Drivers of violent extremism: hypotheses and literature review

Harriet Allan et al.


This review analyses the substantial academic literature on what causes violent extremism. It examines the 17 hypotheses discussed in the 2008 DFID paper ‘Drivers of Violent Extremism’, and summarises the strength of the evidence on each. It notes that an alignment of situational, social-cultural and individual factors at the macro, meso and micro levels is necessary for violent extremist movements to develop and for individuals to join them.

Key findings

  • Research suggests that blocked participation does create grievances which can be harnessed to promote extremist violence – but it is neither a sufficient nor consistent factor.
  • While civil society may be crucial in countering extremism, under oppressive contexts some organisations may resort to extremist tactics.
  • There is robust evidence that radicalisation is a social process and identity is a key factor in why individuals become involved in violent movements.
    • Religion and ethnicity have been recognised as powerful expressions of individual and group identity and can be exploited by extremist ideologues.
    • Psychological research is beginning to examine how identity formation can become ‘maldaptive’ and whether there are certain cognitive propensities which can present a higher risk.
  • Although most violent extremists are men, there is little convincing research to suggest that ideas of masculinity and honour play a significant role in causing violent extremism.
  • There is no clear link between education levels and extremism.
    • There are instances of highly educated extremists and others who are not. Similarly, countries with low and high provision of education have experienced violent extremism.
    • There is little evidence that certain types of education increase the risk of radicalisation. The problem of madrassa-based radicalisation has been significantly overstated; some research suggests that religious training can be a protective factor.
  • Evidence on the relationship between education, employment, poverty and radicalisation is mixed. However, in conflict situations involving violent extremist groups (as opposed to terrorism directed against the West), socio-economic discrimination and marginalisation do appear to partly explain why extremist groups are able to recruit support in large numbers.
  • The perceived victimisation of fellow Muslims can be used by leaders of Islamist violent extremist groups as a justification for extremist violence. However, the use of a narrative of oppression to justify violence and recruit and motivate supporters is near-universal among violent extremist groups.

The review suggests areas for further research, including:

  • Socialisation processes involved in radicalisation
  • The extent to which governance, state failure and inadequate services are likely to lead to violent extremism
  • Conceptual differences between recruitment and radicalisation
  • How women can play positive roles in preventing or reducing violent extremism.


Allan, H.; Glazzard, A.; Jesperson, S.; Reddy-Tumu, S. ; & Winterbotham, E. (2015). Drivers of violent extremism: hypotheses and literature review. London, UK: RUSI.