Pathways Out of Violent Right-Wing Extremism: Insights from Former Extremists

In a recent webinar Ryan Scrivens and C-REX Director Tore Bjørgo weighed in on what we can learn from interviewing former extremists. In discussing some of his recent work with formers, he emphasised a recent study co-authored by Tiana Gaudette and Vivek Venkatesh, which examined the complex pathways out of violent right-wing extremism.

Black maze against tan background

Photograph by Mitchell Luo, under CC license via UnSplash

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common for 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. Researchers have also shown a growing interest in drawing from the voices of formers to address key research questions in terrorism and extremism studies, including research on processes of radicalization to violent extremism and processes of deradicalization and disengagement from violent extremism. But despite these developments, relatively few empirically driven studies have drawn from the insights of formers 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.

In response, interviews were conducted with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists based on a series of questions provided by 30 Canadian law enforcement officials and 10 community activists. These interviews generated several insights into formers’ perceptions of pathways out of violent extremism.


Disengagement as a multifaceted and multidimensional process

First, formers suggested that disengagement from violent extremism, particularly racist skinhead groups, is a multifaceted and multidimensional process involving various interrelated reasons for people deciding to leave. 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.). As one participant explained:

...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.

Previous research has similarly found that both disillusionment and burnout are largely associated with why people disengage from violent extremism as well as the birth of child.

However, it is interesting that formers in our study not only explained why they left violent extremism, they also 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. This strategy enabled them to “fade out” of extremism, or as one participant put it:

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 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 […] I just wanted to kind of like…disappear.

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 helpful in leaving violent extremism.

In addition, most formers noted how they leaned on family and friends outside of the right-wing extremist movement for support during the early stages of their disengagement, which research has similarly found to be influential in leaving. Over time our interviewees restructured their identities that were grounded in positive and meaningful activities and influences – a set of findings that aligns with previous studies. Horgan and colleagues have conceptualized this identity transformation as ‘proactive self-development’ wherein individuals spend time learning more about themselves as they disengage from violent extremism and reintegrate back into society.


Complexities of deradicalization processes

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. As one participant put it:

…[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.

However, in exploring the interactions between disengagement and deradicalization, our results generally suggest that neither process happens in isolation; instead, there appears to be overlap between the two. To illustrate, most formers described their deradicalization process as non-linear and complex that began before they disengaged from violent extremism and continued after leaving, or as one participant 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].

Commonly discussed in this regard was the influence of pivotal moments and experiences – or ‘fateful moments’ – that made them doubt their extremist views and begin to “think differently”, as one former put it. This included visiting a Holocaust Museum, interacting with individuals impacted by their extremist activities and, for most, interacting with coworkers from different races in what was described as ‘safe workplaces’ away from other movement adherents. These moments and experiences raised serious doubt about their extremist views – most of which happened while they were still engaged in the violent extremist movement.

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 prerequisite for leaving. Rather, disillusionment with the movement and burnout are more likely to drive disengagement decisions than de-radicalization.


Disengaged but still radical

Third and perhaps most important is that, although formers claimed to have disengaged from violent extremism and were self-described as ‘formers’, most still maintained radical beliefs, with some feeling ashamed by their persisting views but most embracing them. As two participants described 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.

…there’s no way you can just all of a sudden forget the ideologies and be a fantastic human being, right?

This finding may in part be the result of formers’ 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 colleagues 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 also found that formers 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 extremist behavior. Regardless, this evidence base remains in its infancy and requires further exploration.

For much more on these findings and the nature of the study in general, we encourage you to read the full manuscript published in the peer-reviewed journal Terrorism and Political Violence.
Tags: disengagement, deradicalisation By Ryan Scrivens, Tiana Gaudette, Vivek Venkatesh
Published June 10, 2022 11:34 AM - Last modified June 17, 2022 9:41 AM


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