Extremist Groups in Criminology: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

This lesson will provide a concise definition of extremist groups. It will discuss the broad genres of extremist groups and their prevalence in the United States. Following the lesson is a brief quiz.

Extremist Groups

With the vast number of political dramas found on television and in movies, chances are good that you've seen a movie or television show that depicted an extremist group.

An extremist group is a group of individuals whose values, ideals, and beliefs fall far outside of what society considers normal. An extremist group is often associated with violent tactics to convey their point to outsiders; thus, many definitions may refer to these groups as 'violent extremist groups'. Violent acts are perceived as mechanisms of 'freedom fighting' by supporters. However, to outsiders these acts are interpreted as 'acts of terrorism.' Accordingly, many discussions of extremist groups are correlated with discussions of terrorist organizations.

There are a few characteristics that experts agree are shared by extremist groups:

  • They do not believe in any form of compromise with outsiders
  • They demonize the other side
  • They are entirely certain of their position
  • They advocate the use of violence as a means to achieve their goals
  • They are intolerant of dissenters within the group

The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) considers a violent extremist to be a person 'who supports or commits ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals'. A key point to remember is that their actions are ideologically motivated.

Politics of Extremist Groups

Extremist groups operate on the edge of conventional political groups in society. The problem with defining a group as extremist is that the group doesn't view itself as being extremist. This is often a negative label given to the group by outsiders. Groups that originate from within a larger group (e.g. a political party) which has less power in society at that time are more likely to be perceived as an extremist group than are people who advocate for an objective that's embraced by the majority.

Example of a Hypothetical Extremist Group

Presently, it could be argued that a majority of persons in the United States support the right of gay couples to marry. Thus, a group that branches off from the more conservative sector of society and demonstrates against gay marriage is more likely -- at this point in time -- to be perceived as an extremist group. They would be arguing against the status quo or a set of beliefs held by the majority. However, they would not be considered a violent extremist group unless they advocated for acts of violence against persons, places, or things that supported gay marriage.

Genres and Prevalence of Extremist Groups

Broadly speaking, there are three genres of extremist groups: foreign terrorist organizations, domestic terrorist organizations, and homegrown violent extremists. Despite the fact that only one of these has the term 'violent extremists' in its name, all are considered susceptible to committing violent acts for their cause. Currently there are over 1,600 known operating extremist groups being monitored in the United States by the Southern Poverty Law Center and state and federal agencies. These groups vary widely in their values and beliefs.

Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs)

A foreign terrorist organization is a designation given to a group operating on foreign soil by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Counterterrorism. This designation is outlined in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It includes three main criteria: the group is operating on foreign soil, it must engage in terrorist activity or retain the capacity to engage in terrorist activity, and this activity must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States. An example of an FTO would be ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

Domestic Terrorist Organizations

The United States Department of Homeland Security and the FBI share a similar definition of a domestic terrorism organization. It contends that domestic terrorist organizations are 'groups which engage in acts of violence that are dangerous to human life or critical infrastructure in the United States. These actions violate federal or state law and are without direction or inspiration from any foreign terrorist organization. The intent of the act appears to be to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.'

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