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Why do people join violent extremist groups?

Most people don’t join violent extremist groups for ideological reasons. Instead, they join for social reasons – with someone they know, to connect with other people or to find a sense of purpose.

Questions continue to be raised as to why Australians are joining violent extremist organisations to fight overseas or threaten peace and order at home. Lots of people assume that things like poverty, poor education or mental illness cause terrorism, but research shows it’s more about identity, injustice and finding a sense of belonging.

It isn’t what you think

According to clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Kate Barrelle MAPS*, there are very few clear patterns that predict who will be drawn to violent extremism. Importantly, she says socioeconomic background, intellect or education level, mental illness and even psychopathology aren’t correlated with a person’s likelihood of joining an extremist group.

“Many people assume, say, that poverty causes terrorism and people radicalise because they come from a poor, lower socioeconomic background,” says Dr Barrelle. “We know from all the research that there is no pattern. For every person that comes from an impoverished background there is a person who comes from a very comfortable middle-class, or even wealthy, background.

“The same myth prevails with education as there are lots of people who get involved who haven’t finished school as well as lots of people with tertiary degrees.”

She says extremist groups favour members who can cooperate with others and work in a team, so they often exclude anti-social personality types.

It’s not all about ideology

Most people do not join violent extremist groups for ideological reasons. In fact, radical ideas alone do not cause violent extremism. A vast number of people hold extreme, fundamentalist or radical religious or political ideas and will never go on to commit an act of violent extremism.

“Most people in the Western world join extremist groups for personal and social reasons and adopt the ideology because it’s the set of beliefs of the group they want to be a part of,” says Dr Barrelle. “A lot of people adopt the ideas after they join the group, not the other way around.”

Research shows people are more likely to join groups if people they know are involved. And for many new members, simply being part of the group is much more important than the ideology itself – religious, political or otherwise.

“The personal needs that being a member of the group meets are usually around identity and belonging, purpose and injustice. If I identify with the group, particularly if I feel disconnected from my family or other people around me, as humans we need to belong so I’ll seek out a place to belong. If a group floats past that happens to be one of these extremist groups and they make me feel like I belong, it doesn’t take much for me to adopt the ideas that come with it.”

This is an especially potent mix for people who feel angry and isolated. “Violent extremist ideologies are sort of like pre-packaged explanations of what’s wrong with the world, why bad things have happened to you, why bad things have happened to people like you and what you can go do about it,” says Dr Barrelle.

Once group membership and ideology is established people may consider violent acts. “What we generally see is a progression through three areas – social relations, ideology and criminal orientation – over time that culminate in an act of violent extremism,” says Dr Barrelle.

"Most people do not join violent extremist groups for ideological reasons. In fact, radical ideas alone do not cause violent extremism."

The way forward

Even though Australia has a higher percentage of young people fighting in foreign conflicts than some Western countries, it’s important to remember the numbers are very small. [i]A report by the Lowy Institute estimates that there are less than 100 Australian foreign fighters.

Efforts at a national level to identify attacks by extremist groups have been very successful.

“In Australia we’ve spent a lot of money interrupting plots and we’ve done that extremely well,” says Dr Barrelle. “We’ve had very few actual incidents in Australia.”

She says this is because we’ve spent time building community resilience and have also recently begun to work with at-risk people, which is consistent with the well-known public health model of prevention and care.

“If there’s a person we know who’s facing issues that are leading them down an anti-social path, the ideal thing is being able to connect people back into existing services that meet a whole range of their needs that are otherwise being met by these groups,” says Dr Barrelle.

Ultimately, most people who join an extremist group will eventually leave at their choosing. “Disengagement from violent extremism is a very natural phenomenon,” says Dr Barrelle. “If people have adopted extreme and violent ideologies upon joining, sometimes it’s not as hard for them to let go of those beliefs because they weren’t deeply held in the first place.”


[i] Authorities estimate around 200 Australians are fighting in Iraq and Syria since the outbreak of the conflict. 

*Member of the Australian Psychological Society

Attribution: Re-published under Creative Commons license from https://psychlopaedia.org/society/people-join-violent-extremist-groups/ 

Originally published by Psychlopaedia on 23 August 2016. One of the original subheadings was changed by The Point Magazine; no other text changes have been made to the original article.

The Point

Most people don’t join violent extremist groups for ideological reasons. Instead, they join for social reasons – with someone they know, to connect with other people or to find a sense of purpose.

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