A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Patterns of Radicalization in Political Activism

Patterns of Radicalization in Political Activism


Project Details


This project explores how societal and organizational conditions and political ideologies influence the normative systems of activists and organizations that use violence, and what aspects of these normative systems are most conducive for terrorist activities. This research assumes that individuals and organizations involved with violent repertoires embrace different conceptions and justifications of violence, and that these differences can be explained by environmental conditions (including national myths about violence, degree of democratization, societal cleavages; tradition of protest policing); organizational ideology (linked with identity, decision-making structure, size, national and international alliances); and individual normative systems.

Primary Findings: 

Analyses shed light on the cognitive mechanisms, communicative dimension, motivations and world views of right-wing radicalization. Social network analysis based on online links between 100 extremist right-wing organizations indicates that Italian and German extremist groups increasingly use the Internet for propaganda, recruitment and internal communication. However, differences have emerged between the two contexts. The Italian extreme-right network appears to be very fragmented, highly diversified and difficult to coordinate ("policephalous network"), whereas the German network is denser and much more concentrated on a few central actors ("star structure"). These differences are mainly due to the political opportunity structures in the two countries. Data showed that the extreme right (in both countries) uses a variegated repertoire that appeals to various constituencies. Forms of action differ by type of group, but they are also imported from opposite groups (the left) as well as the subcultural milieu. Escalation develops often during conflicts with the (perceived) enemy: the left (as in the 1970s), but also migrants. Finally, looking at the frames used by the extreme right, we found a mix of traditional values and innovative (subcultural) elements. Especially in Italy, the opposition to civil rights is often bridged with a conservative interpretation of Catholicism. A specific contemporary element is the reference to issues such as globalization or to a "precarious generation."


Case studies were conducted of several different types of extreme right organizations (political parties, political movements, sub-cultural skinhead groups) in Italy and Germany using a range of methodologies (frame analysis, protest event analysis, and social network analysis) and sources (organizational documents of right wing organizations, online documents and webs, newspapers data) in order to identify different properties of extremist groups. Analysis of the most relevant documents produced by extreme right organizations sheds light on the cognitive mechanisms, the communicative dimension, the motivations, and world views of right-wing radicalization. Social network analysis based on (online) links between 100 extreme right organizations in each country mapped the strategic, structural, and communicative alliances of the individual organizations and showed the organizational and potential mobilizational structure of the right wing sector in each of the two countries. Finally, the protest event analysis based on newspapers articles between 2000 and 2007 stressed the forms and frequencies of far-right mobilization.


Project Period: 
June 2008 to December 2009