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SAVE Supporting Document: Becoming a Former

Identity, Ideology, and Counterradicalization

Authors: Jared Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow, and Brendan Ballou, Associate, Google Ideas

Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date March 2012

14 pages

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Introduction

Google Ideas is the "think/do" tank of Google Inc. We explore issues of social and political complexity where the role of technology—specifically, the Internet and mobile communications—is misunderstood. Through research and convening events we aim to reframe our areas of study in ways that account for these new tools.

The Internet's role in radicalization and de-radicalization is one such focus area for Google Ideas. A number of experts have written on the Internet's role in radicalization. Islamist chat rooms, racist social networks, and gang videos—many of which upload videos on YouTube—have all been discussed in the academic literature. Yet little has been said of the Internet's role in intervention. This gap, as well as our team's background in counterterrorism policy, led us to choose counter-radicalization as our first focus area.

In 2011, we commissioned research from academic experts on gangs, racism, and nationalist terrorism. Together with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Institute, we organized a summit of former violent extremists to identify similarities in their radicalization and de-radicalization processes. The output of that summit informed the projects we are now implementing.

This whitepaper, drafted to accompany the launch of a counterviolence network (www.againstviolentextremism.org), recaps the associated work and summarizes a few important recommendations to policymakers and others who want to break the cycle of violent extremist radicalization.

Changing Assumptions

For much of the past decade, the counterterrorism community has operated under two broad assumptions. First, that religion and ideology are the primary accelerants of violent extremism; and second, that once violent extremists are captured by their respective ideologies, they are beyond hope of reform.

Each of these assumptions is too simplistic. While ideology can provide a powerful overlay once a person is radicalized, more mundane needs set the stage. A need for a sense of belonging, an identity, and sense of purpose drives individuals down the path toward radicalization. Further, many violent extremists—perhaps most—eventually de-radicalize through a similar process. For these people, extremism is a phase of life, not a way of life.

For policymakers, these faulty assumptions can have important implications. Compartmentalizing extremists by ideology often results in focusing only on that which makes violent groups different, rather than on common psychological motives associated with youth. This is a mistake. Instead, we should focus on how to address at-risk individuals' common motives for joining violent groups while making it easier for those already involved to leave.

Since there are no current experts on the role of the Internet in de-radicalization, our research focuses on those who understood both processes best: former violent extremists. We collectively refer to these individuals as "formers." In order to be considered as a former, each had to fulfill four criteria. Each former:

  • was once part of an extremist group
  • has publicly renounced violence
  • is willing to speak out using his/her real name1
  • is actively and publicly working against the organizations to which they belonged

We identified these formers through academic, NGO, and government contacts. By the end of the selection process our network of formers spanned five continents and included, among many others, a former Muslim extremist from Nigeria and the Christian pastor who once tried to kill him, a former violent Israeli settler, a former member of the Iranian militant Islamic group Ansar-e Hezbollah, a Latino street-gang leader, a former Tamil Tiger, the former founding member of a transnational Salvadoran gang, a former member of one of the world's most popular skinhead bands, a former member of the Bloods, and a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

photo of Devonte Rosero




Devonte Rosero, former gang member,
and one of the interviewees for this study
(Credit: Mark Seliger)

Not every violent organization could be included in our research. To focus our work, we chose five group types:

  • Religious extremist groups, such as Al Shabab and the Izala Group in Nigeria
  • Far-right fascist groups, such as the Hammerskins and World Church of the Creator
  • Left-wing groups, such as Baader-Meinhoff and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC)
  • Violent nationalist groups, such as the Irish Republican Army and Azanian People's Liberation Army
  • Street gangs, such as the Bloods and Latin Kings

The grouping was not exhaustive. It did not include, for example, anarchists or eco-terrorists. Still, the five kinds of groups spanned a wide range of locations, religions, and ideologies and included one group—gangs—that had no stated belief system at all.

Once the formers were identified, our research proceeded in two steps. First, we conducted individual interviews with formers. These conversations focused on the subjects' self-identified reasons for joining and leaving their groups. We then gathered the formers together, first at small group discussions in London and New York, and later at a larger Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin in June 2011. The topics discussed at the summit sessions ranged from ideology's role in radicalization to the importance of activism in de-radicalization. We also invited several survivors of violent extremism to the summit. Their interactions with formers were illuminating and will be discussed below.

We did not attempt a large-scale, rigorously scientific study about violent extremism. The known candidate pool of formers is too small and cannot be considered to be the single source of truth on de-radicalization. However, while the observations drawn from our research are neither exhaustive nor conclusive, they can serve as useful data points for policymakers and help extend the body of knowledge for future research on the issue.

Understanding Why Extremists Join

In our interviews, formers reported a range of reasons for joining extremist groups. While there was no recipe for radicalization, some motives were mentioned repeatedly. The most common were that interviewees sought community, identity, or a sense of purpose in their extremist groups. Importantly, very few of the formers interviewed mentioned the importance of religion or ideology in their radicalization process. If anything, the stated beliefs of these organizations were justifications for violence, rather than motivators for it.

Several of the formers we interviewed were isolated as children, so gangs or terrorist organizations became a social outlet. As one former skinhead explained:

I think all young kids, at a certain point in life—whether it's chess club, glee club, football, gangs—they all want a sense of belonging . . . This gave me my identity. This gave me my purpose in life. This gave me everything I was lacking.2

But why did the formers join violent groups instead of other social outlets? For some formers, personal adversity made their need for acceptance acute. Dysfunctional family environments, adverse social conditions, or simple bad luck encouraged isolation and negative self-images. At other times, cultural barriers prevented broader socialization:

My mom was pretty abusive, so she didn't let me have friends. I didn't even know my neighbors. I never played outside with kids. I never rode my bike. I never interacted with anyone. So these guys [gang members] were the first people that I made friends with on the streets.3

Unable to gain acceptance through traditional means, they found the understanding they craved in violent groups, who alone appreciated their anger and frustration. Ironically, as individuals found a community in violent groups, they often shunned it elsewhere. For some violent extremists, joining the group meant that they stopped speaking to their parents. "You kind of put your family behind . . . you concentrate on the gang, basically," one former told us. Another said, "I had to actually cut off ties with my mom because obviously she wasn't religious. My dad, because . . . they didn't marry . . . So there was a slow process of shutting off from my parents, from my friends."4

photo of Yasmin Mulbocus







Yasmin Mulbocus, former Islamist

Some formers isolated themselves from friends who were not involved. Others cut themselves off from loved ones:

My first wife was destroyed because I was so into the politics and the organization and I totally neglected everything . . . my commitment was somewhere else, which was the organization.5

These dual processes—seeking community inside violent groups while shunning it elsewhere—fostered a deep sense of loyalty within these organizations. One former gang member stated that the feeling of belonging made him "love them [the gang members] so much that I would go to jail for them. And I [would] get shot for them."6 At least for a period of time, the individuals we interviewed found in violent groups the acceptance that they could not—or would not—find elsewhere.

Of course, extremist groups are not just social networks. They are an identity, and according to at least a few formers, they were cool: "Bank robbers were our idols. Children, including myself, wanted to be like them."7 And unlike celebrity through a club or sport, fame through a violent group was immediate:

Just being part of . . . [the gang was] like, 'You're the man.' So you went from being a nothing, a nobody, to being somebody, and it just happened overnight. It changed everything for me.8

As mentioned above, many of our interview subjects could not join clubs or play sports. Unable to find a clear identity elsewhere, they sought it through antisocial means. For these individuals, the extremist label was, for a while, a desirable one.

One additional commonality our interviewees mentioned was a need for purpose in their lives. Membership in the group gave individuals certainty and a feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves. One former Islamist told us that ". . . I was 17, I was nobody. Being proposed to join such a big movement, I was thrilled."9

It is important to note that few of the formers mentioned the importance of religion or ideology in their radicalization process, even when discussing the importance of purpose. If anything, belief systems became important justifications for violence, not motivators for it:

In the beginning, it was purely social and had nothing to do with the views that were involved . . . I pretty much tailored my racism according to who I was involved with.10

So as a young person this programming got me to a point that I started flipping through my Bible to identify verses that I can use to inform young men and women on the fact that their enemies are the Muslims.11

photo of James Wuye






Pastor James Wuye, former Christian extremist

While having a mission mattered to these people, the mission itself was less important. This was one of the major themes of our interviews: ideology was at best a secondary motivating factor in individuals' radicalization. While narratives and counter-narratives in radicalization and de-radicalization are important, they should not be over-emphasized.

An additional motivation, though mentioned less frequently, is related in part to the role of ideology and religion in the radicalization process. To the extent formers mention religion, it tended to be something inherited. Many formers simply grew up in communities defined by violent extremism in one form or another. This included religious and nationalist extremists born into generations of struggle, as well as gang members whose family and classmates were already involved:

. . . the Crips are going to jump you anyway just because you live in the community. So it really didn't matter. You were either going to fight or not fight, and I chose to fight.12

I'm born into the conflict. . . . it's not in my control, it's not my choice.13

Yet even for those formers who inherited a context for violence, the same motives mentioned by others—community, identity, and a sense of purpose—played a role in their decision to follow in their family or community's traditions of violence.

photo of Christian Picciolini






Christian Picciolini, former right-wing extremist

Why Extremists Leave

By definition, the formers we interviewed left their past groups. But they were not alone. One former Islamist told us,

I always think of these Islamic groups, and it could probably apply to others as well, [as] sort of these revolving doors. You're in high school, you're a freshman in college, you come into contact with these guys. You haven't read a whole lot, and your knowledge base is not where you can distinguish between what they are saying, and the rhetoric and reality. By the time you graduate, you're out of that revolving door. You're out the other way, so you move on. You go find a job, get married, get a mortgage, have kids, and whatnot. So there's a lot of turnover, if you will.14

Why do people leave violent groups? As gang expert and Arizona State University Professor Scott H. Decker identifies, there are both push factors (negative aspects to extremist group life) and pull factors (positive aspects to life outside the group) in individuals' de-radicalization processes.15 In our own conversations, we heard a variety of considerations, both push and pull, repeated across groups.

Of the push factors, the most common one mentioned was growing out of the lifestyle. Eventually extremist groups' behavior seemed too immature or self-destructive for some of those involved. For others, the ideology of the group became unappealing when put into practice:

9/11 was a major turning point. I began my soul searching, because unfortunately, because of my Jihad connection before that I had some sympathy for al-Qaeda . . . I had realized we had to give up this violence because it was so counterproductive.16

When confronted with the opportunity to make great sacrifices in the name of their ideology, some violent extremists began to question those beliefs. After a prison knife fight, one skinhead asked himself, "Am I willing to die for this?"17 A gang member wondered, "Are [these] people that I would die for . . . ?"18

Other members left when they failed to find the community they sought: "Inside the organization, you begin realizing how much you don't actually like the people that you're with."19 And still others became disillusioned by the constraints their groups imposed. A former left-wing extremist told us,

If I was listening to music or thought I was wanting to listen to classical music, or to read a poem, that wasn't something that was encouraged because it wasn't really a revolutionary activity. It was a bourgeois, luxuriating activity. So I was made to feel really bad. It was kind of self-censoring.20

Of the pull factors in the de-radicalization process, family and relationships played an important role. Repeatedly and across political contexts formers mentioned the importance of children in forcing personal reevaluation:

I had my second child, and was pregnant with my third, so I would go to other types of groups, and talked to them, and started feeling like I was just not as interested in talking about it as I once was.21

And while specific relationships were important for many of our formers, so too was the general appeal of a "normal" lifestyle. One former nationalist terrorist told us that, after being badly injured in a prison brawl,

I was taken to the prison hospital and had about seven to ten [stitches] in the side of my head. And just up on the wall there's a TV, and on the TV they're showing Wimbledon tennis and people eating strawberries. I'm just looking at that and I think, subconsciously, I think I'm doing something wrong here.22

Important life events—births, deaths, and relationships—forced personal reevaluations for the formers we interviewed. While these events were dramatic, the practical process of leaving these groups was anything but. According to our interviewees, abandoning an extremist group takes time and emotional strength. The process can be isolating and demoralizing and often involves some degree of backsliding.

One important obstacle in de-radicalization is disconnecting from former friends and peers. For some interviewees, leaving these people was a gradual process: "Well, I just stopped hanging around," was a typical response.23 But for others, severing ties was immediate and complete:

Well, for a lot of years, they [my former colleagues] thought I was dead. And I let them think that and I was okay with that. Even my brother, he was in prison, he heard I was dead. . . . I tried to keep myself distant from everybody because I need[ed] to let this newness come forth and become me.24

For many who left, desertion from the cause was seen as a form of betrayal. For those individuals, leaving the group carried risky consequences:

You're afraid of the former comrades that were left behind, and given the time you spent there, you know everything that they can use against you.25

There is a final problem for formers de-radicalizing: lack of support networks. While most of the formers we interviewed mentioned the importance of planting "seeds of doubt" in at-risk or involved individuals, none mentioned being approached by formers themselves as they de-radicalized. "There was no role model for me," one former gang member told us:

No, I didn't reach out to anybody for years. I got out of jail . . . and it wasn't until [eight years later] that I actually talked to individuals who could help me through the process. So from that point . . . I was just making up as I went along . . .26

photo of Henry Robinson






Henry Robinson, former nationalist extremist

The problem was compounded by the stigma associated with being a former extremist. One former skinhead told us,

I had to build new social networks, which was difficult, particularly in the '90s because I would build a bit of a social network, and then somebody would find out who I was, find out about my past. And that often meant that that social network was done. So I built several social networks.27

Without strong support networks, mentors, or fellow formers to help guide their reintegration, several interviewees reported "backsliding" into old, destructive behaviors: "But when I first got out the hospital, I didn't immediately stop selling dope, I started selling dope again, and wind up going to jail for selling dope in my wheelchair."

The challenge is that there is nothing today to become or join when de-radicalizing, only something to abandon. Violent extremists cultivate an identity based on their membership in the group. After leaving, there is no clear identity that they can embrace. One former Islamist told us that ". . . It's like falling from heaven . . . [to] see myself as a normal human being who is not better than others in any way."28 A major challenge, one that technology can help address, is to build an identity around being a former violent extremist. Fostering such an identity will make it more acceptable to leave and easier to find support.

In some contexts, extremists may renounce violence but hold onto their extreme beliefs. Interviews with former Irish nationalists as part of this project, for example, made it clear that many of these individuals still believed in their cause. They simply were no longer committed to violence as a means of achieving it. Further, in the context of gangs, members do not even "leave" their groups, but simply desist from activity. "I never left the gang," one former gang member told us. "I mean, I'm still affiliated because I'm from the neighborhood, you know what I mean? You don't really never ever get out but I've been in the neighborhood so long and did so much that I ain't gotta do nothing no more."29 Policymakers' objective should not necessarily be to get individuals to embrace a "counter-narrative" or, in the case of gangs, to even leave the group. Rather, the objective should be to get extremists to renounce violence as a means of action.

Leaving an extremist group is hard. Abandoning friends can be emotionally distressing, and finding new ones can be difficult. It is hard because while the identity of a violent extremist is well understood, the identity of a former violent extremist is not nearly so clear.

Policy Recommendations

Technology's role in radicalization is well known. Some Google products—YouTube, for example—have been co-opted by those seeking to do violence. Yet the potential of the Internet as a solution is understudied. We present two recommendations for tech-based policies to address this challenge, based on our findings described above. The first is hypothetical. The second we are beginning to implement with our partners today.

Connect at-risk individuals to positive role models

Although few organizations try, finding extremists on social networks where people post publicly is, in theory, a straightforward task. Many violent groups use distinctive acronyms and language to define themselves, and a simple keyword search identifies their members. Many of these individuals are often beyond reach, at least at the moment. They are already too involved in radical organizations or sufficiently entrenched in their ideology that no outreach will affect them.

Yet surrounding these core extremists online is a network of at-risk individuals. These individuals do not use the extremists' distinctive language themselves, but follow those who do. Consistent with our research, they are usually isolated online, following few others and followed by few people themselves. With no one else to listen to, they are susceptible to extremists' propaganda.

But even the most isolated at-risk individuals have some non-extremists in their online social network. These people have the capacity to act as positive role models through engagement and conversation. Whether that conversation takes the form of frank discussions about the dangers of extremism, or is more indirect, the conversation between role model and at-risk individual itself may be a valuable de-radicalizing force.

This sort of outreach happens every day in the real world. But it does not happen online. Simple applications could be created to identify at-risk individuals and potential role models on social networks, and facilitate conversations between the two. Nonprofits, whose credibility may be stronger than that of governments, should consider building these tools to fight the extremist groups in their communities.

Build a brand and network for formers to facilitate de-radicalization

While many former violent extremists desist from violence, only a handful publicly self-identify as formers. This makes the de-radicalization process harder for others. It is easier to leave one identity for another than it is to leave one identity for nothing. Those with the power to spread ideas—companies, policymakers, and individuals with platforms or brand experience—need to make being a former cool, or at least socially acceptable. The label gives violent extremists an identity to embrace after they leave what was a core part of their self-conception.

In addition to a brand, formers need a network. None of our interviewees mentioned being approached by other formers as they de-radicalized. A global support network, coordinated online and equipped with tools for outreach, could enable these conversations. Such a network, united without regard to religion or ideology, would have the additional benefit of undermining extremist groups' claims to distinctiveness. In this way, a network of formers could help plant "seeds of doubt" in those currently involved in violent groups.

Google Ideas, together with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, are beginning this process. In 2011 we launched www.againstviolentextremism.org, a site for formers to communicate, and youtube.com/formers, a place for them to tell their stories. By gathering formers together without regard to religion or ideology, we can undermine the claim, made by all extremist groups, that they are somehow special, while giving formers the tools to be more effective in their communities.

Formers can only tell half the story of violent extremism; the other half must be told by the victims of the acts these individuals perpetrated. In our experience, when these two sides come together, they have an even greater impact than they do alone. Both sides have been eager to work together, and we expect that these relationships can help reach at-risk individuals and turn passive formers into active ones, expanding the network outward.

Conclusion

Motivations for joining extremist groups cut across political contexts. These motivations have a great deal to do with the desires that all young people hold: desires for community, identity, and a sense of purpose. This means that counter-narratives are less important than role models and personal relationships are more important than ideology in countering radicalization.

But what of the people who are already in violent groups, and choose to leave? For them the de-radicalization process is, in general, a desperately lonely one. This does not have to be the case. A community of self-identified "formers" can empathize with at-risk individuals as they begin to disengage from their groups, and make the transition into normal society easier once they have left.

Why do we believe this? As in any recovery environment, the most compelling voices come from those who have lived through the addiction. This process is true for former violent extremists. They can speak to the hollowness of a violent group's purpose and community. And they can serve as powerful and realistic role models for at-risk individuals.

Google Ideas, in coordination with private sector and NGO partners, has laid the foundation for this effort, first through the summit in Dublin and now through the Against Violent Extremism network (accessible at www.againstviolentextremism.org). We do not aim to be the single organization representing formers. Our goal is to make the idea of being a former real and acceptable to people. By doing so, we believe we can make it easier for young people to leave violent groups, and perhaps harder to join.

Endnotes

1. While interviewees were willing to publicly identify as former extremists, their quotes are attributed anonymously.
2. Interviewee 1, American former right-wing extremist. (In the sections that follow, we offer illustrative quotes from formers on their own motives for joining. While we often provide only a single example, we choose statements whose sentiments were shared by formers from across contexts.)
3. Interviewee 2, Latino-American former gang member
4. Interviewee 3, female former Islamist
5. Interviewee 4, former nationalist extremist
6. Interviewee 5, African-American former gang member
7. Interviewee 6, Brazilian former gang member
8. Interviewee 7, South African former gang member
9. Interviewee 8, former Islamist
10. Interviewee 9, former female right-wing extremist
11. Interviewee 10, former Christian extremist
12. Interviewee 11, former African-American gang member
13. Interviewee 12, former nationalist extremist
14. Interviewee 13, former Islamist
15. Scott H. Decker, "Leaving the Gang: Logging Off and Moving On," Council on Foreign Relations, 2011, http://www.cfr.org/counterradicalization/save-supporting-document-leaving-gang/p26590, pp. 14.
16. Interviewee 14, former Islamist
17. Interviewee 15, former right-wing extremist
18. Interviewee 16, female former gang member
19. Interviewee 17, former Islamist
20. Interviewee 18, former left-wing extremist
21. Interviewee 19, female former Islamist
22. Interviewee 20, former nationalist extremist
23. Interviewee 21, former Latino gang member
24. Interviewee 16, female former gang member
25. Interviewee 22, former left-wing extremist
26. Interviewee 11, former African-American gang member
27. Interviewee 20, former American right-wing extremist
28. Interviewee 21, former Islamist
29. Interviewee 22, former African gang member

More About This Publication

Jared Cohen is director of Google Ideas and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East and One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide.

Brendan Ballou is an associate at Google Ideas, where he focuses on failed states and counterradicalization.

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