What Makes a Jihadist? A Nazi? The Science of Extremism

If you asked members of violent extremist groups why they initially joined, you might expect them to say they identify with white supremacist beliefs. However, Michael Kimmel, the executive director of SUNY Stony Brook's Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, interviewed more than 75 former extremists for his latest book Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism, and their answers weren’t that simple. Kimmel noticed a common theme, whether he was talking to neo-Nazis, ex-jihadists, or other far-right extremists: "They don’t get in because they have racist ideas. They get racist ideas because they get in."

As an example of how young men are drawn into hate groups, Kimmel describes a hypothetical 16-year-old kid, hanging out at the skate park alone. "You’re not the most popular kid in class. In fact, you get bullied and beat up. You don’t have very many friends, so you spend a lot of time playing video games. You’re pretty bored and miserable with your life. These guys come along, and they say, 'Hey, you can hang out with us. We think you’re cool.' You start hanging out with them, and they say, ‘Hey listen, we have these amazing parties. You should come. Everybody gets really hammered, and there’s girls there, and it’s really fun.' The guy goes to the parties, and suddenly he has a crew.” For the first time in his life, this kid doesn’t feel like a loser. Instead, he’s part of a community of powerful guys who throw great parties. Kimmel says it’s not until after the new guy has bonded with the group that they’ll say, “After the party, we’ll all take painkillers and go out on the street looking for immigrants to beat up. It’s fantastic.”

While researching Healing from Hate, Kimmel found that many young men are drawn to hate groups for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with ideology. "It has to do with the idea of brotherhood, camaraderie, connection, community—people who validate your masculinity." The hate comes in when the “brothers” start saying things like, “Not only are you awesome, but you have a sacred mission of preserving the white race.” Violent extremist groups often intentionally target kids who feel emasculated. Kimmel says, “When they go into high schools, they know how to identify the kids that might eventually be one of them." A teen that doesn’t fit in, and has been bullied at school or abused at home, is furious with the world. The hate group not only offers him a place to belong, it channels his anger and gives him a sense of power. Kimmel says, “A lot of these guys told me stories about when they were adolescents. They were filled with rage. They didn’t know who to hate, who to be angry at, but they knew they were angry. This was a way to express that.”
A lot of these guys told me stories about when they were adolescents. They were filled with rage. They didn’t know who to hate, who to be angry at, but they knew they were angry. This was a way to express that.
Kimmel’s book is full of fascinating and disturbing quotes from men with extremist pasts, including Ingo Hasselbach, a former neo-Nazi. Hasselbach described how he recruited teenage boys after school, often targeting them based on how they were dressed. “The first thing I did when I met one of these boys was to show him that I wanted to be his friend, to hang out with him, which coming from someone older, especially someone over 20, was a real compliment. I’d act a lot like an older brother. We’d go into the woods together and do things like Boy Scout exercises, building forts and making trails. I’d always slip in a bit of ideology against foreigners along the way, saying some racist things like how there are such big differences between the white and black races, for example. But only casually at first.”

Hasselbach is the founder of EXIT Deutschland, an organization that helps other people leave the Nazi movement and build new lives for themselves. Getting out of an extremist group is a complicated process, because the groups often retaliate against members who try to leave with death threats and physical attacks. Their closest allies become their worst enemies. Kimmel says, “If you want to help these guys get out, you can’t just say, ‘By the way, your ideology is wrong’ or ‘Your interpretation of Mein Kampf is wrong,’ because that won’t resonate at all. These guys are in it for the emotional experience of connectedness, and if you don’t minister to that, you won’t really be able to help them get out.” The support groups he focuses on in Healing from Hate, including Life After Hate in the United States, are all run by “formers” like Hasselbach. Since they’ve been in the movement themselves, they understand that if a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie is part of why people join—and remain in—hate groups, exit organizations have to be able to offer them those same kinds of connections outside the movement.

Kimmel has written several books on men and masculinity, and while writing his previous one, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, he noticed that when men feel that their place in society is threatened, they may feel a sense of what he refers to as “aggrieved entitlement.” Healing from Hate grew out of his interest in the connections between masculinity and violence. His emphasis on gender is intentional. While women join hate groups, too, they do so in much smaller numbers. Kimmel says, “EXIT in Sweden has had about 900 people go through their program, and of the 900, about 20 or 30 have been women.” He says this disparity can be explained by comparing the rules of femininity and masculinity. “If you’re a girl and you’re angry, what girls often do with that anger is they turn it inward.” Men, on the other hand, often want to be feared, because they mistake fear for respect.
Let me be very, very clear. I do not believe that by understanding gender you will understand the emergence and growth of white nationalist groups, but I think without gender, you can’t understand it.
When men who are dealing with economic uncertainty and a lack of job prospects feel embarrassed about their place in the world, they crave validation. They may feel like they aren’t “real” men. “Some of these guys talked about, ‘Just the fact that I would walk in somewhere and people would go, “Whoa!” That always made me feel really good,’” says Kimmel. “A lot of these guys mistake fear for respect.” In addition to that misguided sense of respect, they develop a strong connection with the other extremists. He says, “It’s important to remember that it’s visceral, it’s experiential. In between entry and exit is the experience of being in the group. Let me be very, very clear. I do not believe that by understanding gender you will understand the emergence and growth of white nationalist groups, but I think without gender, you can’t understand it.”

Life After Hate, a nonprofit organization that helps people leave violent far-right extremist movements behind, received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program in 2016. In June 2017, the Trump administration canceled the grant, because they didn’t consider domestic terrorism a serious threat. Kimmel says that after Life After Hate lost the grant, they raised $800,000 in a matter of weeks. While the government didn’t support them, the general public did.

“People really do want to be able to support a group of formers helping other guys get out. That is such an amazing idea,” says Kimmel. He believes Healing from Hate is the most hopeful book he’s ever written. “These guys have been to the darkest place you can imagine, and they got out. Everyone had written them off except themselves, except each other.” It was the sense of support and community that initially drew them to extremism, and building new support systems may be the only way they can set themselves free.

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