Today the UK and its allies are at war with an extremist group based in Syria and Iraq that calls itself the Islamic State (IS; a name rejected by mainstream Muslim organisations). The group declared a caliphate in June this year and is seeking to expand its territory.

Amnesty International has accused IS of war crimes including ethnic cleansing, torture, abductions, sexual violence and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Prime Minister Cameron has branded the group “evil” and says they “pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology.”

Many of the fighters of the Islamic State are Western citizens. Indeed, this week there were reports that a fourth jihadist from Portsmouth, England, has died fighting for the Islamic State.

Never has it been more urgent that we understand why people are drawn to extremist beliefs and to violent extremist organisations. Here the Research Digest provides a brief overview of the psychological research and theories that help explain the lure of extremism.

The Need to Belong:

A  2006 survey and interviews with British Muslims (cited by Andrew Silke 2008) uncovered an important finding – people who felt their primary identity was Muslim, rather than British, held more sympathetic views towards the concept of jihad and martyrdom. Indeed, according to Randy Borum (2014) writing in Behavioural Sciences and the Law, a key psychological vulnerability of those drawn to extremism is their need to feel they belong. “In radical movements and extremist groups, many prospective terrorists find not only a sense of meaning,” he writes, “but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation.” A related idea is that extremist groups and their ideologies help people cope with uncertainty about themselves and the world.

Who Becomes an Extremist?

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Most Extremists Are Not Mentally Ill

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Extremism is Fuelled By a Group Process Known as “Risky Shift”