How do Americans join extremist groups? A CT professor is set to study that for a governmental agency

FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. A Georgia man affiliated with the Oath Keepers militia group became the second Capitol rioter to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy for his actions leading up and through the attack. The sentencing guidelines for Brian Ulrich, who also pleaded guilty to obstructing an official proceeding, were estimated to be 5 ¼ years to 6 ½ years in prison. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

FILE - Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. A Georgia man affiliated with the Oath Keepers militia group became the second Capitol rioter to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy for his actions leading up and through the attack. The sentencing guidelines for Brian Ulrich, who also pleaded guilty to obstructing an official proceeding, were estimated to be 5 ¼ years to 6 ½ years in prison. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press

Evan Perkoski studies extremism. He’s hoping to show a link between who an extremist group recruits and what that extremist group then goes on to do, both in the United States and abroad.

Perkoski, assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, is currently finalizing a grant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to study the recruitment tactics of extremist groups, and what that might say about their tactics.

“In other words, if we know who your members are, can we figure out what kind of attacks you’re going to conduct?” said Perkoski, who usually focuses his research on “political violence, international security writ large, particularly sub-national conflicts and violence, terrorism, insurgency and stuff like that.”

To do his upcoming research, Perkoski is taking both a wide and a narrow lens, he said: “There’s a time and a place for a broad perspective and a narrow perspective, and in this project, we’re combining both.”

He’s starting out by looking globally.

“We’re doing a cross-national analysis of different terrorist groups and insurgent groups around the world, who they’re recruiting, what kind of attacks they conduct, and how their recruitment priorities can shed light on what they’re trying to plan,” he said.

But then, Perkoski’s intent is to take that knowledge home, and see what it might tell him about domestic terrorist groups.

“Once we figure out the cross-national perspective and apply it here in the United States and say, ‘Alright, we developed all these insights. Now let’s apply it particularly to the United States context and look at the far right, who they are recruiting and what it might say about what they’re trying to do.’”

For example, the Islamic State group recruited Iraqi army veterans with the intention of conducting specific operations that would need members with those skill sets. Perkoski said he’s examining, “Did they actually accomplish those missions once they got these military veterans,” and then apply that to domestic terrorist groups who are actively recruiting military and police veterans.

“With the far right in the United States, we know they have greater ambitions to conduct more sophisticated types of attacks to really have an impact politically,” he said. “But we don’t know if the people they recruit will actually help them get there. That’s what we’re trying to understand.”

There are extremist groups in the United States that actively recruit military veterans. The Oath Keepers, for example, are described by the Southern Policy Law Center as “one of the largest far-right anti-government groups in the U.S. today,” claiming “tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members.”

Perkoski’s research is looking at why groups like the Oath Keepers might specifically recruit veterans.

“We know they want them for their skills,” he said. “They know how to coordinate, they know how to communicate, they know how to plan operations, they bring a lot of battlefield, violent knowledge to these organizations that they might be lacking if they’re made up of civilians.”

It is the political right he’s examining. Domestic terrorism has not wholly been the province of any one political ideology, Perkoski said, but there are trends. Domestic terrorism linked to far left groups has, with a few notable exceptions, been less lethal than that associated with far right groups.

“You are seeing violence across the spectrum, for sure, but it’s not an even amount across that spectrum,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is more deadly operations and more intention to commit deadly operations by people on the far right.”

Perkoski said there’s an “ebb and flow” to extremist violence.

“Right now we’re seeing growth and far right extremism and terrorism the United States and around the world,” he said. “in the early 2000s, it was Islamist and Jihadist terrorism. In the 1990s in the US, it was anti-government extremism, Timothy McVeigh-sorts of bombings and things like that.”

In the 1970s, groups like the Weather Underground “were committing attacks in the name of far left politics,” he said.

“These motivations and political leanings ebb and flow over time,” Perkosi said. “It’s just a feature of history.”

Perkoski said the common idea of how a person becomes radicalized is incorrect. It’s not usually a solitary journey toward extremism, but a search for community, a sense of belonging.

“It’s usually people who are looking for community,” he said. “If something happens in their life, to make them feel left out or like a loner, and it’s often through a friend or a family member who brings them into an organization. That’s how they latch on to those ideas.”