American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting

American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting

May 21, 2015
2 min read

Religious extremists target individuals who feel isolated, lack identity or community

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TORONTO — Individuals who feel isolated or lack a sense of identity and community are at higher risk for involvement with religious or radical extremists groups that promise brotherhood and a sense of belonging.

Study researcher David Brown, a medical student at the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, Midwestern University, and colleagues conducted a literature review of 11 articles to determine recruitment strategies of religious extremist groups, characteristics of individuals at risk for recruitment and how recruitment can be prevented or countered.

“One of the biggest common themes is these individuals have a weakened sense of identity; maybe they moved to a different country, they're a first or second immigrant, or they don’t have a strong sense of community or identity in their home,” Brown said during his presentation at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting. “This is taken advantage of by extremist groups because they say ‘come join us and be a part of something greater’ to give these individuals a sense of identity. Extremist groups emphasize things like brotherhood and bonds that create the sense of belonging to these individuals.”

According to Brown, the most significant recruitment strategy extremist groups utilize is a binary narrative that establishes a “for us or against us” concept that is often posed in the Western Hemisphere. These groups use historical context, such as the Crusades, to illustrate themselves as champions or freedom fighters who act in response to threats from the West.

Researchers also examined extremist groups in the U.S., such as the Aryan Nation and Ku Klux Klan, and found that feelings of isolation were also common among recruited members of these groups.

To prevent or counter religious or radical extremist recruitment, Brown suggested the following:

  • Target contradictions and challenge the ideology of freedom fighters or champions;
  • Illustrate that extremist operations kill innocent people, especially Muslims;
  • Challenge assumptions and minimize violence by citing examples of peaceful protest;
  • Dismantle binary worldview and suggest working with Muslims as opposed to against them;
  • Target subgroups with competing interests, for example, local Muslim youth who recognize extremists’ politically motivated self-interests;
  • Listen to non-radicalized individuals or family members firsthand experiences with extremist groups; and
  • Promote alternatives, possibly using media to undermine existing structure and create new ones.

While these study findings significantly add to existing knowledge of extremist ideology and mechanisms, they spark further questions.

“Some things to take away include: knowing more about the narrative what we still don’t really know, or what the study didn’t look into, which is how does someone’s involvement in these groups change over time?” Brown said. “Why would somebody join and then decide to either not follow through with an order or become militarized and engage in violent actions as opposed to just being part of something greater? Once people are involved, how do these groups select their targets? How can we measure success in preventing this?” – by Amanda Oldt


Brown DA, et al. P8-099. Presented at: American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting; May 16-20, 2015; Toronto.

Disclosure: Brown reports no relevant financial disclosures.