Why Do People Become Violent Extremists?

No single reason explains why people become violent extremists, but it often happens when someone is trying to fill a deep personal need. For example, a person may feel alone or lack meaning and purpose in life. Those who are emotionally upset after a stressful event also may be vulnerable to recruitment. Some people also become violent extremists because they disagree with government policy, hate certain types of people, don’t feel valued or appreciated by society, or think they have limited chances to succeed. 

Personal Needs

Just about everyone wants to be happy and feel like they make a difference in life. Meeting these needs through violent activities is not the answer. Learn how unmet needs could lead to radicalization. 

Instructions: Read the seven personal needs below.

  • Personal Need: Power
  • Personal Need: Achievement
  • Personal Need: Affiliation
  • Personal Need: Importance
  • Personal Need: Purpose
  • Personal Need: Morality
  • Personal Need: Excitement

Now, match each of these personal needs with the descriptions below and learn how the unmet need could lead a person to violent extremism. 

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Feeling in control of life may lead to improved self-confidence or a sense of importance.
  • Risk If Need Not Met: Those who wish to control or feel superior to others may be attracted to violent extremism.

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Mastering skills and accomplishing goals can provide a feeling of self-worth.
  • Risk If Need Not Met: Those who want to make a positive difference in life may falsely think that they can do that by taking part in violent or hateful attacks.

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Having close relationships helps create a feeling of well-being and belonging.
  • Description: Those who are looking for new friends may wrongly believe that they can find beneficial companionship in violent extremist groups.

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Feeling significant and worthy of respect helps develop a person’s self-image.
  • Risk If Need Not Met: Those who seek recognition and attention may turn to violent extremism, even if it means hurting other people.

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Believing in a higher calling or mission can give meaning and direction in life.
  • Risk If Need Not Met: Those looking for purpose in life may be drawn to the clear-cut yet twisted ideologies of violent extremism.

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Having a strong set of beliefs can guide a person’s decisions, especially in difficult times.
  • Risk If Need Not Met: Those who are afraid of different viewpoints and lifestyles may be attracted to violent extremism or hate groups.

Personal Need: 

  • Description: Having a new adventure can make life seem more interesting and inspiring.
  • Risk If Need Not Met: Violent extremism may offer a false promise of excitement and glamour to those who are bored with life. 

Don’t Be a Puppet

Extremists often target people who wish to fill a deep personal need—especially those who lack a sense of purpose or identity in this sometimes difficult world. Don’t be a puppet. Violent extremism isn’t the right way to deal with your problems or with those who have different beliefs.

Fears and Frustrations

Violent extremists may also try to recruit you by tapping into your personal problems. Remember that everyone experiences difficult emotions. Seek help or be supportive of others going through a tough time.

Social Alienation

Those who feel isolated can sometimes be easily convinced by violent extremist beliefs. Don’t become a puppet for violent extremists by joining groups that want to hurt others just so you feel less alone. Consider healthy ways you can connect with others, including people that share your interests.


Teens can be stressed by problems at home, grades, peer pressure, bullying, and other issues. Blaming other people, groups, or the government is not a good way to cope with your anxiety, so don’t become a puppet for violent extremist groups that do this. Look for other ways to reduce stress, such as talking to friends or exercising.


It is natural to feel frustrated or angry when you are treated unfairly or rejected by others. But don’t become a puppet for violent extremists to create an outlet for your anger and revenge. Find peaceful, constructive ways of dealing with feelings of frustration.

Painful Experiences

Painful experiences—including physical or emotional abuse, a romantic breakup, or the loss of a loved one—can upset a person and lead to lifelong challenges. Don’t become a puppet for violent extremist groups just to mask your pain or grief. Seek help from a parent, teacher, or professional.

Don’t Be a Puppet

Violent extremists often target those who are lonely, anxious, frustrated, bored, angry, or confused. Don’t be a puppet. Recognize that violent extremists don’t have the answers you need. They just want to use or control you.

What Would Extremists Say?

Violent extremists use many different reasons to convince people to join them. Most often, they want you to become angry or upset about a certain problem in the world and to believe that hurting other people or destroying certain groups or the government is the only solution. They might even promise that you will be happier or more special if you support them.

Determine which of the following statements a violent extremist might say.

  • Death and destruction are the only ways to take back our nation.
  • If you die for this cause, you will be admired by your family and rewarded in the afterlife.
  • No one is at war with my religion.
  • Violence and terrorism are the best ways to change government policy.
  • We need you to join our fight and help us build the perfect world for our people.
  • There are other ways besides violence to get what we want.
  • The government is ignoring a serious threat to our cause. If you don’t respond, no one will.
  • You are one of us. You must join our struggle.
  • This is your fight, not mine.
  • Dying for a radical group won’t make me a hero.
  • Just because I know you doesn’t mean I agree with everything you say.
  • Our leaders aren’t perfect, but we can change the system in peaceful ways.
  • Governments that hurt our people or violate our beliefs must be destroyed.
  • People with different beliefs and values can still live together in peace.

Don’t Be a Puppet

Violent extremists will tell you just about anything—including lies—to get you to support their cause. Don’t be a puppet. Just because someone sounds convincing or makes big promises doesn’t mean you should join them in hurting innocent people.

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