What is Violent Extremism?

Violent extremism is defined by the FBI as “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.” Explore the key parts and tools of violent extremism by reading each topic below.


Groups can be a powerful way to bring people together to achieve common goals. Groupthink happens, however, when those in the group stop stating their opinions or using critical thinking because they wish to avoid conflict. This can result in extremely poor decision-making.

Violent extremist organizations are highly vulnerable to groupthink. They are often headed or motivated by a strong leader who is rarely challenged. Different beliefs or ideas are not accepted. Violent extremist groups often work in secret, not only because their activities and plans are illegal, but also because they want to keep out other opinions.

Violent Extremism & Groupthink

Irving L. Janis, a social psychologist who performed important research on groupthink, wrote the words below in a 1972 book. His description of groupthink many years ago sounds very similar to how violent extremists are today.

“The members’ firm belief in the inherent morality of their group … enable them to minimize decision conflicts … especially when they are inclined to resort to violence. ... ‘Since our group’s objectives are good,’ the members feel, ‘any means we decide to use must be good.’ This shared assumption helps the members avoid feelings of shame or guilt about decisions that may violate their personal code of ethical behavior.” - Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink

Getting Around Groupthink

Here are a few ways to avoid groupthink:

  • Include a mix of people and perspectives in your group.
  • Limit the leader’s influence at meetings.
  • Encourage different opinions.
  • Discuss ideas with outside experts.
  • Carefully consider all choices before making decisions.

The following are five signs of groupthink: A feeling of overconfidence; rigid or polarized thinking; stereotyping of the opposition; pressure to conform; and the withholding of information. 

Don’t Be a Puppet

Extremist organizations want your total commitment and obedience. Don’t be a puppet. Realize that groups of like-minded people are not always right. Always speak your mind and use your intelligence to make decisions.


A symbol is something that stands for something else. For example, common American symbols—such as the U.S. flag, Statue of Liberty, White House, and bald eagle—represent this country and its freedoms.

A symbol can build pride or create a positive emotional connection. Symbols can also be used to create fear and to control people. Violent extremists have used various symbols over the years to fuel feelings of revenge and hatred. They have also attacked many symbols of America and other countries to make their actions seem more important.

Targets of Hate

The following are just a few of the places around the world where American symbols have been attacked by violent extremists. Violent extremists have also attacked many symbols important to other countries. 

  • Religious Temple – Oak Creek, Wisconsin

    On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page opened fire at a Sikh place of worship near Milwaukee. Six people died and four were wounded. Among those injured was a police officer who was shot multiple times while trying to save others. Page took his own life after being wounded by a police officer.

  • World Trade Center – New York City, New York

    Violent extremists have targeted the World Trade Center two different times. The first attack was on February 26, 1993, when an explosive device set off in the garage killed six people and injured more than a thousand. On September 11, 2001, a group of hijackers flew planes into each of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Nearly 3,000 people from around the world were killed. Al Qaeda extremists carried out both attacks.

  • U.S. Capitol – Washington, D.C.

    On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican extremists seeking independence from the U.S. used semi-automatic pistols to open fire on a session of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol building. Five members of Congress were wounded, including one seriously. Four people involved in the attack were captured and sent to prison.

  • Pentagon – Arlington, Virginia

    The headquarters of the Department of Defense was one of the targets of the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda extremists. A hijacked plane traveling 530 miles an hour was slammed into the side of the building, killing 189 people. The Pentagon was also bombed by domestic extremists in 1972, causing flooding in the building.

  • Ski Resort – Vail, Colorado

    On October 19, 1998, environmental extremists torched and virtually destroyed a ski resort in Colorado. The attack caused $24 million in damages. Most of those involved have been captured. Eco-terrorists have sabotaged and firebombed many other symbolic structures nationwide, including universities, government buildings, car dealerships, and new homes.

  • Federal Building – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

    On April 19, 1995, an anti-government extremist named Timothy McVeigh exploded a truck bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City. A total of 168 people were killed—including 19 children—and hundreds more were injured. McVeigh and two others who helped him were sent to prison for the attack.

  • U.S. Navy Warship – Aden, Yemen

    On October 12, 2000, al Qaeda extremists exploded a small boat alongside the USS Cole as it was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden. The blast ripped a 40-foot-wide hole near the waterline of the vessel, killing 17 American sailors and injuring many more. Some of those responsible for the attack have been killed or captured, but others remain missing.

  • U.S. Embassy – Nairobi, Kenya

    On August 7, 1998, violent extremists bombed two U.S. Embassies in East Africa at nearly the same time—one in Kenya and one in Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed and thousands were wounded. Both attacks were directly linked to al Qaeda. So far, more than 20 people have been connected to the bombings; several have been captured or killed.

Don’t Be a Puppet

Violent extremists often twist the meaning of symbols to help find and motivate new recruits. They also pick symbolic targets to make their attacks seem more important. Don’t be a puppet. Learn to recognize when you are being tricked by the way extremists use symbols.

Distorted Principles

Violent extremists are driven by twisted beliefs and values—or ideologies—that are tied to political, religious, economic, or social goals.

For example:

  • Many violent extremist ideologies are based on the hatred of another race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or country/government.
  • Violent extremists often think that their beliefs or ways of life are under attack and that extreme violence is the only solution to their frustrations and problems.
  • Despite what they sometimes say, violent extremists often do not believe in fundamental American values like democracy, human rights, tolerance, and inclusion. 
  • Violent extremists sometimes twist religious teachings and other beliefs to support their own goals.

Hate Crimes

Hate crimes are a type of violent extremism. They are directed at a person or group of people because of their race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability. These crimes can take many forms—such as burning down a religious building or threatening or injuring another person.

Hate crimes can be carried out by a single person or by small groups inspired by hateful beliefs. In many cases, an individual may commit a hate crime because of peer pressure. Many violent extremists wrongly blame their hate crimes on their victims, claiming the victims provoked them or were somehow at fault.

What Do Violent Extremists Believe?

Violent extremists have many distorted beliefs that they use to justify violence and hateful attacks. Read a few examples.

  • White Supremacy Extremists. Example of distorted belief: Members of inferior races should be killed.
  • Environmental Extremists. Example of distorted belief: Destroying property and even harming people is needed to protect the environment.
  • Militia Extremists. Example of distorted belief: The U.S. government is a threat to the people and should be opposed by force.
  • Religious Extremists. Example of distorted belief: Violent attacks are needed to protect our beliefs from the corrupting influence of certain people or countries.
  • Anarchist Extremists. Example of distorted belief: Society needs no government or laws. Violence is necessary to create such a society.

Don’t Be a Puppet

Violent extremists defend their actions with warped principles. Sometimes, they use real grievances or half-truths to justify their beliefs. Other times, violent extremists say one thing but do another—for example, they may claim to support peace and freedom but kill anyone who disagrees with them. Don’t be a puppet. Use your logic and common sense to see the flaws in the ideologies and actions of violent extremists.


Extremist groups and individuals often appear in communities struggling with social or political issues. Rather than improving these situations or their own lives through constructive actions, violent extremists often place the blame on another person or group. They argue that the only solution to these problems or injustices is to violently oppose and even destroy those they claim are responsible.

The Blame Game

Placing blame is an effective way to recruit people with feelings of frustration and turn them into a group united by a sense of purpose. It enables extremists to invent an “enemy” that must be destroyed. This makes violence seem like the best solution and even a moral duty.

The Slippery Slope to Violent Extremism

Avoid the distorted logic of blame that can lead a person into violent extremism.

  • Our group is under attack.
  • The enemy is responsible for this injustice.
  • We must defend our traditions.
  • The use of violence is the only way to defend our beliefs.
  • Our violent actions will result in a better future.

Don’t Be a Puppet

Violent extremists blame others. They often believe that someone or something—such as a certain race, religion, or country—is standing in the way of their happiness and success. This “enemy” must be attacked and destroyed.

Don’t be a puppet. Accept responsibility for your own actions. Learn to recognize what is fair criticism of a group or government and when you are just being used to fight someone else’s fight. Realize that even when others are at fault, violence isn’t the solution.


Violent extremists often use propaganda—misleading or biased information that supports a particular point of view—to trick people into believing their ideologies. It’s the primary extremist recruiting tool, and you could be a target. The goal of propaganda is to create a compelling story that people will buy into by twisting the facts.

Channels and Messages

Extremist propaganda can be found anywhere, but violent extremists today often use online tools like e-mail, social media, websites, forums, and blogs. You could also hear violent extremist propaganda directly from a friend, relative, or community or religious leader.

The following are examples of extremist propaganda:

  • Western nations are corrupt and must be destroyed.
  • Our people are being oppressed. No one is doing anything. We must fight back.
  • Our race and traditions are superior. To save our people from ruin we must eliminate all of those who disagree.
  • You can’t trust government or law enforcement. Arm yourself and be ready to fight.
  • The environment is under attack. We must stop this abuse through economic sabotage and guerilla warfare.

Don’t Be a Puppet

You might be the target of radical propaganda from violent extremists. Their goal is to trick you into believing their distorted logic so you will carry out violent acts on their behalf. They may make their cause sound exciting and try to convince you that it’s your moral duty to join them.

Don’t be a puppet. Don’t blindly accept what violent extremists tell you or what you read on the Internet. Carefully consider differing opinions. Think for yourself!

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