A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Report finds childhood trauma, history of high-risk behaviors as precursors to violent extremism

New START research explores how non-ideological factors such as childhood trauma or high-risk behaviors can influence an individual’s involvement in violent extremism.

The study, led by START researcher Pete Simi, discovered that a large portion of violent extremists interviewed had similar factors in their self-reported background stories such as child maltreatment, mental health issues, and alcohol and illegal drug abuse to a greater extent than the general population.

Through extensive life history interviews with 44 former members of violent white supremacist groups, the research team found:  

  • 45 percent of those interviewed reported being the victim of childhood physical abuse while 21 percent reported being the victim of childhood sexual abuse.
  • 57 percent of interviewees reported experiencing mental problems, as diagnosed by a medical practitioner, either preceding or during their extremist involvement.
  • 72 percent of interviewees reported having problems with alcohol and/or illegal drugs.

The study’s findings highlight the importance of examining non-ideological factors that can influence an individual to join an extremist movement, as he/she may be attracted to its social cohesiveness after having a life of family dysfunction and instability.  

The research brief, “Trauma as a Precursor to Violent Extremism,” is available here. It is based on a paper of the same name, currently under review with Criminology.