Pauline Anderson

May 18, 2015

TORONTO ― As white supremacist and radical Islamic terrorist groups hit the news with greater regularity, there is a growing effort to better grasp the strategies used to recruit Americans and others into these extremist terrorist groups.

A better understanding of tactics to attract new members and the characteristics of those most likely to be drawn into these fringe groups could help provide a counter to recruitment messages to potential recruits, according to David Brown, a third-year medical student at Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, Midwestern University, in Illinois.

Brown's research shows that victimization and championing a cause are key tactics used to lure isolated prospective members into these groups, and an important way to counter them is to challenge these messages.

He presented the findings at a press briefing here at the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2015 Annual Meeting.

Weakened Sense of Identity

Along with his colleagues, Brown carried out a literature review and an analysis of 11 articles. The 11 articles in their analysis were all written by nonmembers of radical extremist groups after September 11, 2001.

The analysis showed that those who are most at risk for being drawn into extremist groups have a weakened sense of identity.

"Maybe they moved to a different country; maybe they're a second-generation immigrant. They don't have a strong sense of community," said Brown.

David Brown

Recruiters emphasize the "brotherhood," the "bonds," and the "sense of belonging" that are created by joining these groups, according to Brown.

Outside the United States, recruiters use a champion "narrative," in which "you're either with us or against us," said Brown. These radicals view the West as the "threat," and as victims, they are "taking up the good fight" in response to that threat.

In so doing, they invite prospective members to be a part of the cause, to be a "part of something greater," said Brown.

Islamist extremists tend to ignore passages in the Qur'an that are nonviolent and focus instead on dishonor and retribution to illustrate that the outside force has to be overcome, he added.

Radical groups inside the United States, including white power groups, such as the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan, use similar recruitment techniques, noted Brown.

"The people who are involved in these groups also have a sense of isolation from their communities, and they also come together as part of something larger."

But the American groups rely more on large events, such as congresses and live concerts, to attract members, especially younger ones. At these mass gatherings and in online communities, members can buy all manner of resources, for example, "puzzles with racist themes for your kids," said Brown.

One way to dismantle the "with us or against us" worldview is to challenge the ideology of freedom fighter victimization, said Brown. "When these attacks happen, a lot of innocent Muslims are killed too, so it's not always the religious extremists who are victims."

Other ways to counter these groups is to foster a sense of community and to promote other opinions and voices within that community. An example, said Brown, is working with local Muslim youth groups or with well-rounded individuals in the community who have a nonviolent perspective.

"We can also learn from people who either have family members who have gone through this or people who have been deradicalized and use that as a source of information to learn more about this."

And although social media such as Facebook and Twitter are a "huge recruiting tool" for extremists, they can be used to counter it as well, said Brown.

There is still a lot to learn about these extremist groups. Among the list of outstanding questions, said Brown, is how and why the nature of someone's involvement in one of these groups changes over time, why most people with militant extremist beliefs do not engage in violent action, how groups select their targets, and how success is measured in terms of preventing recruitment.

Maintain Strong Family Ties

In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Brown reiterated the important role that psychiatrists can play in countering extremist thoughts. He referred to a group of American experts, including social workers and psychiatrists, who have helped operate "deradicalization camps" for terrorists.

Such extreme measures may not be helpful for garden-variety extremist situations here at home, commented Robert Freedman, MD, professor and chair, Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado in Denver, who was not involved in the research.

In most cases, it is a matter of maintaining family ties, he said.

Preteens typically fantasize about being adopted, which Freud called the "family romance," said Dr Friedman. "They begin to idealize someone else's family, and that can be someone else's extremist group."

Young people are very impulsive, and rebellion is a normal stage of their development, although most are eventually "pulled back to the family and its values," he added.

"So it's very important that you stick with your child. Even if your child radicalizes temporarily, don't banish him from the family, because your small piece of normality may be all he has to cling to."

Even if the adult child has left home and does not want to have anything to do with the family, it is important to try to maintain that lifeline, added Dr Freedman. Sometimes it is a matter of seeing him or her for an hour every other week, or keeping in touch through a phone call. "As long as you have that, hold on to it."

He noted that socioeconomic status might be a factor in susceptibility to the lure of extremist groups. Young immigrants who move into an impoverished neighborhood and are isolated from the rest of their community live in a very stressful environment.

"Those children grow up much more likely to radicalize, and to have mental illness," he said.

The investigators and Dr Freedman report no relevant financial relationships.

American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2015 Annual Meeting. Abstract P8-099. To be presented May 19, 2015.

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