Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism: Literature Review

This paper summarises research in terrorism studies, conflict studies and development studies


This paper was commissioned as part of a project to examine the relationship between Islamist violent extremism and conflict, addressing the research question: “what is distinctive about violent Islamist extremism in conflict situations, and what features does it share with other ideologies or movements involved in conflicts?”

This paper is a literature review, not an analytical or policy paper; it summarises existing research in 3 academic fields – terrorism studies, conflict studies, and development studies – and from a range of academic disciplines, from psychology to political science to economics. What follows therefore reflects a wide and varied range of research; given the extent of the literature in these fields which may be relevant, this review cannot claim to be comprehensive.

‘Islamist Violent Extremism’ is a broad label covering a wide range of disparate groups and movements. Thus the majority of Sunni Islamists are non-violent – Islamism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, for instance, is much more political than it is violent. Those that are violent have been divided into strategic (or nationalist) and utopian groups/movements. The former are territorially focused groups with Islamic values and identity; the latter seek to transform the world through violence, and draw on notions of sacredness and prophecy to frame conflicts as ‘cosmic war’.

Ideology is important for leaders especially, some of whom are ideological entrepreneurs seeking to mobilise followers behind a cause. Ideology can be a factor for followers, but people in conflict situations join violent groups for a wide range of reasons – social, psychological and practical – as well as political.

Although ‘radicalisation’ is accepted within government, in the academic literature it is disputed, with some arguing that it is a misleading conceptualisation. The psychological processes that draw people into violent groups are however likely to be consistent across a range of ideologies. These processes depend upon ‘normal’ psychological phenomena such as identity formation and the need to belong, as well as conflict phenomena such as fears of existential threat, and individual and collective trauma.

This ideology of global, utopian, violent Islamist groups/movements is recent, originating in the 1980s as a defensive programme. Under the pressures of repeated conflicts it became increasingly offensive; its most recent manifestation – ‘Salafi-jihadism’ – arising largely as a result of the post-2003 insurgency in Iraq. Although Salafi-jihadists are in many ways different and more threatening, they express their worldview through a narrative strikingly similar to that of many other militant movements (religious and secular).

Islamist violent extremism is increasingly seen as a symptom of governance failures. It flourishes where the state is weak or has collapsed, and draws strength from political, social and economic grievances. Managing the problem requires state capacity – but not repression. Foreign fighters are not in themselves new, but in scale and frequency foreign participation in Islamist violent extremist groups is unprecedented. Nor are suicide attacks new, but they are similarly unprecedented in scale and frequency. In other respects, Islamist violent extremism shares many features with other forms of political violence.


Glazzard, A.; Jesperson, S.; Winterbotham, E. Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism: Literature Review. RUSI, London, UK (2015) 46 pp.

Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism: Literature Review

Published 1 January 2015