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The Link Between Prior Criminal Record and Violent Political Extremism in the United States


One of the most consistently supported conclusions in criminology is that prior criminal record predicts subsequent criminal behavior. This connection has been observed in dozens of research projects and is, along with the severity of the offense, the most commonly used criterion for making critical sentencing, parole, and probation decisions. But somewhat surprisingly, there is little empirical research on the connection between prior criminal record and participation in extremist political violence. Using data from the newly released Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) database, we explore the criminal histories and extremist behaviors of nearly 1900 individuals who radicalized in the United States since 1948. Our results show that pre-radicalization criminal behavior, violent or nonviolent, is the single strongest non-ideological predictor of post-radicalization violence among U.S. extremists. We also find that the criminal backgrounds of U.S. extremists vary considerably depending on their ideological affiliations. Individuals on the extremist far-right, especially those motivated by white supremacist views, are substantially more likely to engage in crime prior to radicalizing than are individuals associated with other ideologies. We also find that U.S. extremists rarely specialize in specific crime types and that individuals who engage in criminal activity before the age of 18 are significantly more likely than non-juvenile offenders to engage in acts of violent extremism after radicalizing. We consider the implications for theory, policy and future research.


  • Political extremism
  • Criminal record
  • Terrorist ideology
  • Radicalization
  • Violent crime

This research was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under award number 699824, the National Institute of Justice through award number 2012-ZA-BX-0005, and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs through Award Number 2012-ST-061-CS0003. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the European Union, the U.S. Department of Justice, or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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  1. 1.

    We adopt the FBI definition of radicalization as “the process by which individuals come to believe their engagement in or facilitation of nonstate violence to achieve social and political change is necessary and justified” (Hunter and Heinke 2011).

  2. 2.

    While studies at the individual-level are rare, there are numerous studies at the group-level on the terror-crime nexus (Hutchinson and O’malley 2007; Picarelli 2006, 2012; Sanderson 2004; Toros and Mavelli 2013).

  3. 3.

    For a detailed explanation of these ideological categories, see

  4. 4.

    For additional details on the PIRUS dataset and data collection methodology, please refer to the project’s final report, available at

  5. 5.

    If an individual committed more than three crime types, coders were instructed to select the three most serious offenses and list the remaining offenses in an additional text box.

  6. 6.

    For detailed descriptions of the ideological categories, see Jensen et al. (2016).

  7. 7.

    See Pyrooz et al. (2017) for a detailed study of the connections between gang involvement and extremism in the PIRUS dataset.

  8. 8.

    Given that the goal of this study is to isolate the effect of pre-radicalization crime on the propensity for post-radicalization violence, ideology is treated here as a control variable. However, it is worth noting that ideological affiliation is the single strongest predictor of violent outcomes in PIRUS. Individuals associated with far-right and Islamist groups are substantially more likely to participate in acts of violent extremism than are individuals on the extremist far-left. This result is not surprising. Groups on the extremist far-right and those affiliated with Salafi jihadism actively encourage their followers to conduct acts of violence on behalf of their respective movements, while many far-left extremist groups promote the use of non-violent political resistance to achieve their goals.

  9. 9.

    While not the focus of our analysis, it is worth noting that the presence of radical family members appears to have a negative effect on the propensity of individuals to engage in violent extremism. This counterintuitive finding appears to be driven by the large percentage (60%) of individuals on the far-left who had radical family members and significant others at the time of their involvement in extremist activities.


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Correspondence to Michael A. Jensen .

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Jensen, M.A., Safer-Lichtenstein, A., James, P.A., LaFree, G. (2020). The Link Between Prior Criminal Record and Violent Political Extremism in the United States. In: Weisburd, D., Savona, E., Hasisi, B., Calderoni, F. (eds) Understanding Recruitment to Organized Crime and Terrorism. Springer, Cham.

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