their
disengagement. For example, one interviewee noted that their interest in violent extremism
would re-emerge after they disengaged and discussed using the Internet to visit extremist web-
forums and conducted Internet searches of their former extremist group:
I would still be thinking about it [the extremist ideologies] from time to time, and I was
still kind of…once in a while I would look at like…a Stormfront board or whatever, or
I’d be looking up stuff about…just…what was going on in the movement. I’d be
googling my former group and this and that. (Participant 1)
Furthermore, it became clear over the course of the interviews with the former extremists that
their deradicalization process was not always followed by the disengagement process. As one
participant who was involved in the violent RWE movement for over ten years explained it:
…deradicalization is not a linear process by any stretch of the imagination. I think it…I
think there’s different ways that people go through these things and, you know, some
things can happen before other things [deradicalization before disengagement], or vice-
versa, right? (Participant 2)
To illustrate, while four interviewees implied that their deradicalization process began before
leaving violent extremism, two interviewees outright stated that they began to seriously question
their extremist views while still engaged in the movement. One participant, for example,
explained how they began to realize, while involved in violent extremism, that they “didn’t
believe what [they] was saying anymore. I didn’t feel it – I didn’t look at black people or Jewish
people and say, ‘there’s the problem’” (Participant 7). Likewise, another participant began
doubting some of their extremist beliefs before deciding to disengage from violent extremism,
which was a key force in them leaving he movement. As they put it:
“I just realized I’m not white power. I’m friends with people that aren’t white. I…I don’t
think that…you know, especially Jewish people…I don’t believe that every single Jewish
person is part of some Jewish master plan. So, it kind of poked holes in it [the extremist
ideologies]. (Participant 8)
Pivotal moments and experiences
Eight of the ten study participants discussed pivotal moments or life experiences that raised
serious doubt about their extremist views – most of which happened while they were still
engaged in the violent extremist movement. For five of these participants, this involved
interacting with coworkers from different races in what was described as “safe workplaces”
away from other movement adherents. Here they could interact with what one interviewee
described as “many different types of people, from like…all over the world” (Participant 1). It
was through these interactions that participants found a common ground and, in some cases, even
developed friendships with their coworkers. As one interviewee explained:
It helped to just crumble anything racist that I had learned before. […] Socializing with
different people helped. It was definitely the guys at work…like…that first work crew
that I was with…like…just getting to know them, seeing the fact that we had more in
common than we had in differences. (Participant 6)
Similarly, another interviewee noted that becoming “buddy-buddy” with non-white coworkers
helped them recognize that, as they put it, “people are alright, and you know…being a nice guy
or being a jerk comes in all sorts of colors” (Participant 4).
For two other participants, a pivotal moment that made them seriously question their
radical views was linked to the consequences of violent extremism. To illustrate, one participant
went on a tour of a Holocaust Museum, and there they were shown pictures of Holocaust victims
and were particularly moved by what the interviewee described as:
This one picture of a little baby that was…it looked like any kind of Sears type portrait
really, except from the 1930’s or 40’s and…you know, it shows this happy little kid
sitting in a photo studio. The tour guide then said to me: ‘This baby died in the gas
chambers of Auschwitz.’ Now you tell me what this kid had to do with any Jewish
conspiracy? (Participant 3)
Another participant described how they met and interacted with a former black gang member and
realized the impact that their violent RWE activity had on non-white communities. According to
this participant, “the guy told me that their gang basically formed because of white
supremacy…to protect his neighbourhood from us. That really meant something to me”
Lingering extremist views
Eight out of the ten study participants maintained some of their extremist beliefs despite their
efforts to disengage from violent extremism. However, three of these participants explained how
they were trying to let go of what they described as “problematic views”, which generally
involved recognizing and suppressing radical beliefs when they emerged. For example, one
interviewee claimed: “I still tell myself…from time to time, ‘no, you can’t think like that. That’s
not good.’ [...] But it still happens” (Participant 2). Another participant noted that, even if they
could not stop thinking about the radical thoughts, they made efforts to avoid vocalizing them.
For example, they claimed that they avoided making “even the odd [racist] joke. I’ll say
something like, ‘No, I shouldn’t even say that’” (Participant 1). Regardless, these participants
commonly described how letting go of their radical beliefs was not an easy feat; rather, they
described this process as a “never-ending struggle”, or as one participant put it: “there’s no way
you can just all of a sudden forget the ideologies and be a fantastic human being, right?
Especially after being around that [the extremist views] for that long” (Participant 2). Another
interviewee similarly noted that: “the harder I try to become normal and think like normal
people, the further I think that I’ve got to go. It’s this ongoing, never-ending thing” (Participant
On the other hand, unlike the previous three participants who raised concerns about their
lingering extremist views, five participants made few, if any, attempts to fully let go of their
radical views. As one of these participants explained it: “A lot of my belief systems are probably
still intact. They’re still pretty much all the same. The only difference is…is less overt racism”
(Participant 7). In particular, one interviewee asserted that racism does not “truly ever leave a
person,” despite cutting ties with the movement (Participant 8). Another participant similarly
noted that “some of the guys [former extremists] are…still have the same views. They just don’t
associate with anybody [in the violent extremist movement]” (Participant 9). One participant
brazenly explained their views on the Holocaust:
I’ve not been shown, to this date, enough proof or evidence to counter what they
[adherents in the RWE movement] taught me about holocaust. […] Six million Jews? It’s
hard to swallow. I’m not in any way a holocaust denier, but…I’ve still not been shown
enough evidence to say, ‘yeah, six million Jews were targeted for extermination.’ Now,
I’m not closed off to the idea of…like you know, showing me how that’s possible. […]
The right-wing have lowered it to 300,000 people who were killed in the concentration
camps, but for most it was from typhus…and they have scientific evidence to back it up.
Interestingly, half of the study participants made efforts to rationalize their extremist views,
which was reflected in some of their behaviors after disengaging from violent extremism, such as
listening to white power music, wearing RWE apparel, and refraining from interactions with and
building relationships with non-whites. Specifically, three of the study participants admitted that
they continued to listen to white power music by popular musicians among RWEs (e.g.,
Screwdriver, Blue Eyed Devils) as well as still wore the associated white power band t-shirts.
Two interviewees also revealed their enjoyment for listening to the music and how it still
resonated with them. One participant, for example, noted that “I’m telling you that I still harbor
some of those [extremist] views. Like…I still own thousands of [white power] CDs. I still…I
still wear the [white power] bands shirts. Like…I have Screwdriver shirts and I wear them”
(Participant 8). Another participant admitted that the white power music satisfied their urge to re-
engage in the violent extremist movement and provided them with an outlet during times of
Sometimes I feel myself getting angry at…at things, and I’m almost going back [to
violent extremism], but it’s…but it wouldn’t happen. But I just…in my mind I…like…I
can’t hang out with those guys because they’re idiots, you know? […] But I don’t know,
it’s like…I still listen to some of the [white power] tunes. But it…I don’t know, it’s…like
we talked about before, struggling with the thought process I guess […] But at the same
time, I’ll still listen to…you know, George Lincoln Rockwell speeches, or Blue Eyed
Devils, Screwdriver. I’ll still, I’ll still listen to that. (Participant 9)
Three participants also revealed that they were against any interactions or relationships with non-
whites. For example, one interviewee claimed that they avoided interacting with those who they
considered to be “scumbag people”, or as they explained: “When I think ‘nigger’, I think of a
gangster and just scumbag people. If you’re just a…you know, you’re a black man and you’re
working or a family man or whatever, then okay, fair enough. But it doesn’t mean I have to be
friends with them” (Participant 9). Similarly, another participant acknowledged that, while there
were “positive aspects to every sort of culture and every creed,” they admitted that they “didn’t
want to have their values mixed with my values” (Participant 5). Another interviewee similarly
noted that they thought “race mixing’s a bit weird. I think people should hold on to their
identities and their cultures” (Participant 8).
This study examines pathways out of violent extremism in general and the complex interactions
between processes of disengagement and deradicalization from violent extremism in particular
by drawing from the insights of former extremists who were involved in violent racist skinhead
groups and with interview questions developed by law enforcement and local community
activists. Several conclusions can be drawn from this study.
First, our results suggest that disengagement from violent extremism is a multifaceted
and multidimensional process involving various interrelated reasons for people deciding to leave,
which comes as little surprise, given that empirical work has similarly found that there is no
single cause associated with individual disengagement.
However, our findings reveal several
overlapping and commonly described reasons for why individuals disengaged. Here the most
common motive was disillusionment with the movement, followed by movement burnout, and
the birth of a child and the subsequent need to protect them from movement-related activities
(i.e., violence, criminal records, etc.). Previous research has similarly found that both
are largely associated with why people disengage from violent
extremism as well as the birth of child.
Interestingly, though, is that our study participants not
only explained why they left violent extremism, they outlined strategies that helped them leave.
Commonly described in this regard was taking time away from and placing physical distance
between themselves and movement adherents, which they described as taking time to implement
and was done incrementally. Research has similarly shown that physical separation and time
away from violent extremism has helped people disengage, with imprisonment being a common
form of physical disengagement.
Our results, however, suggest that time away and physical
distance in general are indeed helpful in leaving violent extremism. In addition, most study
participants noted how they leaned on family and friends outside of the RWE movement for
support during the early stages of their disengagement, which research has similarly found to be
influential in leaving,
and over time our interviewees restructured their identities that were
grounded in positive and meaningful activities and influences – a set of findings that aligns with
Horgan and colleagues
have conceptualized this identity transformation as
Second, our study findings suggest that, like disengagement from violent extremism,
deradicalization is a complex, multifaceted and lengthy process – a finding that mirrors previous
research on the complexities of deradicalization.
However, in exploring the interactions
between disengagement and deradicalization, our results generally suggest that both processes do
not happen in isolation; instead, there appears to be overlap between the two. To illustrate, most
study participants described their deradicalization process as non-linear and complex that began
before they disengaged from violent extremism and continued after leaving. Commonly
discussed in this regard was the influence of pivotal moments or experiences that made them
doubt their extremist views and begin to “think differently”, as one participant put it, and before
they decided to disengage from the movement – occurrences that Mattssona and Johansson
conceptualize as “fateful moments.” Previous research that highlights the complexities of
deradicalization processes have similarly found that some extremists may begin to deradicalize
before they disengage from violent extremism,
while other research suggests that
deradicalization follows disengagement for some.
Regardless, our study findings align with
Altier and colleagues
who found that, while deradicalization may be an important factor for
why some people leave, it is not the most prevalent cause nor a necessary pre-requisite for
leaving; rather, disillusionment with the movement and burnout are more likely to drive
disengagement decisions than de-radicalization.
Third and perhaps most importantly is that, although study participants claimed to have
disengaged from violent extremism and were self-described as “formers”, most still maintain
radical beliefs, with some feeling ashamed by their persisting views but most embracing them.
This finding may in part be the result of participants’ degree of involvement in violent
extremism, such as the number of years immersed in extremism, their roles there, level of
embeddedness in extremist networks, or propensity for violence. Nonetheless, Horgan and
similarly found what they described as “hard-wired beliefs” that may persist well
past the point of disengagement. Bubolz and Simi
similarly identified numerous difficulties
associated with disengagement, such as negative emotionality (e.g., guilt), ideological relapse,
and maintaining social ties with current extremist members. Simi and colleagues
that former extremists experienced residual effects that they described as a form of addiction.
These residual effects were found to intrude on cognitive processes as well as involve long-term
effects on emotional and physiological levels and, in some cases, involved complete relapse into
Regardless, this evidence base remains in its infancy and requires further
While this study offers a first-hand account of the pathways out of violent extremism and
the interplay between processes of disengagement and deradicalization by drawing from the
insights of former violent RWEs, this study is not without its limitations. For example, it is
unclear whether those who participated in the current study were likely to or have since been
drawn back into violent extremism. In other words, although most study participants maintain
radical views despite leaving the violent RWE movement, the extent to which these hard-wired
beliefs or identity residuals influences them to reengage with violent extremism is unknown.
Although recent research
has suggested that retention of radical beliefs are strong predictors of
reengagement in violent extremism, future research is needed to assess the extent to which
lingering extremist views have an influence on whether (or not) an individual will relapse into
In addition, the retrospective nature of the in-depth interviews with formers raises
questions about the reliability of some of their accounts of past events, especially those described
as significant in retrospect, due to memory erosion, distortion, and selective recall.
As a result,
future studies may consider verifying the authenticity of formers’ accounts by triangulating
interview data with interviews with family members or peers as well as analyses of open source
intelligence (e.g., court records, media scans, website analysis, etc.).
Our study also included a relatively small sample size and was focused on a specific type
of violent extremist in one geographical context. The study sample also consisted of a group of
formers who were deeply entrenched in violent racist skinhead groups for an extensive period of
time and who may also be deemed the “older guard” of the violence RWE movement. Most
participants also reported that they were leaders or held high positions in the movement.
Although the purpose of this study was not to be representative or provide generalizations, future
research should include larger sample sizes in an effort to better inform practitioners and
policymakers on pathways out of violent extremism. Future studies should also incorporate
different types of comparison groups to assess whether the study findings are unique to the ten
former extremists who we interviewed. Here future research could compare former extremists’
pathways out of violent extremism across movements (i.e., former Islamist extremists versus
RWEs versus left-wing extremists), across nations (e.g., the United States versus the 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).
Comparison groups may also include non-violent extremists,
those who were involved in
extremism for a relatively short period of time, or a younger generation of those who are
currently active in extremism, as their experiences with leaving violent extremism may differ
from those who participated in the current study. Together, all of these comparisons would
provide a more nuanced account of the complex nature of pathways out of violent extremism and
the complex interactions between disengagement and deradicalization processes.
See Tore Bjørgo, Strategies for Preventing Terrorism (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2013); see also
Steven Windisch, Pete Simi, Gina Scott Ligon, and Hillary McNeel, “Disengagement from
Ideologically-Based and Violent Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature,” Journal
for Deradicalization 9 (2016): 1-38.
Kate Barrelle, “Pro-Integration: Disengagement from and Life After Extremism,” Behavioral
Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 7 (2015): 129-142; Ryan Scrivens, Steven
Windisch, and Pete Simi, “Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization
Research,” in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization, edited by Derek M. D. Silva and
Mathieu Deflem (Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, 2020, pp. 209-224).
See John Horgan, Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical
and Extremist Movements (New York: Routledge, 2009).
See Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan, eds. Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective
Disengagement (London: Routledge, 2008).
Windisch et al., “Disengagement from Ideologically-Based and Violent Organizations”, 4.
See 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; see also Bryan F. Bubolz and Pete Simi,
“Leaving the World of Hate: Life-Course Transitions and Self-Change,” American Behavioral
Scientist 59 (2015): 1588-1608.
Bubolz and Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate”, 1601.
Scrivens et al., “Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research.”
Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle, Neil D. Shortland, and John Horgan, “Why They
Leave: An Analysis of Terrorist Disengagement Events from Eighty-Seven Autobiographical
Accounts,” Security Studies 26, no. 2 (2017): 305-32; Barrelle, “Pro-Integration”; John F.
Morrison, Andrew Silke, Heidi Maiberg, Chloe Slay, and Rebecca Stewart, A Systematic Review
of Post-2017 Research on Disengagement and Deradicalisation (Lancaster, UK: Centre for
Research and Evidence on Security Threats, 2021);
Michael Jensen, Patrick James, and Elizabeth Yates, “Contextualizing Disengagement: How Exit
Barriers Shape the Pathways Out of Far-Right Extremism in the United States,” Studies in
Conflict & Terrorism. Ahead of Print; 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; Windisch et al.,
“Disengagement from Ideologically-Based and Violent Organizations.”
Morrison et al., A Systematic Review of Post-2017 Research on Disengagement and
Deradicalisation; Scrivens et al., “Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-
Daniel Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization: Methods, Tools and Programs for
Countering Violent Extremism (London: Routledge, 2017); Ryan Scrivens, Vivek Venkatesh,
Maxime Bérubé, and Tiana Gaudette, “Combating Violent Extremism: Voices of Former Right-
Wing Extremists,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Ahead of Print; Marian Tapley and Gordon
Clubb, The Role of Formers in Countering Violent Extremism (The Hague: International Centre
for Counter-Terrorism, 2019).
See Daniel Koehler, “Involvement of Formers in Countering Violent Extremism: A critical
Perspective on Commonly Held Assumptions,” in Maria Walsh and Antje Gansewig, eds.,
Frühere Extremisten in der schulischen Präventionsarbeit (Bonn, Deutschland: Berichte des
Nationalen Zentrums für Kriminalprävention), pp. 15-22; see also Radicalisation Awareness
Network, Dos and Don’ts of Involving Formers in PVE/CVE Work (Bordeaux: RAN Centre of
Bjørgo and Horgan, Leaving Terrorism Behind; 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.
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.
Altier et al., “Why They Leave”; Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle, and John Horgan,
“Terrorist Transformations: The Link Between Terrorist Roles and Terrorist Disengagement,”
Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Ahead of Print; Barrelle, “Pro-Integration”; Bubolz and Simi,
“Leaving the World of Hate”; Horgan et al. “Walking Away”; Jensen et al., “Contextualizing
Disengagement”; Christer Mattssona and Thomas Johansson, “Leaving Hate Behind – Neo-
Nazis, Significant Others and Disengagement,” Journal for Deradicalization 18 (2019): 185-
216. 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; Pete Simi, Steven Windisch, Daniel Harris, and Gina Ligon, “Anger from
Within: The Role of Emotions in Disengagement from Violent Extremism,” Journal of
Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology 7, no, 2 (2019): 3-36; Windisch et al.,
Maxime Bérubé, Ryan Scrivens, Vivek Venkatesh, and Tiana Gaudette, “Converging Patterns
in Pathways in and out of Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Canadian Right-Wing
Extremists,” Perspectives on Terrorism 13, no 6. (2019): 73-89; Ryan Andrew Brown, Todd C.
Helmus, Rajeev Ramchand, Alina I. Palimaru, Sarah Weilant, Ashley L. Rhoades, and Liisa
Hiatt, Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and Their Families on
Radicalization and Deradicalization (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2021); 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; Tiana Gaudette, Ryan Scrivens, and Vivek Venkatesh,
“The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Right-Wing
Extremists,” Terrorism and Political Violence. Ahead of Print, 1-19; 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,
Mehr Latif, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Pete Simi. “Do White Supremacist
Women Adopt Movement Archetypes of Mother, Whore, and Fighter?” Studies in Conflict &
Terrorism. Ahead of Print.
Pete Simi and Steven Windisch, “Why Radicalization Fails: Barriers to Mass Casualty
Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 32 (2018): 831-850.
Gordon Clubb, “‘From Terrorists to Peacekeepers’: The IRA’s Disengagement and the Role of
Community Networks,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37 (2014): 842-861.
Scrivens et al., “Combating Violent Extremism.”
Drevon, “Embracing Salafi Jihadism in Egypt and Mobilizing in the Syrian Jihad; Gaudete et
al., “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism”; Hwang and Schulze, “Why
They Join”; Koehler, “Right-Wing Extremist Radicalization Processes”; Koehler, “The Radical
Online”; Sikkens et al., “Parental Influence on Radicalization and De-Radicalization According
to the Lived Experiences of Former Extremists and Their Families”; Sikorskaya, Messages,
Images and Media Channels Promoting Youth Radicalization in Kyrgyzstan; von Behr et al.,
Radicalization in the Digital Era; Simi and Windisch, “Why Radicalization Fails”; Simi et al.,
“Narratives of Childhood Adversity and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent
Altier et al., “Terrorist Transformations”; Bérubé et al., “Converging Patterns in Pathways in
and out of Violent Extremism;” Clubb, ‘From Terrorists to Peacekeepers’; Jensen et al.,
“Contextualizing Disengagement”; Michael Kimmel, “Racism as Adolescent Male Rite of
Passage: Ex-Nazis in Scandinavia,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (2007): 202-218;
Simi et al., “Addicted to Hate”; Simi et al., “Anger from Within”; Windisch et al.,
David Gadd, “The Role of Recognition in the Desistance Process: A Case Analysis of a
Former Far-Right Activist,” Theoretical Criminology 10 (2006): 179-202; Sikkens et al.,
“Parental Influence on Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the Lived Experiences
of Former Extremists and Their Families.”
Bubolz and Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate.”
Sieckelinck et al., “Transitional Journeys into and out of Extremism.”
Brown et al., Violent Extremism in America.
Horgan et al. “Walking Away.”
Mattssona and Johansson, “Leaving Hate Behind.”
Simi et al., “Addicted to Hate.”
Altier et al., “Why They Leave.”
Bart Schuurman, “Research on Terrorism, 2007-2016: A Review of Data, Methods, and
Authorship,” Terrorism and Political Violence 32, no. 5 (2020): 1011-26; Andrew Silke, “The
Devil You Know: Continuing Problems with Research on Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political
Violence 13, no. 4 (2001): 1-14.
Jensen et al., “Contextualizing Disengagement”; Morrison et al., A Systematic Review of Post-
2017 Research on Disengagement and Deradicalisation.
Altier et al., “Why They Leave”; Horgan et al. “Walking Away”; Scrivens et al., “Former
Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research.”
Morrison et al., A Systematic Review of Post-2017 Research on Disengagement and
Brown et al., Violent Extremism in America.
For more on the project, see Scrivens et al., “Combating Violent Extremism.”
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 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.
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 rigorous 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.
We acknowledge that some of the interview questions were quite detailed in nature and had
the potential to prime respondents on certain factors. For example, interviewees were asked “Did
family help you leave? If so, explain how they helped” followed by “Did friends help you leave?
If so, explain how they helped” and so on. While this provided a measure on each of these
variable types and for each study participant, the pointedness of these questions may have
influenced participant responses. Having said that, interviewees did not appear to be primed
when responding to these types of questions; they were quick to claim that community activists,
for example, did not help them leave violent extremism. Relatedly, for another pointed question
asked, “In the beginning of your disengagement process, how did you evolve in terms of your
relationships and relational ties?”, two participants made it clear that their relationships and
relational ties did not “evolve.” In fact, they corrected our language in this regard. Nonetheless,
we acknowledge that some of the interview questions may have primed the responses of the
See Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada (Cham: Palgrave,
Data collection efforts followed the proper ethical procedures for conducting research
involving human participants – our study was approved by Concordia University’s Human
Research Ethics Committee (certification number: 30008333). Here the former extremists were
informed that their participation in the study was entirely voluntary. They were also informed
that they had the right to decline to answer questions or to end the interview/withdraw from the
study at any time. In addition, the formers were informed that they would not be identified by
name in any publication, and that all data collected from the interview would be de-identified for
the purpose of ensuring participant anonymity.
Pete Simi and Robert Futrell, American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden
Spaces of Hate (2nd Ed) (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015, p. 17).
37 Arie Perliger, Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Far Right (West
Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012).
Tore Bjørgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, Extreme-Right Violence and Terrorism: Concepts,
Patterns, and Responses (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2019, p. 5).
The name of this racist skinhead group or other groups that study participants were involved in
are not disclosed because doing so could reveal their identities.
Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke, “Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology,” Qualitative
Research in Psychology 3 (2006): 77-101.
Carmel Maher, Mark Hadfield, Maggie Hutchings, and Adam de Eyto, “Ensuring Rigor in
Qualitative Data Analysis: A Design Research Approach to Coding Combining NVIVO with
Traditional Material Methods,” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 17 (2018): 1-13.
Norman K. Denzin, The Research Act in Sociology (Chicago: Aldine, 1970).
Bubolz and Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate”; Horgan et al. “Walking Away”; Sieckelinck et
al., “Transitional Journeys into and out of Extremism;” Brown et al., Violent Extremism in
America; Altier et al., “Why They Leave.”
Altier et al., “Why They Leave”; Bubolz and Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate”; Brown et al.,
Violent Extremism in America; Kimmel, “Racism as Adolescent Male Rite of Passage.”
Altier et al., “Why They Leave”; Brown et al., Violent Extremism in America.
Mattsson and Johansson, “Leaving Hate Behind”; Simi et al., “Anger from Within.”
Bubolz and Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate”; Horgan et al. “Walking Away.”
Altier et al., “Why They Leave”; Mattsson and Johansson, “Leaving Hate Behind”; Simi et al.,
“Anger from Within”; Michael Kenney and Julie Chernov Hwang, “Should I Stay or Should I
Go? Understanding How British and Indonesian Extremists Disengage and Why They Don't,”
Political Psychology 42 (2021): 537-553.
Barrelle, “Pro-Integration”; Brown et al., Violent Extremism in America; Sieckelinck et al.,
“Transitional Journeys into and out of Extremism.”
Horgan et al. “Walking Away.”
Gadd, “The Role of Recognition in the Desistance Process”; Horgan et al. “Walking Away.”
Sikkens et al., “Parental Influence on Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the
Lived Experiences of Former Extremists and Their Families.”
Mattssona and Johansson, “Leaving Hate Behind
Altier et al., “Why They Leave”; Horgan et al. “Walking Away”; Sieckelinck et al.,
“Transitional Journeys into and out of Extremism.”
Brown et al., Violent Extremism in America; Mattssona and Johansson, “Leaving Hate
Altier et al., “Why They Leave.”
Horgan et al. “Walking Away.”
Bubolz and Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate.”
Simi et al., “Addicted to Hate.”
See also Brown et al., Violent Extremism in America.
Scrivens et al., “Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization Research.”
Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle, and John Horgan, “Returning to the Fight: An
Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Reengagement and Recidivism,” Terrorism and Political
Violence 33, no. 4 (2021): 836-860
See A. D. Baddeley, “Working Memory and Reading,” Processing of Visible Language 1
(1979), pp. 355-370.
Simi et al., “Addicted to Hate”; Simi et al., “Narratives of Childhood Adversity and
Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism.”
Simi et al., “Narratives of Childhood Adversity and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to
Violent Extremism”; Pete Simi and Steven Windisch, “Why Radicalization Fails.”