This analysis appears in the Special Issue on Countering Hate and Violent Extremism of the Peace Science Digest in collaboration with Thought Partnerships.
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kenney, M., & Chernov Hwang, J. (2021). Should I stay or should I go? Understanding how British and Indonesian extremists disengage and why they don’t. Political Psychology, 42(4), 537–553. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12713
In the context of disengagement from British and Indonesian Islamic extremist organizations:
- No single factor explains why people withdraw from high-risk activism or political violence; disengagement typically happens because of growing disagreements over time as opposed to singular triggering events.
- Disengagement pull factors in both groups include alternative social networks, educational and employment opportunities, and maturing out of involvement for family reasons.
- A key factor contributing to members staying is their steadfast commitment to the groups’ respective ideologies and loyalty to the leaders even when they may have operational grievances.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- The push and pull factors identified clearly point towards the need for community-driven investment in constructive efforts like education and jobs instead of further investment in destructive, militarized security.
While political violence is usually examined at the macro-level of national security, international relations, and state-level decisions about war and peace, it is just as important to understand the micro-level mechanisms that enable participation in violence at the individual level. With regards to extremism and terrorism, it is particularly useful for researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers to understand the social context and how individuals engage in and disengage from extremist groups (see Table 1).
Common push factors
Common pull factors
Disagreements over a group’s strategy, practices, or use of violence
Disillusionment with its leaders and members
Loss of interest or faith in the group’s ideology
Dissatisfaction with one’s role or contributionEmotional or physical exhaustion from participating in high-risk activism and political violence (“burnout”)
Relationship with family members, friends, and others outside the group
The desire to “settle down,” marry, and start a family
Educational and employment opportunities
Aging or “maturing out”
Table 1: Push and pull factors of voluntary disengagement from extremist groups (commonly cited in previous research)
Michael Kenney and Julie Chernov Hwang explore why individuals from al-Muhajiroun (Arabic for “the Emigrants”) and Jemaah Islamiyah, two Islamic organizations (one British and one Indonesian) “located at the antipodes of the Salafi-jihadi world,” leave or stay in the groups. Both groups, operating in democratic countries, have sought to create an Islamic state since the 1990s. Al-Muhajiroun never engaged in terrorism in the U.K., seeking to advance its goal instead through preaching, education, and demonstrations. Former activists and supporters, however, were known to become involved in acts of political violence with other organizations. Jemaah Islamiyah was known for multiple deadly attacks (mainly in Indonesia) in the first decade of the century.
The study was based on 58 semi-structured interviews conducted between 2010 and 2019. All participants were asked how they became involved in their respective groups, what activities they performed, and how they learned to become activists. Those who left their groups were asked why and how they left, and how they fared after their departure. Those who stayed were asked why they stayed. The findings were consistent with previous research on disengagement push and pull factors (see Table 1). No single factor explains why people withdraw from high-risk activism or political violence; disengagement typically happens because of growing disagreements over time as opposed to singular triggering events.
Disengagement: “[A] behavioral change, such as leaving a [violent extremist] group or changing one’s role within it. It does not necessitate a change in values or ideals, but requires relinquishing the objective of achieving change through violence.”
Fink, N. C., & Hearne, E.B. (2008, October). Beyond extremism: Deradicalization and disengagement from violent extremism. International Peace Institute. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.ipinst.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/beter.pdf
The confrontational nature of al-Muhajiroun activism was the most common push factor for participants who disengaged. This was in part attributed to the perception of their actions being counterproductive and harmful to their communities. Disagreements with leaders and their promoted ideology was another reason identified for disengagement, which in part had to do with a leader’s changing interpretation of Islamic scripture. Disengaged al-Muhajiroun activists also commonly cited burnout as a reason for leaving. In a non-Muslim country, they were not able to progress in their individual and group goals and instead saw old friends who were not part of the organization advance professionally and personally, and they also experienced stress due to public (e.g., police) and private (e.g., family member) resistance to their involvement. In the case of Jemaah Islamiyah, leaders’ mistakes, dogmatism, and tactical choices regarding bombing were sources of disagreement, whereas the ideology generally was not questioned. Given long-term socialization into the group, Jemaah Islamiyah members were also less likely to experience burnout.
Relatives and friends who were not supportive of participants’ al-Muhajiroun activism but who continued engaging with them were considered personal influences in pulling activists out. Jemaah Islamiyah activists also recounted being exposed to new friends and ideas, which allowed them to move into more mainstream movements and reintegrate into society. The desire for more education and more lucrative and desirable employment opportunities pulled participants from both groups out of activism. Parenthood also led to a shift in priorities away from activism toward being present with families. Similarly, aging out of activist networks was another pull factor away from both groups. With a focus on careers and families, individuals were no longer willing and available to pursue high-risk activism that initially might have drawn them to the groups when they were younger.
Study participants who remained in the groups experienced some but not all push and pull factors. In particular, they did not experience disillusionment with ideology, shifting priorities, or maturing out. In fact, a key factor contributing to them staying was their steadfast commitment to the groups’ respective ideologies and loyalty to the leaders even when grievances existed.
To facilitate disengagement, the authors suggest formal and informal community initiatives supporting individuals’ identity needs without initially challenging their ideological views. Employment and education opportunities leading to financial independence all contribute to solidifying activists’ identities outside of their groups. While each activist’s disengagement is different, programs that address the most prominent push and pull factors “may help those who are questioning their involvement realize that there is life after al-Muhajiroun and Jemaah Islamiyah.”
Members of extremist groups need to be understood as individuals, who like any other individuals undergo processes of identity formation throughout their lives. If they are reduced to the picture of static, unchanging, and unchangeable “terrorists” in a securitized landscape of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)/Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), leaders of these groups can maintain a grip on their harmful ideologies, with entire communities continuing to be stigmatized. Members of extremist groups carry collective and individual grievances. Root cause analysis commonly reveals the non-fulfillment of basic human needs such as education or employment opportunities. According to theories of human needs, those needs must be satisfied for destructive conflict (in this case, participation in extremist groups) to be prevented.
Countering violent extremism (CVE): “[A] counterterrorism strategy that recruits community leaders, social workers, teachers, and public health providers ostensibly to assist the government in identifying individuals that may be ‘at risk’ of becoming violent extremists.”“[P]remised on the discredited idea that harboring certain political or religious views is an indicator of future violence. Historically, CVE efforts have targeted specific communities, seeking people who might display so-called ‘vulnerabilities’ to ideological or political ‘radicalization’.”
 Brennan Center for Justice. (2019, September 9). Why countering violent extremism programs are bad policy. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/why-countering-violent-extremism-programs-are-bad-policy
 ACLU Massachusetts. (N.d.). “Countering Violent Extremism”: A flawed approach to law enforcement. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.aclum.org/en/countering-violent-extremism-flawed-approach-law-enforcement
Community, domestic, and international programs and policies that advance opportunities for education and employment directly address basic needs and vastly limit the space for recruitment into extremist groups. Supportive family members, mentorships, and educational and employment opportunities leading to financial independence all contribute to solidifying activists’ identities outside of their groups. Community programs that take the different life stages (e.g., parenthood) and processes of identity formation (e.g., maturing) into consideration can lead to disengagement. As the study shows, disengagement happens over time. Programs should consider long-term engagement rather than quick fixes, however politically expedient they may be. Importantly, given that programs dealing with extremist groups are on the outside of those groups, their primary objectives will likely emphasize external pull factors.
More broadly speaking, this study opens pathways to transcend the misguided post-9/11 military-driven GWOT and the “softer” securitized efforts within the CVE framework, the latter being the dominant approach to combatting violent extremism, which focuses on identifying individuals “at risk” of radicalization. In addition to the loss of lives, the human suffering, and the social, political, and economic costs it has caused, the GWOT—and militarized counterterrorism more generally—produces discontent and directly acts as a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations. CVE is represented as an approach that empowers communities and builds resilience to extremism. However, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, CVE programs are conceptually flawed and ensure negative impacts. The Brennan Center challenges the “myths” that CVE programs prevent terrorism, are necessary to implement (even in the absence of evidence of their efficacy), do not target Muslims, are an alternative to “hard” security, and are community driven. A closer look at CVE programs, according to the Brennan Center, shows that they entail “stigmatizing Muslims and reinforcing Islamophobic stereotypes, facilitating covert intelligence-gathering, suppressing dissent against government policies, and sowing discord in targeted communities.” Organizations like al-Muhajiroun and Jemaah Islamiyah would typically be addressed within the GWOT and CVE contexts. Instead, this research suggests alternative pathways for disengagement from extremist groups centered around the discussed aspects of individuals’ identity development and fundamental needs.
Violent extremism: The “use or support [of] violence to advance a cause based on exclusionary group identities.”Even on the basis of this definition, violent extremism can take many forms—from identity-based hate crimes to acts of terrorism and large-scale, organized political violence—and, as such, encompasses a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that transcend precise categorization.
SFCG. (2017). Transforming violent extremism: A peacebuilder’s guide. Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transforming-Violent-Extremism-V2-August-2017.pdf
Radicalization: “[T]he path that leads an individual to endorse or commit a politically motivated act of violence.”
Vergani, M., Iqbal, M., Ilbahar, E., & Barton, G. (2020). The three Ps of radicalization: Push, pull and personal. A systematic scoping review of the scientific evidence about radicalization into violent extremism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 43(10), 854-854.
While this study was conducted in a specific context, the focus on the identities of extremists allows for cautious generalizations to other contexts, even when extremist groups (e.g., white supremacists) have completely different priorities from those of the examined Islamic extremist groups. The efforts contributing to disengagement from extremist groups appear surprisingly obvious. The push and pull factors identified clearly point towards the need for community-driven investment in constructive efforts like education and jobs instead of further investment in destructive, militarized security. It is not enough to simply add these constructive approaches onto destructive, military approaches already being used, with the assumption that they can complement one another. Rather, it is imperative to reject militarized security approaches outright, as they directly impede the constructive factors and likely drive individuals deeper into their respective groups. To put it simply, there needs to be an investment into healthy, inclusive communities where everyone’s human needs are being met, as well as into the creation of equality within and between societies. [PH]
- Do research studies such as this one reinforce the previously mentioned flaws of CVE? Or do they provide insights into creating stronger community resilience to violent extremism of all forms?
Lehmann, T., & Tyson, S. (2021, February 5). Why radicalization is so common, and what to do about it. Political Violence @ a Glance. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2021/02/05/why-radicalization-is-so-common-and-what-to-do-about-it/
Patel, F., & German, M. (2015). Countering violent extremism: Myths and fact. New York University School of Law. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/102915%20Final%20CVE%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf
Peace Science Digest. (2016). Reasons for leaving terrorist organizations. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/reasons-leaving-terrorist-organizations
Protection Approaches: https://protectionapproaches.org/
Keywords: deradicalization, push factors, pull factors, violent extremism, countering violent extremism, political violence, terrorism, terrorist disengagement
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