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Armed and Explosive? An Explorative Statistical Analysis of Extremist Radicalization Cases with Military Background


Authors: Håvard Haugstvedt and Daniel Koehler

Date of Publication: Augst 24th, 2021

Journal/Publisher: Terrorism and Political Violence

Purpose of Study

Key Questions Addressed

The authors aimed to assess extremist infiltration of armed forces, and the spread of violent radicalization among service members and former soldiers.

Design of Study

For this study the PIRUS dataset was used. The PIRUS dataset places a focus on deployment and active service during radicalization. The authors rouped all military related variables together, and provided the general features regarding radical ideology. They then compared them at the group level with all the non-military background entries of the PIRUS dataset. They also compared them at the group level with all the non-military background entries of the PIRUS dataset.

Key Findings

The exploration of potential vulnerability factors for military personnel’s increased risk of being attracted to or recruited into violent extremist milieus has found modest support for the mental health, grievance and social exclusion driven radicalization trajectories. 

It appears that Simi et al.’s hypothesis of identity discrepancies following failed role adjustments within the military, or after transition into civilian life, might hold some empirical value, since the majority (77.2 percent) of the sample were retired from military duty when they radicalized.

Military service, especially when it involves deployment to an active combat situation, includes numerous intense physical and psychological risks and strains. These could lead to prolonged mental health issues, such as PTSD.

It is fair to speculate that some of those armed service members that radicalize might have been thrown into existential uncertainty by their traumatic experiences, for example, during a combat situation. We also see that military background radicalization appears to involve significant social issues, which can easily be explained as a consequence of the associated traumatic experiences and mental health issues.


The already experienced process of becoming a soldier (martialization), belonging, identity building, and group solidarity may create a larger vacuum in ex-soldiers’ lives when compared to civilian radicalization cases. In addition, extremist milieus offer semi-martial or even pseudo-martial environments (e.g., militias, paramilitary structures, high affinity to weapons, violence, masculinity, militaristic language), which could appeal to veterans who feel lost in civilian life, as a familiar and easily navigated social sphere. 

Furthermore, extremist groups are known to be more appreciative of military experience (as this will be directly useful to them), and to offer status, respect, and recognition. Through dedicated subcultural and ideological references to warrior identities, death, and self-sacrifice, an extremist heroic doubling (not unlike in the military) could function as a bridge into military environments, and help recruit veterans.

Key Recommendations

The standardization among NATO countries regarding military training and structures, as well as socio-political similarities among liberal democracies, allow for a cautionary transfer of our findings to other national contexts. 

there is sufficient indication to direct preventative efforts, both within and without the armed services, for the mental health and social ostracism effects of military service, in relation to the potential risk of being recruited into extremist milieus. From the perspective of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), there is a need to help facilitate a better transition to civilian life, or more adequately, to deliver tailored treatment or support services to those in demand.

Even beyond transition support for soldiers entering civilian life, the research has shown that radicalization during active service is a real danger to the integrity and security of militaries around the world. As has been argued previously, the military should invest in their own P/CVE programs to actively counter the threat of extremist infiltration and exploitation for terrorist acts.

This work provides some baseline directions for those programs, which may start with basic awareness training about the ideologies, codes, and symbols of certain extremist groups that are most attractive and inconspicuous to soldiers, but which could potentially reach full-fledged deradicalization activities.

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