White Supremacists Speak: Recruitment, Radicalization & Experiences of Engaging and Disengaging from Hate Groups


    Read the full report here

    The following is an interim report of an ongoing study, with the current results based on 50 in-depth psychosocial interviews of white supremacists in five countries (the U.S., Canada, Germany, UK and New Zealand) collected over the time period of October 2020 to October 2021. The interviews focused on the subjects’ childhood histories, exposures to white supremacism, recruitment and joining processes, experiences in the group including ideological indoctrination and with violence and if disillusioned their disengagement and deradicalization experiences. All of the interviews were conducted over Zoom and video recorded with most participants agreeing to have their interview used to produce a short counter narrative video for use in disrupting white supremacist online and face-to-face recruitment.

    The report’s important findings include:

    • This particular sample of white supremacists had a much higher level of adverse childhood experiences than to be expected in the general population and were as a result more vulnerable to groups that gave out the expectation of belonging or familial relations and who conferred on new members a sense of purpose and significance. If this result bears out in larger samples, it shows that addressing childhood abuse and neglect is an important measure for preventing recruitment to white supremacism.
    • Individuals in this sample who joined white supremacist groups generally were much more motivated by a need for belonging, purpose, dignity, and significance rather than from outright hate or even bad experiences with minority and ethnic groups but many over time took on the hateful ideology, supported and took part in violence as well.
    • The white supremacists ideologies tend to focus on Jews as the ultimate enemy, posit white replacement/white genocide as a Jewish backed plot to replace/eliminate whites from their claimed rightful position in society and many embrace the idea of kicking off racial holy war, i.e. RAHOWA and the Day of the Rope which is when Jews, liberals and race traitors will be hung and minorities either killed or relocated.
    • Ideological indoctrination and embracing antisemitism occurred by means of a process labeled Directed Hate in which new members were made to feel they belong, are significant and have a purpose based on their whiteness which they then had to maintain by isolating themselves from minorities, supporting the groups ideology and at times supporting and engaging with their violent actions as well (Speckhard, Ellenberg, & Garret, 2022). Through this process members learned to shift blame for their failures and channel their anger about any number of grievances toward minorities, and above all Jews. Most interviewees in the present sample had never met a Jewish person but learned to hate and blame them for the ills of the world.
    • For some interviewees who later realized that they were members of the LGBTQ community, joining groups with internalized and violent misogyny and homophobia allowed for projection and splitting, wherein they were able to separate themselves from their closeted identity which they felt they needed to reject.  We have labeled this phenomenon Projected Hate.
    • Many were only peripherally racist or had been raised in systemic versus overtly angry racism, especially those who grew up in the American South, which made it easier to buy into white supremacist ideology over time.
    • Like cults, white supremacist groups demand ideological and behavioral loyalty from their members and begin to isolate them from dissenting opinions as well as from members of the hated minority groups making it hard for them to have any positive exposures. As isolation and the echo chambers of hate increase, fusion with the ideology and buy-in to conspiracy theories sets in. This underlies the usefulness of measures designed to create positive interactions and dialogue across racial, ethnic, and religious divides.
    • Individuals in white supremacist groups often see themselves while active in their groups as heroic race warriors acting in self-defense of their white ingroup.
    • Some white supremacist recruiters and leaders use religion and pseudo-religion, such as Christian Identity, Creativity, and Arastú/Odinism, to portray their mission as religious and morally sanctioned by God.
    • As was also shown in the Capitol Hill riots, some white supremacist groups recruit from both active duty and retired members of the military and police hoping to benefit from their weaponry knowledge and skills which can be imparted to the group, possible access to weapons and for their already developed sense of discipline.
    • Similarly, both active duty and retired military and police recruits serve to lend an air of prestige and legitimacy to such groups, reinforce the idea that the groups are patriotic in nature and these members are also good recruiters as a result.
    • As with most violent extremists and terrorist groups, females generally played support roles, were seen as “breeders” and did not hold leadership positions, with some exceptions occurring in the NSM, and there were far fewer women reported upon than men among the ranks of all the groups studied.
    • Youth are more easily recruited by white supremacist groups who actively prey upon youth from broken homes and chaotic and painful childhood experiences by offering them a sense of a substitute family, personal significance and positive identity based upon their “whiteness.”
    • Recruitment occurs through leafleting and literature as well as face-to-face interactions, but also increasingly relies on Internet-based exposures and online recruitment interactions which now with the advent of social media, video chat and texting contain the possibilities of increased intimacy.
    • White supremacist groups capitalize on using the mainstream media to sensationalize their demonstrations and egregious actions, which widens their recruitment exposure via the media.
    • Gang and prison-based white extremist groups were the most violent and, in some cases, follow a “blood in, blood out” recruitment strategy meaning one can expect to only exit the group by dying.
    • Tattooing permanent markers of white supremacy on one’s body is common and makes it more difficult to re-enter society as these marks of hatred are feared and reviled by others.  Hence tattoo removal may be an integral part of rehabilitation and reentry.
    • Of those white supremacists who turned to psychotherapy for help exiting and rehabilitating from white supremacy groups, some found their therapists afraid of them and lacking relevant knowledge. Others deeply benefitted from addressing both the adverse traumatic experiences that had led them to being vulnerable to join in the first place as well as those they encountered in the group.
    • Reciprocal radicalization plays an important role in further radicalizing white supremacists and keeping them involved in their groups. Many referenced violent interactions with Antifa as further radicalizing events that influenced them.
    • Doxxing has a serous effect on white supremacists causing some to leave their groups for fear of losing jobs, being arrested, etc. Likewise, the effect of significant others threatening to or actually leaving their white supremacists partners caused some to reevaluate the worth of staying with their group.
    • Spontaneous deradicalization occurs in some when they have positive interactions with members of groups they were taught to hate, thereby causing them cognitive dissonance that for some results in questioning what they were taught.
    • Given the isolation and echo chambers that characterize white supremacist groups, disengaging from a hate group often means losing one’s entire group of friends.
    • Ebbs and flows of engagement are common as individuals exit and again revert to their groups or move among various groups. Assistance for exiting is an important feature of a successful walking away from white supremacist groups and was mentioned only in some cases as being available.

    Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Ellenberg, Molly, and Garret, TM. (May 23, 2022). White Supremacists Speak: Recruitment, Radicalization & Experiences of Engaging and Disengaging from Hate Groups. ICSVE Research Reports.

    About the Authors:

    Dr. Anne Speckhard is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 250 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally.  Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing 25 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS.  Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times, Voice of America, and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to TerroristsBride of ISISUndercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and PolicyBehavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political AggressionJournal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human SecurityBidhaan: An International Journal of Somali StudiesJournal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorism and the International Studies Journal to name a few.  Her academic publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org  Follow @AnneSpeckhard


    Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. Her research focuses on radicalization to and deradicalization from militant jihadist and white supremacist violent extremism, the quest for significance, and intolerance of uncertainty. Molly has presented original research at NATO Advanced Research Workshops and Advanced Training Courses, the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma, the GCTC International Counter Terrorism Conference, UC San Diego Research Conferences, and for security professionals in the European Union. She is also an inaugural member of the UNAOCs first youth consultation for preventing violent extremism through sport. Her research has been cited over 100 times and has been published in Psychological Inquiry, Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, AJOB Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, Women & Criminal Justice, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.


    TM Garret Schmid (born Achim Schmid) and publicly known as TM Garret is an Extremism Researcher and Analyst at ICSVE. He is a German-American Public Speaker, Human Rights Activist, Consultant, Author, Extremism Researcher, Interfaith Activist and founder of C.H.A.N.G.E, a non-profit organization which engages in anti-racism and anti-violence campaigns, food drives, inter-faith work as well as an EXIT program which helps individuals leave extremist groups and ERASING THE HATE, a nationwide tattoo campaign and movement that covers up racist and hate tattoos for free. He is also the organizer of the Memphis Peace Conference in 2018 and founder of “Share a Meal Pledge.” Before he started engaging in Civil Rights work, TM Garret was a White Supremacist in leading roles in Europe and the USA. He left this lifestyle and ideology for good in 2003. Garret works closely with the Jewish as well as the Black Community. He is a campus speaker against antisemitism for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a member of the NAACP. He is also a US ambassador for EXIT Germany and an honorary board member of “We Are Many-United Against Hate.” TM Garret has lectured at Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Boston Law School, Vanderbilt, Hotchkiss, Pomona and many other schools and universities. In 2019 he spoke at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as well as the City Hall in New York City. He was featured on ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, VICE and VOX as well as the New York Magazine, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post and many other international major TV stations and outlets. He is a radio personality and currently hosts ERASING THE HATE, a talk show on WKRA 92.7 FM The Change in Holly Springs, MS together with Pastor Ray Johnson. The show is syndicated on iHeart Radio, iTunes, Spotify, PlayerFM and many other platforms. For more information, please visit www.tmgarret.com or his Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TM_Garret.

    Anne Speckhard
    Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is the author of five books including the just released, ISIS Defector: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate coauthored with Dr Ahmet S. Yayla, based on 32 interviews with actual ISIS defectors. Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She has consulted to the U.S. Senate, House, NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, Justice Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and is also a sought after counter-terrorism expert appearing on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times,The Washington Post, London Times and in many other publications.