Extremism and Terrorism Programme

This programme of work looks at potential drivers and modalities for the spread of violent ideologies.




Our research mainly focuses on two ideologies: far-right and Islamism. In addition to ideological expressions, a key aspect of our research in this area is on evidencing the importance of gender dynamics in understanding violent extremism and terrorism. In discussing extremism and terrorism, we also consider the modes by which extremist ideology can be spread. We are committed to looking at the on- and off-line dynamics of these modalities, including media and gaming.

Far-Right

In the past few years, far-right extremism and terrorism have received a significant amount of interest and media coverage. As part of our Far-Right Extremism and Terrorism (FRET) programme we pay particular attention to understanding what transnational connections far-right actors have; what role communities play in far-right extremism; and what role gender plays in radicalisation and recruitment. We assess how far counterterrorism (CT) and prevention and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programming can be adapted or reimagined to address violent extremism and terrorism driven by far-right ideologies.

The two-decade focus in international CT on addressing Islamist terrorism has had substantial consequences for the design of CT frameworks for meeting other threats. 

Our aim is to help address research gaps and inform approaches to tackling the threat from the far-right in the following areas:

  • transnational dynamics of far-right extremism and terrorism;
  • far-right milieus and the role of communities in far-right extremism;
  • the role of gender in radicalisation and recruitment into far-right extremism; and 
  • transferability of current CT and P/CVE programming to the far-right threat. 

This will be accomplished by conducting research and contributing to and holding events to disseminate research findings.

Focus on the above research pillars allows contributions by RUSI to provide a unique perspective and added practical value to policy and programming. By leveraging the combined expertise of RUSI’s Terrorism and Conflict, Cyber, and Organised Crime and Policing research groups, as well as the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, we are able to examine many of the cross-cutting, multidimensional issues that make far-right extremism and terrorism such a complex area to understand and address.

Resources on the Resurging Threat of Far-Right Extremism and Terrorism

We provide a collection of resources focused on understanding the resurging threat of far-right extremism and terrorism.

Definitions

The primary purpose of this programme is to focus is on the extreme right, where there is violent action or professed intent, or actions or narratives that might lead to or encourage others into violence. This remains a very difficult and complex ideological context to determine in many cases, and can centre around political goals as indicated above, or around wider ideological perspectives such as misogyny, etc. However, it is important to note that gender-based violence (e.g., misogynist, anti-LGBTQ+, etc.) and other discriminatory acts of violence (e.g., racist, anti-immigrant, etc.) are often labelled as hate crimes, rather than violent extremism (VE) or terrorism.

Transnational far-right extremism is truly a global concern. While the dominant force of research has focused on the Western European and North American context, far-right threats spread across the Global North and South (e.g., North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia). A Counter Extremism Project (CEP) report highlights how national politics often remain a primary channel of engagement; however, international linkages offline and online allow for increasingly strong connections to be formed across borders. While the transnational connection of far-right elements is not a new phenomenon, in recent years far-right elements are often linking transnational movements through apocalyptic narratives (e.g., the ‘Great Replacement’ and ‘white genocide”) and are drawn together through music, violent sport, money, and violence. There are also many instances of ideological convergences across borders. However, while there is an extremely robust online far-right community that embraces and encourages violence, it does not equally translate into either online or offline operational capabilities for action.

This programme seeks to address far-right extremism and terrorism on a local and global scale, including identifying and further investigating its transnational dynamics.

Islamist

Over the last several decades Islamist violent extremism has been driven to the forefront of concern for governments and international counter-terrorism bodies. Violent Islamists show many similarities with other conflict actors and are as much a symptom of governance failure as other violent groups. However, ideology influences how Islamist groups frame their scope, aims, tactics and recruitment strategies.

Salafi-jihadist ideology is absolute and utopian and promotes war as a route to a better world. This would appear to make negotiation impossible or futile. However, ideology is also contested between and within groups, which are as a result prone to splintering, potentially opening opportunities for dialogue with more tractable elements. Although violent Islamist groups are strong where governance is weak or repressive, state building efforts by themselves are unlikely to resolve the conflicts they are involved in. Such efforts can, however, constrain their operations and limit their capacity to gain public support. Even conflicts framed by Salafi-jihadists as part of a global war are deeply rooted in their countries and regions.

It is out of the context of the ‘Global War on Terror’, waged against transnational Islamist extremism, that a vast array of counter-terrorism programmatic responses have been developed and subsequently dominated by this ideological focus.

Lone-Actor

As intelligence agencies and law enforcement have become increasingly adept at detecting and disrupting large-scale terrorist plots, potential attackers have instead turned to smaller-scale, less sophisticated assaults. Lone actor or self-activating terrorism has become a major security threat in Europe and around the world. There are challenging dynamics to developing effective risk assessment, prevention and countering strategies for individuals who only loosely affiliate with particular extremist groups and ideologies or engage anonymously in online forums associated with certain groups or ideologies. The focus on lone or self-initiated actors has also raised the question of how significantly mental illness and related personal dynamics factor into threat of violence.

While the term “lone” is used commonly, evidence suggests that even individuals who make the choice to use violence without group activation or consent are most often connected into wider extremist environments and receiving encouragement for their acts of violence from an online community. RUSI is currently engaging in research on these dynamics, especially in relation to growing concern over far-right inspired acts of self-initiated violence.

Related project


Projects
Lone-Actor Terrorism

This project aimed to improve understanding of, and responses to, the phenomenon of lone actors through analysis of comprehensive data on cases from across Europe.

Gender

Studying extremism and terrorism through a gender lens is essential to understanding and accounting for how socio-cultural gendered norms and role expectations impact how and why individuals might engage in violent extremism. Gender permeates extremism from the processes of recruitment to the ways in which individuals participate in extremism, and to the narratives shaping perception of that participation. Due to the gender-blind approach that is common in security research, policy and programming, there remains a significant lack of data on these gender dynamics.

Additionally, gendered stereotypes are often applied in analysis of extremist actors. Men are commonly classified as the aggressive and active threat, while women are broadly brushed into categories of either victim or peacebuilder, or at very most as playing (lesser-than) supporting roles in violent extremism.

Our team seeks to challenge these gendered stereotypes and build the evidence base by applying a gender lens across our research on extremism and terrorism.

Related projects


Projects

Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism (STRIVE) II Kenya

Gender in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism

Projects

Different Cities, Shared Stories: Gender and Violent Extremism

Misogyny, Hostile Beliefs and the Transmission of Extremism

Media

Terrorism is commonly defined as a form of politically motivated violence and intimidation, which uses communication strategies to amplify its intended effect of causing terror. Violent extremist and terrorist actors utilise a wide range of platforms as communications tools within these strategies. These strategies can target ‘traditional’ mainstream news media reporting, such as in physical newspapers and their associated online sites, broadcast television, and radio. Additionally, these strategies often utilise online and social media platforms to create and disseminate their own content.

The role of the media in the advancement of terrorism’s objectives is controversial, as it remains difficult to draw direct lines of causation due to the diversity of factors contributing to terrorism and the process of radicalisation. However, RUSI seeks to contribute to the body of research on the ways in which media can contribute to the spread of extremism and terrorism, as well as media’s potential responsibilities in mitigating negative impact.

Gaming

Closely connected to the discussion on social media, there is growing concern and interest in the role of online gaming in violent extremism and terrorism. Violent extremist organisations are actively exploiting online gaming across the world. However, research into gaming and radicalisation is sparse and outdated. There is a need to gather further evidence around the particular socialisation processes that happen within gaming culture and the role these processes play in the radicalisation of gamers. Additionally, the practical ways in which gaming environments can be utilised for communications, as well as potentially flows of illicit finance to fund extremism and terrorism, need to be explored further. RUSI has initiated its research in this space by co-founding the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) and will be developing further projects with this consortium.

Related project


Extremism and Gaming Research Network

The Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN) brings together world-leading counter-extremism organisations to develop insights and solutions for the exploitation of online gaming by violent extremists.

COVID-19 Impact

The full impact of Covid-19 on extremism and terrorism is perhaps yet unknown. Given that violent extremist groups have been affected by financial and operational constraints in similar ways to governments, as well as having to contend with restrictions imposed by lockdowns, there has not been a significant uptick in attacks. That said, online grooming, radicalisation and spread of disinformation have definitely increased, which might prove to translate into an increased offline recruitment. Arguably, individual and societal resilience have been degraded by the protracted global health crisis and its secondary social and economic consequences, while at the same time the vast demands of public health and economic responses mean that many donors have reduced funds available for preventing and countering violent extremism work. RUSI has been following these developments and will continue to monitor the impacts of Covid-19 on extremism and terrorism.


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