The National Intelligence Council released a report this month outlining the immense difficulties associated with rapid shifts in demographics, the environment, economics, and technology. The report, “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World,” highlights the potential for catastrophic political destabilization due to difficulties associated with increasing “fragmentation within communities, states, and the international system.”
The report warns that rising pessimism, inequality, dislocation, corruption, and an overall increase in hyperconnected identity-based groups present an immediate and long-term threat to global stability, as individuals abandon distrusted institutions for solidified identity groups based on political or racial affiliation.
The report’s findings coincide with the release of an unclassified report summary on domestic extremism by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
That summary describes a proliferation of domestic extremism across the political landscape, representing an elevated threat to the American homeland in 2021.
Notably, extremist groups were found to include racial and ethnic rights movements, animal rights and environmental activists, both pro and anti-abortion groups, and general anti-authority movements including left-wing anarchist groups and right-wing sovereign citizen groups.
The report also underscored the fact that lone wolf actors or very small cells of extremists were much more likely to carry out violent attacks than larger groups that merely promote extremist ideologies.
The accelerationist neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, for example, is estimated to have only been composed of some 60–80 members, according to a report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. Despite this, the group managed to secure a reputation as one of the most violent and feared extremists factions in America.
The danger posed to the American homeland and international order due to increasing radicalization has become something of a fixture in the defense and national security space in recent years. And, though these latest reports are alarming, they only but confirm previous observations made by security experts.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released a document earlier in the year titled “Extremism and Insider Threat in the DoD,” which outlined the risk of violent extremism within the military from both the left and right of the political spectrum.
That document classified two broad movements of political extremism in the American landscape, including leftist “anarchists” and right-wing “patriots,” both of which foster extremist viewpoints based on perceived injustices, a search for individual identity, and the need of isolated people to belong to something greater than themselves.
An extensive report by the RAND Corporation, “Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and Their Families on Radicalization and Deradicalization,” further assessed how financial instability, feelings of victimization, stigmatization, and marginalization were exploited to gradually radicalize individuals to the point of committing violence.
That study observed a general trend across the political spectrum in which individuals went through a traumatic “reorienting event,” that led to their adopting of a new group-based mentality, after which members of their new social group gradually led them to join increasingly extreme groups up to and including terrorist networks.
Vitally, three passages of that study succinctly describe the manner in which extremist views are planted, cultivated, and capitalized on:
“The enduring appeal of extremist groups seems to lie in attending to fundamental human needs. Social bonds, love and acceptance, and having a life purpose sometimes go unmet for some people, leaving them prone to become involved with extremist views and groups.”
“Radical ideology and involvement in extremist activities have addictive properties for many. Physical violence and trading insults online have addictive properties that appear linked to the experience of joint risk and struggle.”
“Recruitment to radical groups deliberately leverages personal vulnerabilities. Radical groups develop ways to bolster ideological commitment through (1) restriction of access to information or circumstances that challenge ideological constructs and (2) social and cognitive strategies for reinforcing ingroup bias and hatred toward people outside the group.”
Both America and the world are entering a new political age in which partisan ideology is not only common, but the dominant form of political discourse. This issue is being accelerated by bad-faith actors who seek to capitalize on the social isolation and personal disconnect brought about by a digitized society. The threat to global stability and security is difficult to understate.
There is, however, a small hope.
The RAND study also found two key factors that were frequently cited by de-radicalized extremists as having helped them to abandon their viewpoints.
The first was a general sense of disillusion and burnout due to the witnessed hypocrisy of other extremists. The other was a self-reported exposure during their youth to multiple viewpoints and critical thinking skills.
Extremism is on the rise, but by highlighting and amplifying instances of deceit among extremist leaders, and by fostering intellectual diversity and curiosity among youth populations, it is possible that the threat can be mitigated in the long term.
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