What explains why people join and leave far-right groups?

Tore Bjørgo and Hanna Munden


  • People join – and leave – extremist groups and activities due to a combination of push and pull factors, and relatively weak barrier factors.
  • We distinguish between five ideal types of participants who join – and leave – extremist groups for very different reasons: Ideologists, followers, adventurers, the angry and frustrated, and traditionalists.
  • Simplistic notions of radicalization and deradicalization fail to explain the complex processes of becoming involved in extremist activities and groups.
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No single path

A common understanding of why individuals join extremist groups is that they first get radicalized by adopting extremist views, and subsequently join an extremist group and engage in violent activism. However, this model is far too simplistic.[1] Most of those who become radicalized never engage in extremist activities. Many engage in extremist groups for a variety of social or psychological needs and reasons, and may or may not adopt the extremist views of the group later on. Moreover, some of these are only radicalized superficially.[2] Thus, there is no single path into extremist groups, as those who join have varying motivations and causes for joining, and so do their ensuing trajectories.

An alternative to the radicalization paradigm is the push, pull, and barrier model,[3] which may be applied to all varieties of ideology and/or groups engaging in violence. When individuals join – or leave – an extremist group, it is usually due to a combination of push and pull factors, which vary between individuals, kinds of groups, and characteristics of the members (e.g., gender, age, mental health, level of ideological conviction, etc.). Push refers to negative social forces and circumstances that make it unattractive and unpleasant to remain in a particular social situation or environment, whereas pull refers to factors attracting the person to a more rewarding alternative. Barriers are the perceived negative consequences of joining or leaving an extremist group, serving as inhibitors to change. Importantly, what constitutes the specific push, pull, and barrier factors may vary considerably between individuals and kinds of groups.

Joining extreme right groups

There are five types of participants that can be found in various combinations across all ideological movements.[4] People who fall within these different categories will have differing trajectories and reasons for joining extremist groups.

  • Ideologists are unsatisfied with the political situation and feel an urge to do something about a perceived threat, e.g., that Muslims are taking over Europe (push). They are primarily driven by political engagement, idealism, or even altruism. More extreme ideological opinions are often developed over time, as a consequence of their engagement and group participation Embracing a militant ideology and movement provides an opportunity to act (pull). These are often socially resourceful and educated individuals. These “entrepreneurs” are not numerous but essential to establish and provide leadership to militant groups.[5] However, as for all group members, the prize of engagement in violent extremism may be social stigmatization, loss of job, or criminal prosecution (barriers).
  • Followers are primarily driven by social needs. Some are victims of bullying, violence, or discrimination, or feel lonely and vulnerable (push). They seek friendship, protection, or belonging to a group (pull). Others become involved because they already belong to a group of friends that join the extremist scene together, or have family members who have joined. Although they may feel some initial reluctance towards violence and hatred presented by the group (barriers), they typically gradually adopt their views and behaviors in order to be accepted.
  • Adventurers are attracted by the militant aspects of the group, such as weapons, uniforms, the adrenaline rush of fighting, and/or the controversial reputation of militias or skinhead gangs (pull). Mainstream life is experienced as too mundane (push). For most, ideology is not a driver, but rather a justification for violence and militancy.
  • The angry and frustrated participants typically come from troubled family backgrounds character­ized by parental neglect, abuse, or other traumatic experiences (push). They tend to have extensive experience with crime and violence.[6] The extremist group may offer them a form of redemption and purpose, and that they are valued for their criminal and violent skills (pull). The group may also function as a validator of their anger, further maintaining and/or strengthening these emotions. They are often uninterested in ideology or the cause, and have few barriers to join a violent extremist group.
  • Traditionalists grew up in families where parents and siblings are deeply entrenched within extreme right views and subcultures. To them, extremist activism is a family tradition.[7] Unlike the other types, there may not be a particular transition into extrem­ism; they were born and socialized into, and have multiple ties to, the group (pull).

These five types may be found in different proportions across different groups and movements. Ideologists are indispensable in all groups, but tend to be more numerous among intellectually oriented movements like Generation Identity. Skinhead gangs tended to attract many youths with a need for belonging, those attracted to fighting, and those with a problematic background (i.e., followers, adventurers, and the angry and frustrated).

Leaving extreme right groups

Participants in extremist groups are likely to sustain their engagement unless there is a favorable combination of push, pull, and barrier factors that enables their disengagement from the group. Push factors might be disillusionment about the ideology or the (lost) cause, infighting, changes in group climate,[8] manipulative leaders, paranoia about suspected infiltrators, loss of trust and status within the group, prosecution by the police or militant anti-racists, expression of dismay from important family members or friends, or burnout.[9] Cognitive dissonance is another potential push factor; a conflict between the violent activities of the group and the individual’s intuition about what’s right and wrong.[10]

Pull factors include finding a romantic partner outside the group and prospects of forming a family, forming positive relationships with outsiders or even former enemies, rebuilding broken family relations, opportunities to get a job, and prospects of having a “normal” and peaceful life without all the stressors of participating in violent activism.[11]

Barrier factors to leaving an extremist group include fear of reprisals from the group that might consider defectors as traitors with a potential risk of betraying group secrets.[12] A sense of belonging to and identity with the group also motivates an individual to continue both their membership and radical behavior.[13] Leaving the group may mean breaking ties of loyalty and close friendships, but also to lose protection against external enemies and opponents. They may also risk criminal prosecution for their involvement in violent extremism. Many fear stigmatization and end up in a social vacuum[14]. The repercussions of group memberships vary; having been involved with neo-Nazism seems to be more stigmatizing than to have been a militant antiracist.

Each one of these three factors may alone obstruct disengagement: Both push and pull factors have to be sufficiently strong to motivate an activist to leave the group. However, if the barriers are too high, they may still feel trapped in the group, despite wanting to leave.

Leaving the group and reintegrating into mainstream society is usually a long and complex process, with many returning to the group more than once before finally breaking all ties.[15] Doubts and disillusionment about the ideology and group is often experienced long before an exit, particularly among women.[16] Some succeed in leaving both their extremist views and group behind, and establish a firm foothold in mainstream society with a family, job, and social network. They are deradicalized, disengaged, and reintegrated. Others are disengaged, but keep extremist views, or sustain some friendly relations with group members but no longer believe in the ideology. A partial exit process such as this may impede full reintegration. However, even those who make a clean break with their extremist past may experience a variety of difficulties in their attempts to reintegrate, such as marginalization, stigmatization, identity residuals, shame and/or regret, and mental health issues.[17]


[1] Sedgwick, M. (2010). The concept of radicalization as a source of confusion. Terrorism and political violence22(4), 479-494; Coolsaet, R. (2016). ‘All radicalisation is local’: The genesis and drawbacks of an elusive concept. Egmont Paper 84.

[2] Khalil, J., Horgan, J., & Zeuthen, M. (2019). The attitudes-behaviors corrective (ABC) model of violent extremism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 1-26; Bjørgo, T. (2011). Dreams and disillusionment: Engagement in and disengagement from militant extremist groups. Crime, law and social change55(4), 277-285.

[3] Bjørgo, T. (1997). Entry, bridge-burning and exit options: What happens to young people who join racist groups – and want to leave?. In T. Bjørgo, Racist and right-wing violence in Scandinavia: Patterns, perpetrators and responses. Oslo, Norway: Tano Aschehoug; Altier, M.B., Thoroughgood, C.N., & Horgan, J.G. (2014). Turning away from terrorism: Lessons from psychology, sociology, and criminology. Journal of peace research51(5), 647-661.

[4] Researchers on right-wing extremism [Willems, H. (1995). Development, patterns and causes of violence against foreigners in Germany: Social and biographical characteristics of perpetrators and the process of escalation. In T. Bjørgo (Ed.) Terror from the extreme right (pp. 162-181). London, UK: Frank Cass; Bjørgo (1997); Linden, A., & Klandermans, B. (2007). Revolutionaries, wanderers, converts, and compliants: Life histories of extreme right activists. Journal of contemporary ethnography36(2), 184-201] and Islamist terrorism [Nesser, P. (2018). Islamist terrorism in Europe: A history. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press] have come up with very similar typologies of perpetrators. Bjørgo [Bjørgo, T. (2011). Dreams and disillusionment: Engagement in and disengagement from militant extremist groups. Crime, law and social change55(4), 277-285; Bjørgo, T. (2016). Preventing crime: A holistic approach. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 203] has synthesised these ideology-specific typologies into a generic typology.

[5] Nesser (2018), 309.

[6] Basra, R., & Neumann, P.R. (2016). Criminal pasts, terrorist futures: European jihadists and the new crime-terror nexus. Perspectives on Terrorism10(6), 25-40; Polititets Sikkerhetstjeneste (2019). Temarapport: Hvilken bakgrunn har personer i høyreekstreme miljøer i Norge?, https://www.pst.no/globalassets/artikler/utgivelser/temarapport_pst_-hvilken-bakgrunn-har-personer-i-hoyreekstreme-miljoer-i-norge.pdf

[7] Lööw, H. (2015). Nazismen i Sverige 2000-2014. Stockholm, Sweden: Ordfront; Lööw, H. (2016a). Nazismen i Sverige 1924-1979. Stockholm, Sweden: Ordfront; Lööw, H. (2016b). Nazismen i Sverige 1980-1999. Stockholm, Sweden: Ordfront.

[8] Horgan, J. (2004). The psychology of terrorism. London, UK: Routledge; Altier et al. (2014).

[9] Bjørgo (1997).

[10] Dalgaard-Nielsen, A. (2013). Promoting exit from violent extremism: Themes and approaches. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism36(2), 99-115.

[11] Bjørgo (1997); Altier et al. (2014)

[12] Bjørgo (1997); Noricks, D.M. (2009). Disengagement and deradicalization: Processes and programs. In P.K. Davis & K. Cragin (Eds). Social science for counterterrorism: Putting the pieces together (pp. 299-322). Santa Monica, USA: RAND Corporation.

[13] Victoroff, J. (2005). The mind of the terrorist: A review and critique of psychological approaches. Journal of Conflict resolution49(1), 3-42.

[14] Garfinkel, R. (2007). Personal transformations: Moving from violence to peace. United States Institute of Peace Special Report, 186, 1-16.

[15] See for example Ebaugh, H.R.F. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press; Simi, P., Blee, K., DeMichele, M., & Windisch, S. (2017). Addicted to hate: Identity residual among former white supremacists. American Sociological Review82(6), 1167-1187.

[16] Latif, M., Blee, K., DeMichele, M., & Simi, P. (2019). Why white supremacist women become disillusioned, and why they leave. The Sociological Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1080/00380253.2019.1625733.

[17] Bjørgo (1997). Having been involved with national socialist movement carries a heavier stigma than most other militant movements, although ISIS is probably even more stigmatizing. An interesting documentary film about dealing with an extremist past and feelings of guilt is “Exit: Leaving Extremism Behind” by Karen Winther, based in interviews with three former Nazis, a former jihadist, and a former left-wing extremist. See also Simi, P., Blee, K., DeMichele, M., & Windisch, S. (2017). Addicted to hate: Identity residual among former white supremacists. American Sociological Review82(6), 1167-1187.

By Tore Bjørgo and Hanna Munden
Published Sep. 7, 2020 1:26 PM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2020 3:49 PM