A former white supremacist explains how radicals recruit and who they target

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A former white supremacist explains how radicals recruit and who they target

Elisa Hategan remembers becoming the portrait of hatred in Canada — the image of white supremacy shifting from that of men with shorn hair and tattoos to the face of a teenage girl with red hair and an air of innocence.

It's a painful memory.

A dark time in a life that began in Romania in the 1970s, shuffled between abusive parents and then later moving to Toronto where she bounced between foster care and her mother in Regent Park.

When she saw an ad for the Heritage Front — a group of Holocaust deniers and white nationalists — she called them, saying she was drawn by the emphasis on her European heritage.

'I didn't feel like I belonged'

"By the time I was 16, I was really angry," she said. "I had dropped out of high school and I didn't have any friends and I didn't feel like I belonged. I wasn't quite Canadian, I wasn't Romanian anymore and so I had a lot of the same [risk] factors that drive other people to radicalization — and the Heritage Front happened to be there."

While Hategan spent about two years with the group, becoming infamous Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel's "errand girl", she turned on it when it became increasingly violent in 1992 and 1993, gathering evidence for anti-racist activists.

"I was instructed to harass a lesbian anti-racist activist and, at that time, I was just realizing, just coming to terms with the fact that I was gay. And so I started identifying with the people they were harassing and going out to beat up — and that was a huge turning point for me."

 Hategan later testified against one of the group's leaders, Wolfgang Droege, and other key members of the organization.

She has since both written and spoken about her time with the Heritage Front, in part, she says, to help those who might be at risk of being radicalized.

Her entry into the white supremacist movement, and her exit, has given her a unique perspective on radicalization, something that she said has been at forefront of her mind following the violent clashes between neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va. this weekend.

It's critical to try to "build bridges" with those people who can still be saved, she says — those who have the risk factors that made them an easier target: they were poor, had limited education and had lost a job or were socially isolated.

"I think it's easy to cheer when a neo-Nazi gets punched and when the family disowns somebody and they get kicked out of school or university, but that's not, ultimately, the solution," she said. "Casting people who are already on the fringe out of society only serves to push them more into the arms of groups that are trying to recruit them."

Vulnerable to radicalization

Alejandro Beutel, whose research in Atlanta focuses on radicalization and violent extremism, said that extremist groups of all stripes look for similar qualities in their targets: people who have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused have a higher predisposition to becoming radicalized, as do those who are isolated and without work, school or other social circles.

While extremist groups may use propaganda videos or literature to draw people in, it's actually not the subject matter so much as it is the human connection that the targets are seeking, Beutel said.

"I would say there's an element of emotional predatory behaviour, though, where they do befriend these individuals. They make them feel welcome; they also make them feel like they're a part of a higher cause in order to attract them in there.

"It's less about the intellectual content and more about the emotional bonds that are there."