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 will help 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 factors and mechanisms within these groups/movements that inhibit 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 will develop a typology of these internal brakes on violent escalation. The typology will draw on a review of the general published literature on decision-making within terrorist/extremist groups as well as through three detailed case studies of very different groups/movements: the extreme Islamist/Jihadist movement; Britain’s extreme right in the 1990s; and radical animal rights activism in the UK. The case studies will be used to develop and test hypotheses about how different brakes work and the conditions under which they are more likely to work or fail.

The project has three core research questions:

  1. What are the different types of ‘internal brakes’ used to inhibit the adoption or diffusion of new and/or more serious forms of violence?
  2. To what extent are these internal brakes specific to particular forms of violence?
  3. How is the effectiveness of these brakes shaped by: a) the way in which they are applied (including by whom), and b) the context in which they are applied?

The project will be of benefit to a number of different research users. For academic researchers, the project will enable the development of formal hypotheses about ‘internal brakes’ – how they 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 will help them to form a more complete understanding of the propensity towards and away from specific forms of violence by particular groups or sub-groups, and help them to assess how externally applied counter-measures might interact with internal brakes.

Principal Investigator

Dr Joel Busher


Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
Lancaster University
Teeside University