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START researcher speaks at Department of Defense forum on extremism in the military

Senior Researcher Dr. Michael Jensen, who leads the Radicalization and Disengagement (RaD) portfolio at START, presented data from the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset on extremism in the armed forces at the Department of Defense (DOD) Office of People Analytics (OPA) Spring Research Forum in April.

OPA’s semiannual Research Forums are a collaborative research venue to share OPA research with policy leaders, military service representatives and other DOD affiliated researchers. The Research Forums generate dialogue and spark ideas that help enhance DOD scientific assessments, data analytics and outreach.

This year, the event included speakers from the DOD Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI), the Army Research Institute (ARI), RAND, U.S. Coast Guard, Army War College and OPA, who discussed their research on diversity and inclusion in the U.S. military, insider threats and extremism in the ranks.

In his presentation, Jensen noted several myths about extremists with military backgrounds.

“My reason for bringing these up and challenging them is not to downplay the threat associated with individuals radicalized in the military,” Jensen said. “It’s rather just to contextualize the problem, and to show how complex it is.”

One such myth included the idea that many extremists join the military to gain tactical expertise. Jensen explained that this was often not the case, noting that out of the 2,200 radicalized individuals in PIRUS, about 11% have military backgrounds.

“The majority of extremists in the U.S. do not have military backgrounds,” Jensen said. “Of those that do, about 80% of the individuals in our data radicalized after they left the U.S. armed forces. So when we talk about the problem of extremists with military backgrounds, this is primarily a problem among veterans.”

Other speakers praised the quality of the data available in PIRUS.

“[PIRUS] is one of the most renowned studies on extremism across the U.S.,” Col. Robert Payne of the U.S. Army War College said. “I’ve loved my opportunity to work with them.”

Jensen concluded by exploring how the military and community partners can mitigate and respond to the problem of extremism within the ranks.

“There’s a growing body of research which suggests that extremists who are involuntarily removed from the military are actually the ones who are at the highest risk of being mobilized to violence,” Jensen said. “When you remove somebody involuntarily from the military without also referring them to some type of rehabilitation services, all you end up with is an extremist with a personal grievance. So, our response really requires a full-spectrum approach that focuses on prevention, intervention, off-ramping and rehabilitation.”