The ideological and non-ideological underpinnings of violent extremism: An American study

Although there is no universal definition of violent extremism, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation believes it to be “the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals,” including “terrorism and other forms of politically motivated violence”.

Today, violence carried out by extremists in the U.S. has to be understood beyond the ideological orientation driving their actions, albeit that is not always the case. There are instances when lines between ideologically-inspired violence and non-ideological acts of brutality are often blurred, perhaps due to some overlapping attributes. Apart from making the threat assessment more complex, what such events can do is leave law enforcement and security agencies in a lurch about the motivations of violent extremists.

On the one hand, while inclinations of several mass shooters like Brenton Tarrant and Payton Gendron were apparent through their white supremacist creeds published on online platforms and live-streaming of their attacks, the Highland Park shooter, Robert E. Crimo III, has blown wide open the limited narrative about what drives such persons of interest. Notably, the shooting during the 4th of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois (2022) indicates how ideology can often take a backseat to the exaltation of violence and simply finding a place among the notorious mass murderers who have inspired some of the deadliest killings in the 21st century.

While investigative authorities have unearthed no apparent ideological drivers of his senseless act of violence, it would be an unwise leap to suggest that his motivations are without any such linkages. Although, at the same time, Tarrant and Gendron’s actions can be contextualised through their ideological commitment to the Great Replacement Theory, it is possible that Crimo’s violent behaviour, while not having socio-political or eugenics-based links, has its individualistic ideological basis.

Simply put, the great replacement theory propounds a deliberate attempt by a cabal of Jews and liberal elites to replace white Christians with a coloured immigrant populace, reducing the former into a minority in their homelands and eventually eliminating them. Although it has roots in 20th century France, it was popularised by Renaud Camus, a far-right French author, through his work, ‘Le Grande Remplacement’ or ‘The Grand Replacement.’ Such false conspiracy theories, while emanating from fears about having their identity, values, and power diluted by those who cannot be assimilated into their societies, are, at their core, a warped and inaccurate representation of ground reality.

On the other hand, Crimo, whose violently disturbing rap songs about shootings, had amassed a considerable following under his stage name, Awake the Rapper, did not overtly adhere to a specific ideology.

Spotify, a popular music application, hosted his songs, which had been listened to by millions of like-minded persons before their removal from the platform. Reportedly, he used Discord to enhance his following further and was a well-known figure on channels glorifying violence through memes, videos, and photographs before his arrest. Interestingly enough, his notoriety prior to the attack is another aspect that differentiates his case from other mass shooters. This additional dimension could throw a spanner in the works as analysts try to deconstruct any ideological motivations that may have driven him to commit this crime. Perhaps, the fascination with violence is so overpowering that it subsumes any need for a perpetrator to be influenced by an ideology or a creed.

Jared Colt has spoken about Crimo’s inclinations and digital footprint, given his expertise on domestic violent extremism. According to him, the perpetrator’s behaviour aligns with those who try “to make themselves seem very intense and very violent to accumulate a certain amount of perverted clout among other people in the same online spaces. Some portions of the internet pride themselves on this fetishisation of violence, of being as offensive as humanly possible.”

Traversing the cobweb of extremist narrative

Since extremism is a gray zone with overlapping and contradictory trends cutting across fault lines, it often leaves authorities at an unenviable crossroad. This is mainly because of the pushback they receive from those pandering around as ‘experts’ on extremism or some of their reluctance to shift focus to domestic violent extremism, driven by their racial or cultural biases.

However, some elements push such matters further into the depths of the grey zone. Herein the problem emanates when efforts to counter extremism and online radicalisation are often dragged into debates about legislative reforms regarding firearms. Lines between them are often blurred, particularly in the U.S. This is because progressive officials and organisations tracking incidents related to far-right extremism and hate crimes, sometimes unknowingly, establish links between introducing gun reforms and curbing violent extremism. For the hardline conservative electorate, any mention of firearms reforms is representative of a conspiracy hatched by liberal democrats to infringe on the 2nd Amendment in the constitution and thereby lay the foundation for further erosion of the remaining fundamental rights enshrined in America’s constitutional framework.

Therefore, most of them display great aversion and distaste for displaying bi-partisanship in countering the implications of far-right extremism on the democratic tenets that have held together the country since its independence in 1776. They remain convinced that by working across the aisle with progressive senators and House of Representatives members on eliminating online and physical manifestations of violent extremism, they will permit the latter to rule tyrannically over a community that furiously advocates for a distorted interpretation of a libertarian society. 

On the other hand, to divert the attention from the more pressing security – human and national –, far-right extremists and their patrons coercively incorporate the polarising discussions about gender and sexuality into the equation. Across North American and European continents, the notion of gender is a social construct, and its fierce rebuttals from the more conservative demographic segments have now been quasi-securitised by the far-right. As a result, there are often unfounded and debasing claims disseminated by figures such as Michele Fiore.  For example, she has argued that Salvador Ramos’ (the Uvalde Elementary School shooter) alleged trans-sexual identity or gender-affirming medical care he received indirectly correlated with the mass shooting that followed, killing at least 21 people.

On the other hand, in her recent videotaped podcast, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a member of the Republican caucus, audaciously claimed that the shooting during the 4th of July parade was the outcome of Crimo’s history of alleged drug abuse. She further asserted that it is a part of a conspiracy theory hatched by the Democrats to compel the pro-gun control lobby among the Republican party to toe the line on gun reform, even asking why there had been no reports of any mass shootings during Pride Month in June 2022.

The occurrence of loss of life and acute tragedy on a day that America celebrated its independence was demeaned, devalued, and ridiculed by those in positions of authority. If the trends are an indicator, then the world has not seen the last of this incorrigible spate of virulent polarisation. 


The adulation of violence using musical lyrics, graphic imagery, and gaming scenarios, bereft of a defined ideological leaning, showcase a disturbing trend, wherein placing such individuals under a category not having displayed specific attributes becomes challenging.

Horrifyingly, such radicalised individuals display a propensity towards gamification of violence, where they are always looking to create scoreboards on various gaming avenues and compete for the highest kills. In this instance, the winner is decided not by the number of animated avatars eliminated in the digital domain. Instead, it is assessed through the total of live humans murdered.

However, the surveilling agents or online gaming moderators would understandably be up to their eyeballs, trying to make a near-accurate assessment about whose avatar’s rhetoric and violent persona would translate into a real-life massacre. Numerous supporters and ideologues of this sub-category of extremists do not necessarily cross over from virtual engagement in violent activities to physically attacking random persons they pick off the street, in a supermarket, or places of worship. Therefore, the constant flood of information travelling across channels often disrupts the digital security framework instituted by intelligence agencies which face an onslaught of relevant and irrelevant transmissions.

In these instances, they must have access to adequate and foolproof algorithms designed using inputs procured from psychological and technological experts whose work is focused on violent extremism. Such algorithms would be required to sift through the barrage of incoming information and lay out the scrapes of actionable intelligence to be pursued to prevent potential perpetrators from successfully emulating mass shooters.

In such instances, social media has proven to be the most pivotal actor in disseminating such virulent propaganda with minimal censorship. Online forums such as Telegram, Instagram, Tik Tok, Discord, 4chan, 8kun, and Reddit, have played central roles in legitimising mass violence and garnering support from all corners of the world. Moreover, an unregulated and free-flowing stream of discussions on such platforms, while operating within the legal parameters established in the country, provides extremists (particularly those with violent inclinations) complete leeway in promoting their deplorable narratives.

What worsens the matter is that influential persons, including sitting members in the House of Representatives, often ridicule the significance attached to acts of mass violence. As a result, they collectively redirect the spotlight away from the glaring security threats associated with domestic violent extremism and towards the politically polarising debates that have for decades engulfed the country. As a result, they are culpable for holding back the much-needed reforms to safeguard the innocent people’s lives at stake, to uphold the narrow interests of the pro-gun lobby countrywide.

An alarm bell was sounded by the Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) Flash Alert on 8 July 2022 regarding Telegram being used again as a platform to disseminate information about a potential attack by far-right extremists on law enforcement, federal, and public infrastructure. Several digital advertisements concerning “The Hard Reset” A Terrorgram Publication,” possibly a manifesto, due to be revealed on 14 July 2022, are expected to intensify attacks against the coloured populace and government representatives. Firearms are expected to be widely used, as explained by the CTG, as a ‘homage’ to the surge in recent mass killings countrywide using such weapons.

Glorification and normalisation of violence and misinformation by extremists – violent and otherwise – through graphical representation or music has, unfortunately, become the norm today.

Saman Ayesha Kidwai
Saman Ayesha Kidwai
Saman Ayesha Kidwai is a Research Analyst in the Counter-Terrorism Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Her views are personal and do not reflect those of the institute.