The Internal brakes on violent escalation

Why do some ‘extremists’ or ‘extremist groups’ choose not to engage in violence, or only in particular forms of low-level violence? Why is it that even in deeply violent groups there are often thresholds of violence that members rarely if ever cross, even if they apparently have the capability to do so?

This project helps academic researchers and security, law enforcement and intelligence analysts develop a better understanding of decision-making within extremist or terrorist groups/movements by enabling analysis of a largely neglected dimension of their decision-making: the mechanisms through which group members themselves seek to inhibit or set parameters around the adoption of new or more extreme forms of violence – what we refer to as the ‘internal brakes’ on violent escalation.

In this project we develop a descriptive typology of these internal brakes. We do this by drawing both on a review of the general published literature on decision-making within terrorist or extremist groups, as well as through the development of case studies of three groups/movements with very different ideological underpinnings and characterised by very different levels of violence: the transnational and British jihadi movement between 2001 and 2016; the British extreme right in the 1990s; and the animal liberation movement in the UK from the mid-1970s until the early 2000s.

For academic researchers, the project provides new insight about the dynamics of non- or limited-escalation, a hitherto under-researched issue – and enables the development of formal hypotheses about how ‘internal brakes’ work, where, when and why: a crucial step in gaining a deeper understanding about the patterns of terrorist or extremist activities and how, ultimately, violence can be more effectively inhibited.

For security, intelligence and law enforcement practitioners, the typology provides a tool that can be used to refine understanding about the propensity towards and away from violence by particular groups or sub-groups, and assess how externally applied counter-measures might interact with, and sometime undermine, internal brakes.

Project resources

Back to top