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The Role of Group Identity in Initiating, Sustaining, and Disengaging from Participation in Violent Extremism

The Role of Group Identity in Initiating, Sustaining, and Disengaging from Participation in Violent Extremism

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: Ferguson, N., & McAuley, J. W. (2021). Dedicated to the cause: Identity development and violent extremism. European Psychologist, 26(1), 6-14. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000414

Talking Points

  • Although participation in violent extremism is often thought of as ideologically driven, it is better understood as driven by a need for identity and belonging.
  • While social networks can be the initial impetus for participation in violent extremism, they can also provide the way out through the cultivation of “pro-social” identities.
  • The fusion of individual and group identities can make it easier for group members to engage in pro-group but anti-social behaviors like violence, while also protecting against the stress and trauma of violence by helping them make sense of it.
  • Leaving a violent extremist group can be incredibly difficult: Not only does isolation from outside influences diminish the number of possible paths out of a group, but also, even if one is successful in de-fusing identities, the process can “involve the restructuring of the self and the meaning of past actions.”
  • Interventions should support individuals involved (or potentially involved) in violent extremism in cultivating other “pro-social identities through access to pro-social activities and groups,” as these other identities can eventually take the place that the extremist identity might otherwise—or once did—monopolize.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • The most powerful response to violent extremism includes both attentiveness to the human needs of involved individuals—especially needs for identity, belonging, and meaning, and the psychological toll their loss can entail—and a demand for accountability, broadly understood.

Summary

The research on violent extremism—both how people become involved and how they leave—has grown over the past two decades, focusing recently on the various push and pull factors structuring “pathways” into (and out of) violent extremism. Neil Ferguson and James W. McAuley focus on one factor that has found significant support in this body of research—identity—and examine how it contributes not only to initial involvement in and disengagement from violent extremist groups but also to sustained participation in these groups, drawing on interviews with members and former members of loyalist and republican armed groups in Northern Ireland.

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

Push factors: Factors that drive people either into or out of violent extremist activity, like “state repression, relative deprivation, poverty, and injustice” for the former and disillusionment with or burnout from a violent extremist group for the latter.

Pull factors: Factors that draw people either into or out of violent extremist activity by making a particular group or lifestyle (whether extremist or non-extremist) appealing, like “ideology [and] group belonging” for the former and the desire to start a family, exposure to non-extremist narratives and friends, or development of other interests or employment outside of an extremist group for the latter.

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1505686

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

A good starting point for thinking about the role of identity in initiating participation in violent extremism is to recognize the fundamental need humans have for belonging and meaning—and social groups are central to “our sense of ‘who we are’.” This need for group belonging can cause people to engage in violence to defend their group and its superiority, especially in response to real or perceived threats. Interpreting threats against oneself and one’s neighbors through the prism of group identity can then work to further solidify this group identity and the boundaries between it and “out-groups,” exacerbating out-group bias and facilitating hostility and further violence between the groups in an ongoing cycle. Furthermore, individuals may turn to “fundamentalist, ethnic revivalist, and populist nationalist groups” in particular to mitigate uncertainty about their place in the world, fusing their individual identities with the identity of the group to gain a reassuring sense of certainty and clarity. In effect, though radicalization is often seen “as an ideological process…in reality, it is [a] social process” whereby a connection with the group through one’s social networks drives adherence to the ideology rather than the other way around.

Next, the authors explore the role of identity in sustaining participation in violent extremist groups. As an individual’s identity becomes fused with the group identity, they tend to become increasingly isolated from others in their life—minimizing the presence of alternative influences—as their extremist group membership becomes the dominant dimension of their identity. In addition, an individual will often experience “feelings of empowerment, efficacy, and sense of purpose” but also “decreasing moral ambiguity” and even “moral disengagement.” This fused identity and commitment to the group’s values can facilitate a willingness to engage in pro-group but anti-social behaviors like violence. Participation in violence, however, brings with it a great deal of stress and trauma, and strong identification with the group can also ease the worst of these psychological effects by helping individuals make sense of this violence.

Finally, given the strength of—and functions served by—a fusion with group identity, leaving a violent extremist group can be incredibly difficult. Not only does isolation from outside influences diminish the number of possible paths out of a group, but even if one is successful in de-fusing identities, the process can “involve the restructuring of the self and the meaning of past actions,” bringing to the surface questions and moral ambiguity that can be painful to deal with. This insight suggests that intervention strategies should not focus entirely on the extremely challenging work of deradicalization but rather on desistance or disengagement from such groups. The authors found that many Northern Irish militants had left their respective groups and stopped participating in violence while not shedding their “militant activist identity”—with this identity acting as a common thread between their former participation in violence and their present participation in nonviolent forms of activism. Although elements of the extremist group identity may linger, individuals will gradually begin to “find[ ] alternative identities and groups to attach to and identify with.” Additionally, a diminished threat context can open up space for individuals to explore other identities, and a shift in the socio-political context, whereby community members start viewing the extremist identity in a more negative light, can re-shape current or former extremists’ understandings of their identity.

Although participation in violent extremism is often thought of as ideologically driven, it is better understood as driven by a need for identity and belonging. This finding has important implications for interventions aimed at disengagement. By holding social identity front and center, community members and policy-makers can craft interventions that focus on addressing this core need, rather than on targeting a few “bad apples,” which feeds into the group’s threat perception, reinforcing their exclusionary identity and purpose. The most fruitful way forward is to support those involved (or potentially involved) in violent extremism in cultivating other “pro-social identities through access to pro-social activities and groups,” as these other identities can eventually take the place that the extremist identity might otherwise—or once did—monopolize. While social networks can be the initial impetus for participation in violent extremism, they can also provide the way out.

Informing Practice 

The typical way of responding to violent extremist groups—whether violent white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, or ethnic nationalists—is to target the “bad guys” by imprisoning or even killing them, based on the assumption that doing so will diminish their capability and/or deter further violence. But, as this research indicates, direct threats like these can easily backfire by only further solidifying the extremist identity of such groups, reinforcing their sense of purpose and perceived need for self-protection, and facilitating their mobilization of new recruits.

So, what then is a more effective way of turning these individuals and groups away from violence? First and foremost, activists, practitioners, and policy-makers need to take seriously the basic human need for a strong sense of identity, belonging, and meaning that motivates individuals to participate in these groups in the first place. Interventions can use this insight to instead seek out alternative group identities for these individuals that can fulfill this need in more positive ways. Furthermore, the finding that less threatening conditions facilitate the receptiveness of those involved in extremist groups to other “pro-social” identities and social connections suggests that, counter to mainstream thinking, militarist counterterrorism strategy—which only heightens the siege mentality of these groups—is not compatible with these more holistic approaches to addressing violent extremism. There is, however, still room for accountability—especially forms of accountability, like restorative justice, where individuals not only take responsibility for their actions and make amends to those they have harmed but also have the space they need for self-examination, reflection, education, and growth.

Although cultivating pro-social identities can be an effective approach to moving individuals away from violent extremism, the exposure to different perspectives and reinterpretation of past or present violent activities that it entails are also precisely what can make this move so difficult. Effective interventions therefore need to be attentive to the psychological toll this disengagement process can take on individuals as they confront the trauma of violence in a way they were protected from doing earlier. One particularly promising way forward is to foreground the role of “formers”—individuals who have previously disengaged from violent extremist groups and know intimately the struggle such disengagement entails—in supporting those who are contemplating a similar exit. There are numerous models to consider. One is the work of groups like Life After Hate, an organization founded by former violent extremists, which provides a hotline for those having doubts about their participation in such groups and then supports these individuals in their journeys away from violent extremism. In a slightly different context not usually associated with “violent extremism,” another model is the work of street outreach workers in local organizations inspired by Cure Violence. These outreach workers—usually themselves formerly involved in street violence and gangs—invest time and energy into developing close relationships with those most at risk of violence (as perpetrators and/or victims), helping identify what sort of support they need to move out of that world and encouraging them to deal with their conflicts without violence.

Crucially, the sustained relationship-building central to both models provides currently involved individuals with not only alternative interpretations of their activities but also support from others who have been there and a new source of meaning and purpose: helping support yet other individuals involved in violent extremism to leave. Since this is work that those previously involved are best suited to do, these individuals—still struggling with the loss of old meaning and purpose that they benefitted from when part of the extremist group—can find new purpose in guiding others like themselves away from violence and, more broadly, in making amends for their past behaviors. Reflecting on accountability, one “former” notes, “As a former white supremacist, I have an obligation that I must uphold for the remainder of my life: To do everything I am capable of to counter the egregious harm I caused while I was involved with white supremacist organizations… I am accountable to all people to speak in opposition to those who still hold hateful beliefs of any kind.” In the end, it is this dual approach of attending to the human needs of involved individuals while also demanding accountability that provides the most powerful response to violent extremism. [MW]

Questions Raised

  • How can interventions to facilitate disengagement from violent extremism connect involved individuals with other communities and/or social groups that will help them cultivate alternative pro-social identities and social bonds?
  • How can interventions effectively balance the need to expose individuals involved in extremism to alternative narratives that reinterpret their participation in violence while also supporting these individuals in coping with the pain and trauma that will inevitably come to the surface with this reinterpretation?

Continued Reading

Life After Hate. (2021, February 11). Are we ready for accountability? What former extremists can teach us about lifelong change. Accessed on July 22, 2021, from https://www.lifeafterhate.org/blog/2021/2/11/are-we-ready-for-accountability-what-former-extremists-can-teach-us-about-lifelong-change

Slachmuijlder, L. (2017). Transforming violent extremism: A peacebuilder’s guide. Washington, DC: Search for Common Ground. Accessed on July 29, 2021, from https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transforming-Violent-Extremism-V2-August-2017.pdf

Brown, R. A., Helmus, T. C., Ramchand, R., Palimaru, Al. I., Weilant, S. Rhoades, A. L. & Hiatt, L. (2021). What do former extremists and their families say about radicalization and deradicalization in America? RAND Corporation. Accessed on July 29, 2021, from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA1071-1.html

Organizations

Life After Hate: https://www.lifeafterhate.org/

Cure Violence: https://cvg.org/what-we-do/

Keywords: violent extremism, identity, belonging, human needs, social networks, radicalization, deradicalization, disengagement

Photo credit: janetmeehan via Flickr

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