Dr. Mary Beth Altier is an Assistant Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. She received her Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University in 2011 and then worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Pennsylvania State University on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.K. government funded project on terrorist disengagement, re-engagement, and recidivism. Dr. Altier’s research interests are in international security, foreign policy, political violence, and political behavior. Her recent work centers on the reasons why individuals support the use of political violence in developed and developing democracies as well as why they participate in acts of political violence, especially terrorism. She is also interested in the disengagement and rehabilitation of ex-combatants and identifying empirically based methods for assessing risk of re-engagement. Dr. Altier is preparing a book manuscript based upon her dissertation, which won the 2013 American Political Science Association’s Ernst B. Haas award, and she is also the 2015 recipient of the American Political Science Association’s Organized Section on European Politics and Society’s Best Paper Award. The project examines why voters support armed parties in developed and developing democracies. Her research has been featured in the Journal of Peace Research, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and Journal of Strategic Security and she serves on the editorial board of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression. Professor Altier teaches courses on Transnational Security, Transnational Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, Security Sector Governance and the Rule of Law, and Research Methods and runs a Consulting Practicum. In 2017, she received the NYU SPS Excellence in Teaching Award.
Conflict Processes & War
Elections, Election Administration, and Voting Behavior
Violence And Voting
Radical Political Parties
Disengagement And Deradicalization
A deeper understanding of terrorist disengagement offers important insights for policymakers and practitioners seeking to persuade individuals to leave these groups. Current research highlights the importance of certain “push” and “pull” factors in explaining disengagement. However, such studies tell us very little about the relative frequencies at which these hypothesized factors are associated with leaving in the terrorist population. Using data collected from eighty-seven autobiographical accounts, we find that push, rather than pull, factors aremore commonly cited as playing a large role in individuals’ disengagement decisions and that the experience of certain push factors increases the probability an individual will choose to leave. Importantly, disillusionment with the group’s strategy or actions, disagreements with group leaders or members, dissatisfaction with one’s day-to-day tasks, and burnout are more often reported as driving disengagement decisions than de-radicalization. Finally, our results suggest that ideological commitmentmay moderate one’s susceptibility to pull factors.
This article presents a case study of one individual's trajectory through violent right-wing extremism in the USA. Drawing on an in-depth in-person interview conducted with ‘Sarah', we trace the influences affecting the nature and extent of her involvement, engagement and disengagement. We focus on delineating the complexity of Sarah's disengagement from violent extremism. Her account supports several claims in the literature. First, there is rarely any single cause associated with individual disengagement. Rather, the phenomenon is a dynamic process shaped by a multitude of interacting push/pull factors, sunk costs and the perceived availability of alternatives outside the group. Second, as this case illustrates, prison affords physical separation from the violent extremist group and with it, time to reflect which may be critical to sustaining disengagement. Third, this account illustrates how de-radicalization may be a long-term process, and may in some cases supersede rather than precede one's exit, even where disillusionment precedes disengagement. Finally, Sarah's case suggests the successful adoption of a new social role and sense of identity as a potentially important protective factor in reducing the risk of re-engagement.
Although research on violent extremism traditionally focuses on why individuals become involved in terrorism, recent efforts have started to tackle the question of why individuals leave terrorist groups. Research on terrorist disengagement, however, remains conceptually and theoretically underdeveloped. In an effort to enhance our understanding of disengagement from terrorism and pave the way for future empirical work, this article provides a multidisciplinary review of related research from psychology, sociology, and criminology. Significant promise for moving beyond the existing push/pull framework is found in Rusbult and colleagues’ investment model from psychology and Ebaugh’s research on voluntary role exit from sociology. Rusbult’s investment model offers insight into when and why individuals disengage from terrorism, while accounting for individual, group, and macro-level differences in the satisfaction one derives from involvement, the investments incurred, and the alternatives available. Ebaugh’s research on voluntary role exit provides a deeper understanding of how people leave, including the emotions and cuing behavior likely to be involved. The article highlights the strengths and limitations of these frameworks in explaining exit and exit processes across a variety of social roles, including potentially the terrorist role, and lends additional insights into terrorist disengagement through a review of related research on desistance from crime, disaffiliation from new religious movements, and turnover in traditional work organizations.
We remain steadfast in our belief that terrorist risk reduction programs informed by the processes we highlight here hold great promise. Significant challenges in assessing the effectiveness of terrorist risk reduction programs remain, but we believe the critical rate-limiting factor in their continuing development is whether or not the individual assessment of detainees is informed by a deeper understanding of the disengagement (as opposed to de-radicalization) and re-engagement processes. Effective risk reduction initiatives for the imprisoned terrorist must also take into account the individual’s personal trajectory, or “arc,” of involvement, engagement, and disengagement. A treatment program to promote reduced risk of involvement may require addressing very different sets of issues depending on the individual in question. The most important considerations must include individuals’ initial motivations for becoming involved, the idiosyncratic experiences and meaning they derived from their involvement, and their own pathway out of the group. Though disengagement may be voluntary or involuntary, identifying and addressing those individual-level experiences is critical to developing a person-specific, and not doctrine-specific, prioritization of treatment objectives to reduce risk of re-engagement. Additionally, it is difficult to see how any risk reduction program can reliably predict reengagement in terrorism without being able to acknowledge that the grievances held by detainees are, in their eyes, legitimate and highly meaningful. An attempt at de-radicalizing a detainee that is not cognizant of these issues is doomed to failure. There is a current danger that unless we find ways to ensure that terrorist risk reduction programs retain a firm footing they may be relegated to the ever-increasing trash heap of silver bullet solutions in counterterrorism. De-radicalization programs can never be expected to fix terrorism or all those who participate in it. Yet, helping bring terrorist risk reduction initiatives into an evidence-led, rigorous framework informed by a deeper understanding of the factors and processes that underpin terrorist disengagement and reengagement will bring with it benefits that are too great to ignore.
Despite the growth of terrorism literature in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there remain several methodological challenges to studying certain aspects of terrorism. This is perhaps most evident in attempts to uncover the attitudes, motivations, and intentions of individuals engaged in violent extremism and how they are sometimes expressed in problematic behavior. Such challenges invariably stem from the fact that terrorists and the organizations to which they belong represent clandestine populations engaged in illegal activity. Unsurprisingly, these qualities make it difficult for the researcher to identify and locate willing subjects of study—let alone a representative sample. In this research note, we suggest the systematic analysis of terrorist autobiographies offers a promising means of investigating difficult-to-study areas of terrorism-related phenomena. Investigation of autobiographical accounts not only offers additional data points for the study of individual psychological issues, but also provides valuable perspectives on the internal structures, processes, and dynamics of terrorist organizations more broadly. Moreover, given most autobiographies cover critical events and personal experiences across the life course, they provide a unique lens into how terrorists perceive their world and insight into their decision-making processes. We support our advocacy of this approach by highlighting its methodological strengths and shortcomings.
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