Linn Pitts holds a B.S. in Marketing/Organization Management and a M.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of South Carolina.  He also has studied Public Policy on a graduate level and holds an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership from Liberty University.  Linn spent a decade in law enforcement prior to transitioning into teaching on a university level.  He presently teaches as an Assistant Professor in the Social Science Department at Shorter University.  He can be found on Twitter @Professor_Pitts and is writing a dissertation on gatekeepers in Countering Violent Extremism programs in the United States.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  Assessment of Violent Extremism: The Push of Identity Crisis and the Pull of Ideologies

Date Originally Written:  November, 7, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  February 26, 2018.

Summary:  Successful recruitment of individuals into violent extremist organizations involves a recruiter leveraging the lack of social capital and identity capital to convince the radical-to-be that the organization will meet their needs.  Unless potential recruits have an established identity, resilience to deal with the overtures of recruiters, or have trusted individuals in their life that they can turn for help, the individual will be at risk for recruitment into violent extremist organizations.

Text:  Social Capital involves the problem and the potential solution to violent extremism due to the social identity that is sought by individuals at risk of recruitment for extremist groups.  Robert Putnam[1] identified that social capital aids society via collective action and empowerment.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lester, Maheswari, and McLain[2] noted that negative influences within family connections can create negative social capital.  In particular, groups that may exhibit extremist tendencies may seem like viable avenues for individuals struggling with identity.  James Côté[3] has further established that a branch of social capital is that of identity capital.  Identity capital is the manifestation of discovering one’s own distinctiveness and plotting their life course.   Therefore, individuals will seek purpose in their life and may turn to extremist movements if they perceive an injustice[4].  Berbrier[5] had previously found that white supremacists will take on a victim identity to exacerbate the sense of injustice of their group’s persona in order to become more attractive to individuals struggling with this aspect in their life.

Ilardi found that recruitment of potential jihadist may not be a top-down recruitment process but it may be more of an individual attraction once introduced to the material such as the messages of radical clerics or videos depicting violence in the defense of religion.  Moreover, Futrell and Simi[6] identified similar activities among white supremacist as occurring at free spaces such as home-based Bible studies, small local bars not frequented by outsiders, or private concerts.  One can easily understand that charismatic leaders may be knowledgeable of these places via organizational ties as noted by Wood[7].  Extremist groups recruit at-risk but willing volunteers, who are seeking purpose in their life.  Though Wood primarily looked at the recruiting methods of the Islamic State, researchers[8] found similar recruiting efforts of white supremacy terror groups.

The key to successful violent extremism recruitment is at-risk individuals and their vulnerabilities such as the following factors discussed by Mitchell[9] while citing Bartlett and Miller, “four often overlooked elements that can move some people toward violent extremism: an emotional impulse to correct an injustice; the thrill of doing something ‘cool’; peer pressure; and attaining a certain status in a hierarchy.”  Three of these, (thrill/cool factor, peer pressure, and status seeking,) directly relate to identity capital as defined by Côté, especially in his discussion of adolescents struggling with the transition to adulthood and identity formation.

Though no apparent correlation to the work of Côté, the emotional impulse concerning an injustice is a view parlayed by Nawaz[10] as he recounted the story of his own radicalization and described the moment of empowerment.  Nawaz’ radicalization occurred while he accompanied his brother and a group of friends when they were accosted by several white nationalists.  He noted his brother mentioned to the white nationalist’s leader that he was carrying a bomb in his backpack [see author’s note].  The incident quickly ended, the white nationalists fled, and Nawaz’s feelings of legitimate identity associated with Islamist ideology.  In this case, it is easy to see Nawaz’s lack of understanding of the radical Islamist ideology, but his nascent view of the identity traits found an appealing association and it related to Côté from the aspect of an altered life-course.  Nawaz and his immigrant family had relocated Essex, England did not feel readily accepted in his transplanted home.  It is not uncommon to find cultural identity struggles faced by second-generation immigrants[11].  In comparison, it may not be limited to strictly struggles faced only by immigrants.  According to Al Raffie[12], “[s]tudies on radicalization find identity to stand at the fore of the radicalization process.  Success partially lies in the radical’s ability to provide the radical-to-be with a distinctive identity[p. 67].”  This identity may be based on an extremist religious ideology or a distinctive worldview such as white nationalism, but the radical-to-be does not fully comprehend the lifestyle they are pursuing and may become indoctrinated because they are seeking the identity.  Consider the life-course of Frank Meeink[13], as he struggled with identity growing up as the product of a broken home, eventually moving in with his father in his preteen years.  Meeink noted that he was constantly harassed/assaulted on the way to school by African-American youth in his South Philadelphia neighborhood.  The turning point for Meeink was a summer with his cousin in a rural area of Pennsylvania that introduced him to white supremacy.  Meeink noted that it made sense to him through the lens of a child that despised African-Americans in his home neighborhood.  It should be further noted this fits Ilardi’s view and that of Lester et al. as identity struggles led to an ideology fit via causal interactions.  Therefore, factors in Nawaz’s radicalization was the result of mistreatment due to his immigrant status akin to Meeink being of a different race in his South Philadelphia neighborhood.  Meeink’s and Nawaz’s story of deradicalization also share similar themes.

In examining societal structures, Cole, Alison, Cole, and Alison[14] cited Munchie’s 1999 work as they discussed that poorly applied preventions may further embolden anti-social identities which was discussed by Mitchell.  The significance of this discussion is that individuals struggling with aspects of self-concept will experiment with different identities and will seek reactions when they sample these new identities such as forms of different dress and customs.  Ultimately, this search leads to a cognitive opening as identified by Carpenter, Levitt, and Jacobson[15] that an extremist recruiter can exploit.  It is further supported by Horgan[16] that individuals joining radical groups do not understand the ideology, but become entrenched in the ideology when isolated from their typical peers.  Therefore, Mitchell’s findings in British Columbia Schools concerning moments where youth were on the fringe of radicalization became teachable moments.  It’s worth noting Mitchell’s respondents felt training concerning bullying and safe school communities offered them the ability to diffuse situations though they had not had formal training on radicalization.

Author’s note:  Some news sources have discredited this personal account by Nawaz, though it is symbolic of his apparent beliefs.


[1] Putnam, R. D. [1995]. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy6[1], 65-78.

[2] Lester, M., Maheshwari, S. K., & McLain, P. M. [2013]. Family Firms and Negative Social Capital: A Property Rights Theory Approach. Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management15[1], 11.

[3] Côté, J. E. [2005]. Identity capital, social capital and the wider benefits of learning: generating resources facilitative of social cohesion. London review of education3[3], 221-237.

[4] Ilardi, G. J. [2013]. Interviews with Canadian radicals. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism36[9], 713-738.

[5] Berbrier, M. (2000). The victim ideology of white supremacists and white separatists in the United States. Sociological Focus, 33(2), 175-191.

[6] Futrell, R., & Simi, P. (2004). Free spaces, collective identity, and the persistence of US white power activism. Social Problems, 51(1), 16-42.

[7] Wood, G. (2016). The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. Random House.

[8] Simi, P., Windisch, S., & Sporer, K. (2016). Recruitment and Radicalization among US Far Right Terrorists Recruitment and Radicalization among US Far-Right Terrorists.

[9] Mitchell, M. R. [2016]. Radicalization in British Columbia Secondary Schools: The Principals’ Perspective. Journal for Deradicalization, [6], 132-179.

[10] Nawaz, M. [2012]. Radical: My journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening. Random House.

[11] Zhou, M. [2003]. Growing Up American: The challenge confronting immigrant children and children of immigrants. Annual Review of Sociology. 23. 63-95. 10.1146/annurev.soc.23.1.63.

[12] Al Raffie, D. [2013]. Social identity theory for investigating Islamic extremism in the diaspora. Journal of Strategic Security6[4], 67.

[13] Meeink, F. and Roy, J.M. [2010]. An Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story. Hawthorne Books.

[14] Cole, J., Alison, E., Cole, B., & Alison, L. [2010]. Guidance for identifying people vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremism. Liverpool, UK: University of Liverpool, School of Psychology

[15] Carpenter, J. S., Levitt, M., & Jacobson, M. [2009]. Confronting the ideology of radical extremism. J. Nat’l Sec. L. & Pol’y3, 301.

[16] Horgan, J. [2008]. From profiles to pathways and roots to routes: Perspectives from psychology on radicalization into terrorism. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science618[1], 80-94.