The Data Behind Radicalization

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux passes along an effort to better understand the roots of extremism:

They’ve amassed a data set of more than 1,500 people radicalized to violent and non-violent extremism in the United States since World War II and put them into three categories: Islamist, Far Right, and Far Left. The database — which hasn’t been released publicly — has detailed information about the terrorists’ lives and backgrounds, including criminal records, social networks and histories of abuse. The researchers believe it’s among the first of its kind.

The results:

The preliminary findings of the study already have yielded some basic demographic patterns about which extremists in the U.S. are most likely to resort to violence.

Compared to violent domestic terrorists on the Far Left and Far Right, Islamists stand out. They’re more likely to be young (between 18 and 28 years old), unmarried and unassimilated into American society. They are also more likely to be actively recruited to an extremist group.

But in other important ways, Islamist extremists in the U.S. as a whole — violent and nonviolent — are not so different from other extremists. People in the three groups were equally likely to have become radicalized while serving time in prison — complicating the narrative that Muslim prisoners are unusually likely to commit to extremism from behind bars — and to be composed of individuals who have psychological issues, are loners, or have recently experienced “a loss of social standing.”

“Social networks are incredibly important to radicalization, but that’s not unique to Islamists at all,” [researcher Patrick] James said. “There’s almost always a facilitator — a personal relationship with a friend or family member who’s already made that leap.”