Terrorism and ideologically inspired violence represent persistent and serious threats to U.S. national security. The January 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol and other recent events emphasize the need for more research to inform prevention and deradicalization strategies. To address this need, a team from the RAND Corporation sought to characterize why and how individuals joined extremist organizations, as well as how some of them exited these groups. The team conducted semi-structured interviews with former extremists and their family members, representing 32 unique stories of 24 white supremacists and eight Islamic extremists.
Exposure to propaganda on the internet, in music, and in books and literature was present in more than two-thirds of the sample. Although formal, top-down recruitment occurred for three Islamic extremists, the majority of white supremacists actively sought out participation in extremist organizations. Among the sample, 26 had exited the organizations; of those, six were still undergoing cognitive and emotional deradicalization. Among those who exited, 22 mentioned that a person or group intervened to help them by providing diverse cultural and demographic exposures, emotional support, financial stability, or domestic stability.
Interviewees also addressed such systemic issues as unemployment and the need for more-affordable and easily accessible mental health care. These interviews led to recommendations for both research and practice that emphasize the importance of incorporating the voices of those with personal experience and knowledge of ideological extremism into future research designs and efforts to prevent radicalization and promote deradicalization.
Dr. Todd C. Helmus - Senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation
Dr. Todd Helmus is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. He specializes in disinformation, terrorism, and social media. Helmus' latest research focuses on ways to counter Russian disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe and assess the impact of international counter violent extremism campaigns. His research also focuses on preventing violent extremism in the U.S. military, identifying ways to enlist key influencers in support of U.S. strategic communications, and detecting and countering online conspiracy theories. Dr. Helmus has served as a deployed advisor to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan and led studies on U.S. efforts to train Afghan special operations forces. He received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Wayne State University.