EER is delighted to have been able to interview two of the three authors of an important recent academic article, “Disengaged but Still Radical? Pathways Out of Violent Right-Wing Extremism”. We spoke with Tiana Gaudette and Ryan Scrivens of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in the United States.
EER: Your recent paper, “Disengaged but Still Radical?”, focused on the pathways out of extremism, but before we get to that I wanted to ask a question about the pathways into extremism. With the Islamic State, for example, it was found, when deeper research was done, that a lot of the media coverage about online radicalization was overblown, and in-person social networks remained much more significant. Is this true of far-Right extremists, or is the online world really their centre of recruitment?
Authors: Indeed, many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers continue to raise questions about the role of the Internet in facilitating violent extremism—whether the focus is on violent Islamists such as the so-called Islamic State or Right-wing extremists in general. Although we did not report on pathways into violent extremism for our recent study, in another recent study we conducted in-depth interviews with former Right-wing extremists—particularly those formerly involved in Canadian racist skinhead groups—about their experiences with the Internet while involved in violent extremism. Interestingly, we found that their online and offline worlds—and networks specifically—interacted during pathways into extremist violence. To illustrate, exposure to violent extremist content and ideologies commonly occurred after a “friend” in the offline world who they knew and trusted directed them to violent extremist materials online. However, it was the Internet that eventually facilitated processes of violent radicalization by enabling individuals to immerse themselves in extremist content and networks. We also found that the Internet served as a gateway for individuals to engage in violent extremist activities offline by connecting adherents in the online world to the offline world. Together, the Internet facilitates pathways into violent extremism, and an individual’s on- and offline worlds are key in understanding pathways into violent Right-wing extremism. Research has similarly found this to be the case for Islamist extremists.
EER: In terms of the far-Right terrorists who do the most damage, do they tend to be from organized groups and movements, or is lone-actor terrorism the main threat from this ideological milieu?
Authors: This is an important question, but it is not one that our research has explored—in a systematic manner at least. Our research has mostly focused on individuals formerly involved in violent racist skinhead groups, largely in a Canadian context, and the extent to which they engaged in violent extremism or terrorism while involved in organized groups, movements, or as lone actors is unclear to us at this point. However, we acknowledge that lone actors are indeed a growing security threat among law enforcement and intelligence officials, but empirical research on the severity of their attacks compared to their group-oriented counterpart has led to mixed conclusions. Some of the most recent work on this topic which come from the United States (U.S.) has attempted to address these inconsistencies in the literature. Overall, the authors found that lone actor attacks from far-Rightists and jihadists in the U.S. were associated with significantly more casualties (i.e., injuries and deaths) than organized groups, but when looking at fatalities specifically, lone actor attacks were only marginally more severe than those of organized groups. Nonetheless, other studies have shown that, whether lone actor attacks are more severe than those of organized groups, they are becoming increasingly common. Indeed, more research is needed to explore this growing security threat.
EER: Are there any patterns in the push and pull factors that disengage people from violent far-Right extremism, or is it too individual a process to generalize in any way?
Authors: We generally found that no two people followed the same pathway out of violent Right-wing extremism, but a number of similar push and pull factors were present in each case. For example, most did not leave for one reason only but instead for several overlapping reasons, ranging from the birth of a child and not wanting them to follow in their footsteps, to fatigue and burnout from long-term involvement in violent extremism, to disillusionment with the movement (e.g., contradicting ideologies and actors). Importantly, participants in our study also detailed several key strategies that helped them disengage and suggested that it was a combination of each that played an important role during the process. This included taking time away from and placing physical distance between themselves and other movement adherents, being supported by family and friends as they exited, and reforming their identities—and with positive alternatives. Nonetheless, much more research is needed to examine the extent to which these factors—and indeed others—are influential during processes of disengagement from violent extremism.
EER: To what extent do the programs designed to bring about disengagement play a role in leading people out of violent extremism?
Authors: This is a question that practitioners and policymakers will continue to grapple with. While our recent study does not address this question specifically, in another recent study involving in-depth interviews with former Right-wing extremists about preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), we found that exit programs or formal support programs designed to promote disengagement from violent extremism may have helped them leave. In particular, those who we interviewed were largely in support of exit initiatives—although unavailable to them during their disengagement. When asked, for example, what would have been the most helpful for them during their process of disengagement, most noted that communicating with a former would have been beneficial. Yet in discussing the role of formers in this regard, the need for an infrastructure be put in place was oftentimes mentioned during the interviews. This was described as (1) a team of “credible” and “dedicated” formers who are willing to put in the time to help others leave, and (2) a group of key stakeholders who can assist these formers in helping people leave, largely because formers cannot do it on their own. In light of these useful suggestions for helping people disengage from violent extremism, very little is empirically known about the effectiveness of formers in the P/CVE space beyond anecdotal and descriptive accounts. Much more work is needed here.
EER: Disengagement from violent far-Right extremism does not, of course, mean that such people have given up their radical beliefs: Does this matter—do such people continue to pose a risk to the society?
Authors: It is certainly the case that disengagement from violent Right-wing extremism—and arguably violent extremism in general—does not necessitate deradicalization. In fact, most of the former extremists we interviewed described themselves as disengaged but still radical; they left violent extremism but held radical views in some capacity—and with varying degrees. At one end of the spectrum, a few participants described how they took active steps to rid themselves of what they described as “problematic views,” which generally involved recognizing and suppressing radical beliefs when they emerged. At the other end of the spectrum, half of the interviewees made it clear that they continued to embrace and, when necessarily, rationalize their extremist views. This was reflected in some of their behaviors after disengaging from violent extremism, such as listening to white power music and wearing associated apparel, as well as refraining from interactions with and building relationships with non-whites. Indeed, these are potential risk factors for reengagement in violent extremism, but the extent to which these individuals pose a future security risk is unknown. This requires future exploration.
EER: Does your research suggest that deradicalization plays a role in disengagement, or are these two phenomena generally separate?
Authors: Unravelling and unpicking deradicalization and disengagement from someone’s pathway out of violent extremism is indeed a challenge, as both processes interact. Our study details this complex interaction between the two—both of which are lengthy, non-linear, and ongoing. Interestingly, though, while it may seem intuitive for someone to leave violent extremism because they no longer hold extremist beliefs, our study found little support for this; only a small proportion of interviewees reported becoming deradicalized while still involved in violent extremism. In fact, most disengaged from violent extremism with their radical beliefs largely intact, which suggests that deradicalization did not play a major role in their decision to leave. Instead, factors such as new family responsibilities (i.e., birth of a child), disillusionment, as well as emotional and physical burnout, were the most influential factors during their disengagement process. Our results may, in part, be a symptom of our study sample, as most were heavily involved in violent Right-wing extremism for extensive periods of time. Future research is indeed needed to generate more knowledge on pathways out of violent extremism in general and the interactions between deradicalization and disengagement specifically.
EER: Is there a significant difference between the pathways far-Right extremists and radical Islamists take out of extremism?
Authors: Good question—this is one that sits at the top of the priority list for many in law enforcement and the intelligence community. In short, some work has been done in this space, but the evidence base is quite thin, and especially because of the difficulty of gaining access to and then interviewing current and former extremists. Nonetheless, we are seeing similarities and differences between the two. Some research, for example, has examined pathways in and out of extremism by interviewing former Islamist extremists and Right-wing extremists and, as we found in our recent work, the authors uncovered a variety of journeys out of violent extremism, as well as complex factors playing a role in disengagement and deradicalization processes. A recent study involving interviews with Islamist extremists and Right-wing extremists drew similar conclusions. Fortunately, some other research involving interviews with former jihadists and Right-wing extremists (and others) has uncovered that sustained disengagement from extremist violence involves ‘pro-integration’—i.e., meaningful connections with civil society. We are hopeful that those who we interviewed and others in the process of leaving violent extremism in general will be able to develop and sustain meaningful and positive connections.
EER: Are “formers” an effective counter-messaging strategy in bringing far-Right ideologues away from violent extremism?
Authors: The question about counter-messaging in the P/CVE space in general and formers in that space in particular are contentious among many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. In our recent study, we did not explore formers in counter-messaging but in another recent study we interviewed former Right-wing extremists about how they think extremism should be prevented and countered. During these interviews, it became clear that most believed that a central actor in helping people leave violent extremism (and who wanted to leave) should be those who have “credible” first-hand experience. Credibility in this regard was determined by the amount of time and “emotional energy” that an individual spent in violent extremism. Interviewees also described how receiving counter-messaging from credible formers may be effective in helping people leave violent extremism—particularly in a one-on-one setting. However, and perhaps most importantly, several of the formers we interviewed emphasized that they were largely resistant to counter-messaging when they were involved in violent extremism—especially from those with whom they had little trust, such as law enforcement and community activists, as but two examples. Instead, our work suggests that people are more likely to be receptive to, and discuss their extremist beliefs with, those they already know and trust—and, importantly, only when they are ready. Such conversations may be with a former extremist or with others who they believe will not judge them.
EER: What are the main steps Western governments need to take that they currently are not to help draw individuals away from violent far-Right extremism?
Authors: Violent Right-wing extremism is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, grounded in both individual and social conditions. P/CVE initiatives must also be multi-dimensional, building on the strengths and expertise of diverse sectors, including but indeed not limited to local community organizations, police officers, and policymakers. In other words, efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism cannot only be seen as a law enforcement or intelligence issue. It is a social issue. Law enforcement officials should therefore partner with various local community organizations, human rights activists, and academics, sharing knowledge and ideas for enhancing and/or developing P/CVE initiatives. Fortunately, Western governments have allocated some funding and resources to a variety of initiatives that draw from a multisectoral perspective to help steer people away from violent extremism. Notable examples include Life After Hate, EXIT USA, the Organization for Prevention of Violence, and others. But this is just a drop in the bucket, and as many initiatives have themselves noted, it is a challenge to measure their effectiveness. Having said that, we are hopeful that these initiatives will continue to draw people away from violent extremism, one at a time.
EER: Thank you for your time.