Are there common structures or patterns to violent extremist ideologies, even when the content of the beliefs is dramatically different? 

Social and political scientists have explored elements of this question for decades using a variety of different methods.  And the method does seem to matter.  Several years ago, I tried to identify such overarching ideological patterns – not as a social science theory – but just as teaching tool for state and local law enforcement personnel, to help make the point that understanding extremists is not only about knowing what  they purport think or believe (or inferring motive from such statements), but knowing how those ideologies develop and facilitate (or inhibit) violent action. 

My overly simplistic rendering suggested four main ideological structures, which I summarized with the acronym PATH:

  • Polarized:  The essence of which is an us vs them mindset, or what some would regard as in-group – out-group conflict.

  • Absolutist:  The beliefs are regarded as truth in the absolute sense, sometimes supported by sacred authority.  This squelches questioning, critical thinking, and dissent.  It also adds moral authority to framing us vs. them as a competition between good and bad (or evil).

  • Threat-Oriented:  External threat causes in-groups to cohere.  Good leaders know this intuitively, if not from reading social psychological research.  They persistently remind adherents that the “us” is at risk from the “them.”  Because the “us” is seen as being good or right in the absolute sense, this works not only to promote internal cohesion but external opposition. 

  • Hateful:  Hate energizes violent action.  It allows principled opposition to impel
    direct action.  It also facilitates various mechanisms of moral disengagement – such as dehumanization – which erode the social and psychological barriers to engaging in violence that
    one believes is “justified” (an important point, since many more people endorse the justification for extremist violence than actually commit such acts).


Admittedly unscientific, this PATH model represented how I came to view common ideological structures across extremists groups, whose beliefs differed radically from one another.

Gerard Saucier – a social psychologist at University of Oregon – and his international team of colleagues sought to investigate this same question on larger scale. The results of their study are reported in the May,
2009 issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science. 

They began with a rationally-derived “working model of the major components of the militant-extremist mind-set,” then collected books, printed and web-based material from militant-extremist individuals or groups to see how often certain themes appeared.  They wanted a broad range of groups, so they deliberately chose at least one from each of seven world regions.  “To qualify, a group had to have been active within the last 150 years, had to fit the definition of militant extremism, and also had to have had a record of actual violence involving the death of multiple persons outside the group. A qualifying group also had to have sufficient written documentary evidence (i.e., original statements) that would clearly indicate its mind-set.”

Saucier (the senior author) scanned these extremist documents looking for the presence of themes, then judged which themes were present in multiple statements “when, in Saucier's judgment, a reasonable
person hearing the set of statements would acknowledge them to be making the same essential point."  It is not clear from the described methodology, whether a coding scheme was used or whether any check was done on the inter-rater reliability of theme identification

The authors identified 16 themes “based on fairly obvious correspondences that emerged in repeated reviews of the extracted statements. Each of these 16 themes was found to occur in three or more groups.”

Accordingly, the “Key themes characterizing a militant-extremist mind-set” were identified as follows: 

  1. The necessity of unconventional and extreme measures.

  2. Use of tactics that function to absolve one of responsibility for the bad consequences of the violence one is advocating or carrying out.

  3.  Prominent mixtures of military terminology into areas of discourse where it is otherwise rarely

  4. Perception that the ability of the group to reach its rightful position is being tragically obstructed

  5. Glorifying the past, in reference to one's group.

  6. Utopianizing. There is frequently reference to concepts of a future paradise, or at least "the promise of a long and glorious future"

  7. Catastrophizing. There is a perception that great calamities either have occurred, are occurring, or will occur.

  8. Anticipation of supernatural intervention: Miraculous powers attributed to one's side, miraculous events coming to help one's side, or commands coming from supernatural entities.

  9. A felt imperative to annihilate (exterminate, crush, destroy) evil and/or purify the world entirely from evil.

  10. Glorification of dying for the cause.

  11. Duty and obligation to kill, or to make offensive war.

  12. Machiavellianism in service of the "sacred." This theme involves the belief that those with the right (i.e., true) beliefs and values are entitled to use immoral ends if necessary to assure the
    success of their cause.

  13. An elevation of intolerance, vengeance, and warlikeness into virtues (or nearly so), including, in some cases, the ascribing of such militant dispositions to supernatural entities.

  14. Dehumanizing or demonizing of opponents.

  15. The modern world as a disaster. Among militant extremists, there is commonly a perception that modernity, including the consumer society and even instances of successful economic progress, is actually a disaster for humanity.

  16. Civil government as illegitimate.

They suggest that militant-extremist groups use these thematic elements to craft a “narrative” frame for their ideologies.  Drawing on these 16 themes, they offer the following of how they might cohere in a narrative:

“We (i.e., our group, however defined) have a glorious past, but modernity has been disastrous, bringing on a great catastrophe in which we are tragically obstructed from reaching our rightful place, obstructed by an illegitimate civil government and/or by an enemy so evil that it does not even deserve to be called human. This intolerable situation calls for vengeance. Extreme measures are required;
indeed, any means will be justified for realizing our sacred end. We must think in military terms to annihilate this evil and purify the world of it. It is a duty to kill the perpetrators of evil, and we cannot be blamed for carrying out this violence. Those who sacrifice themselves in our cause will attain glory,
and supernatural powers should come to our aid in this struggle. In the end, we will bring our people to a new world that is a paradise.”

ResearchBlogging.orgSaucier, G., Akers, L., Shen-Miller, S., Knežević, G.,&Stankov, L. (2009). Patterns of Thinking in Militant Extremism Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (3), 256-271 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01123.x