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Why People Radicalize

When a loved one becomes involved in violent extremism, it can be a traumatic and deeply troubling experience for family and friends. You may turn inwards and search for answers, trying to make sense of how someone you care about could embrace such extreme and harmful ideologies.

  • How did this happen to my loved one?

  • What made them adopt extremist beliefs?

  • Is this my fault?

It’s important to know that there is no single risk factor for or pathway to violent extremism.

Instead, it is a combination of vulnerabilities that cause people to seek answers and social networks or creates an openness to these beliefs. It is crucial to highlight that many people have the same or similar vulnerabilities and never adopt extremist beliefs.

Vulnerabilities that influence the path to extremism:


The need to belong and have a sense of community is a basic human need, and violent extremist groups and ideologies exploit this need. Extremist groups often draw individuals in with the promise of an immediate sense of community, connection, and friendship.

Anger Over Injustice (Real or Perceived)

Oftentimes, experiences in our community or our personal lives can cause a feeling of unfairness or injustice. People may feel like their community, values, or their way of life is under attack. Individuals may experience economic stress, social rejection, losing a job, or the loss of a loved one. This anger and frustration at a perceived injustice can leave them searching for answers to their problems. Violent extremist ideologies provide an explanation of what is wrong, who is to blame, and what to do about it. They exploit people’s need for answers and action. Violent extremist beliefs facilitate a vicious cycle by providing an answer and direction for their powerful emotions, while also feeding and encouraging the escalation of anger, frustration, and sense of injustice.

Identity & Purpose

A person’s desire to be part of something that is meaningful, to affect change, and to foster a feeling of significance in their lives is a powerful driver for embracing extreme beliefs. Fighting for a cause makes them feel like they matter, providing a sense of identity and purpose. There are natural stages in life when people are looking for identity and purpose, especially adolescence and young adulthood, but this search may also be driven by a recent loss of or perceived threat to a person’s sense of self. As a result, they may be increasingly vulnerable to extremist groups who claim that their cause can give them identity and significance. Violent extremist groups exploit this need by promising to fulfill needs for identity, meaning, and personal significance.

Mental Health

Mental health is a complex yet vital element of our wellbeing. Some individuals who become involved in violent extremism may have un- or under-treated mental health conditions, engage in substance abuse (alcohol or drugs), have histories of trauma or have been exposed to violence. These issues may create a vulnerability that leads some people into violent extremism. However, it is important to emphasize that many individuals have similar life experiences and will never become radicalized.


Most violent extremist beliefs are not new trends and have existed for decades to centuries. These beliefs are readily available online through the internet, social media, and more broadly in general society. Individuals may initially be exposed to less extreme forms of these belief systems, which may progress and escalate to more extreme and violent beliefs over time.

Remember: You aren't alone.

Life After Hate can help you support your loved ones as they exit or work towards exiting a life of violent extremism. Reach out to us here.