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Here's How Former Far-Right Extremists Think We Should Fight Radicalization

In an upcoming paper, 10 off the grid former far-right extremists discuss how they believe the problem should be addressed.

by Mack Lamoureux
Sep 27 2019, 11:00am

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. Photo via Getty. 

Former far-right extremists say that a multifaceted approach involving families, activists, and other former extremists is needed to combat the rising tide of far-right radicalization.

This approach comes from the minds of 10 former Canadian far-right extremists. Their ideas are discussed and unpacked in an upcoming paper to be released through the academic journal, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. What the former hate-mongers say in many ways reflects typical research on the subject—that a multidimensional approach involving family members, teachers, law enforcement, and formers may work best to combat radicalization.

Far-right extremism and its associated body count has been on the increase for several years now and the Western world is only just coming to terms with the fact it’s something that needs to be addressed. Some of the attempts to combat this rising tide involve using former far-right extremists (referred to as formers) to help other extremists leave the movement. Formers also play an important role in allowing researchers to understand radicalization. Ryan Scrivens, the study’s lead author, told VICE there has been limited scholarship looking into what they think should be done and this study was his attempt to “address the gap.”

To figure out what to ask the extremists the assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University canvassed activists and law enforcement officials for questions—they provided 550 which he was able to whittle it down to 275. After that he had to track down 10 formers. These weren’t the formers you see in news articles or speaking before Congress; the majority of these were “off the grid,” meaning they’re people who were able to leave the movement and hide their past.

“I wanted to get more of a raw kind of uncensored and unscripted sense of what the folks who were once involved in violent extremism thought in terms of not only how they got in and out, but how they think that we can respond,” said Scrivens.

In total, he got eight men and two women aged 27 to 44 years old (average age 38) to speak to him at length. They were interviewed either on Skype or in-person from March to September of 2018. These aren’t extremists who were just in the movement for a month or two but rather people who spent a significant amount of time—the average amount of time between them was 13 years. According to the study, the majority of formers who partook were “were deemed the ‘upper echelon’ of Canada’s right-wing extremist movement.”

The formers said youth who don't feel they have a place in the world were the most at risk for radicalization and that family and people close to the at-risk person play an important role in stopping this process. They feel it's important to have preventative measures targeting the population "looking for the sense of belonging, and are the ones who feel like they’re missing
out…like they’re not getting their…their piece of the pie."

"And whether that’s economically, or socially or whatever, or just feeling like they don’t fit in somewhere, I think that’s your…your target group [for preventing extremism]," said one former.

They said they perhaps wouldn’t have been led into a life defined by hate if they had more support from their family if those around them were educated prior about the warning signs and dangers of joining this kind of life.

“If only I had had some education beforehand about, you know, what a hate group was [and how] it just…it profoundly alters you as a person and not in any good way, and it can put yourself and your family in danger, and there are huge personal risks involved,” said one former.

Some of those interviewed recommended parents and teachers be knowledgeable of hate groups and their identifiers and be prepared to intervene if it comes to it. Several said it's important interactions with extremists are done with respect and not hostility as you risk pushing them further into the extremes with ostracization. Further to that, some of the formers said that a similar tactic should be taken with controversial, and even racist, subjects as you risk pushing people into the arms of hate mongers if you outlaw some topics.

The interviewees said that “credible formers” should be, if possible, involved in helping others leave the movement because of the shared experience—it’s something they say may have aided their exit. That said, many of the formers were adamant they can’t do it on their own and needed to be part of a bigger team. As one former says in the study, “we all have so much of our own baggage” and might not be “the best people for somebody to be taking life skills advice from.” Unsurprisingly, many of the formers said that the face-to-face role law enforcement should play in an exit program should be limited.

“When someone’s getting involved [in violent extremism], they’re usually gonna hate the Cops,” said one former extremist. “You know, like the big slogans ACAB [all cops are bastards].”

The majority of formers proposed a strategy including utilizing parents, teachers, law enforcement, activists, and formers together to reduce the risk of radicalization and to pull the extremists back to normalcy. Essentially, a multifaceted strategy is needed for a multifaceted problem.

“There’s a lot of factors [associated with why people join violent extremist groups],” said one former. “So, if you’re talking from my experience, the white power stuff, I think […] having formers, […] law enforcement, education, schools, communities [involved in the prevention program]. What you’d really have to do is get a lot of different people together and kind of pool your knowledge and resources of what’s happening. Because there are so many levels to why this happens.”

This is one of the main takeaways from the study, says Scrivens.

“I think it's important that when we're trying to address these complicated issues, i.e. violent extremism, we need to have a multidimensional way of trying to address them,” he said. “It has to involve several key stakeholders.”

As Scrivens said there is much study needed on this subject and not all these recommendations are possible or even feasible. That said, it’s important to understand what formers think on how to tackle a problem they had a hand in creating.

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