Resources: hypotheses on violent extremism

Following on from my two posts about terrorism studies, looking at internal assessments of the field as well as critiques, I want to provide some posts that help people navigate the field.

As both posts mentioned, the most well-founded criticism of terrorism studies is the field’s inconsistent quality. There is rigorous work, there is terrible work, and there is much in between. It’s been improving a lot over the past decade, but in some ways remains a mess. It’s not well-institutionalised within academia, attracts a lot of transient interest, is internally competitive, and politically contentious.

This makes it quite a sprawling and disorganised field and, as Richard English shows, people will work on similar topics without engaging with (or being aware of) the other’s work. This also means that it’s hard for anyone new to the field to be confident of what research is out there and where the strongest research is. It’s not easy for a newcomer to find an answer to “what does the field say about X?” or “I keep hearing Y, but what is the actual evidence for that?”

So I plan to do a few posts pointing to resources that help curate and consolidate the available research. For this post, I’ve chosen two systematic literature reviews which draw out hypotheses, judge whether they are well-supported or not, and summarise some of the literature for each hypothesis.


The first resource is this RUSI report, Drivers of Violent Extremism: Hypotheses and Literature Review (2015).

The paper lists 17 hypotheses on violent extremism, and categorises the evidence for them as: strongly supported / supported / mixed / not supported.

It finds the following 5 hypotheses to be strongly supported (all dot points are direct quotes):

  • The search for personal and group identities among those who feel this has been undermined by rapid social change can increase the vulnerability of the young to radicalisation.
  • The growth of religious and ethnic identities (particularly if they compete with loyalties to the state) can be exploited by extremist ideologues.
  • Government failure to provide basic services (health, education, welfare) allows extremist groups to meet these needs and build support as a result.
  • In the absence of peace and security, populations are often ready to accept any entity that offers stability.
  • Where inequality and institutionalised discrimination coincide with religious or ethnic fault-lines, there is an increased likelihood of radicalisation and mobilisation.


The second is this START resource, the Influencing Violent Extremist Organizations (IVEO) Knowledge Matrix (2011).

It presents 183 hypotheses on violent extremist organisations, and ranks their empirical support from -1 (clear empirical findings against the hypothesis) to 9 (multiple empirical analyses, including at least one qualitative and one quantitative study supporting the hypothesis).

Only eight of the hypotheses reach Level 9, which are:

  • Metal detectors and increased law enforcement at airports decreases hijackings.
  • In a country/issue context with multiple VEOs, negotiating with one VEO may lead to increased bad behavior by VEOs left out of negotiations.
  • On the whole, positive inducements seem more effective than negative ones in deradicalizing/disengaging.
  • If “buyers” (meaning the audience the organization seeks to serve) find the social and/or political change on offer by the VEO unattractive, VEOs will modify their behavior.
  • VEO ‘targeting errors’ can lead to erosion of popular support for the group.
  • Political reforms can lower VEO activity.
  • VEOs may be manipulated through five channels: suppliers, buyers, rivals, substitutes, and new entrants.
  • If the adversary sees that there are no benefits to restraint, it will work against the deterring party.

While these twelve reach Level 8 (multiple quantitative analyses supporting the hypothesis):

  • State use of legitimate and limited force is less likely to increase public support for VEO activity.
  • Widespread government repression (e.g., torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment) will increase transnational VEO activity.
  • Retaliation against foreign targets for VEO attacks against the US increases VEO activity.
  • Content of media attention influences VEOs.
  • Negotiating with VEOs can lead to more terror as a result of spoilers.
  • When VEOs change ideological platforms, it may alienate current constituent support base and suppliers.
  • Governments that maintain law and order will be more effective at reducing VEO activity.
  • Groups and individuals prefer to have an optimal level of uniqueness and distinctiveness; a group that is similar will threaten the group’s distinctiveness which may prompt intergroup issues.
  • When VEOs change ideological platforms, it may reduce competition within the constituent base.
  • As US military aid to and intervention in foreign countries increase, terrorist attacks by VEOs from those countries on US citizens increase.
  • Indirect counterinsurgency methods are more successful than measures that interfere with the population (e.g. occupying forces increase VEO activity).
  • Competition over resources leads to intergroup conflict.

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