The Violent Extremism Lab

The Violent Extremism Lab

The goal of the Violent Extremism Lab is to understand the psychology that leads to self-sacrificial violence – whether in the form of suicide terrorism or the high-risk strategies of dictators that may lead to their own demise but only after many others have been brutally killed. There is growing evidence that such behaviour is often motivated by identity fusion – an extreme form of social cohesion whereby an individual’s personal identity becomes fused with that of the group. Highly fused individuals will stop at nothing to defend the group when it is imperiled. Our violence risk assessment research can help understand psychological indicators of proneness to violent action before the signs of a planned intervention become visible in operational or military activities. An important advantage of our framework is that it can be applied to state and non-state actors in different demographic, economic, cultural and religious contexts. As the relevant variables are revealed unconsciously in speech, they also reach beyond strategically chosen words of escalation or de-escalation and promise to provide a more reliable predictor than explicit threats to violence.

Key Questions

Learn more about our approaches to the key questions guiding this research.

Funded by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council as well as a PhD studentship from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and St John’s College, our lab group has been busy analysing the language and narratives used by violent extremists with the aim of improving detection and prevention practices in the field of counterterrorism. Security and intelligence services, as well as social media companies, have long been trying to gain a better understanding of the communication patterns that distinguish violent extremist and terrorists from those who merely express extremist beliefs but present no real threat. Our award-winning research takes these efforts to a new level. Our research is based on the fusion-plus-threat model which integrates previous empirical findings on group alignment and identity, psychological kinship, and parochial altruism to form a theory that makes specific predictions about the role of in-group identity fusion and out-group threat perception as drivers of violent extremism. 


Funded by the Calleva Research Centre for Evolution and Human Science at Magdalen College, Oxford – with additional support from The British Academy and the Airey Neave Trust – our lab group is now also investigating the role of the fusion-plus-threat model in explaining the seemingly irrational behaviours of heads of state who engage in extreme forms of violence against their own populations or go to war when the costs seem to outweigh the benefits. For example, prior to the visible changes in Russia’s military activities in 2021, most experts would have considered a Kremlin-led aggression war in Ukraine an unlikely scenario. Like Vladimir Putin, the willingness of many leaders to translate hawkish words into action has proven hard to predict. How seriously should we take Kim Jong-un’s aggressive threats? How dangerous are countries led by ideologically extreme figures such as Iran under Ebrahim Raisi or Afghanistan under the Taliban? What about Erdogan or Min Aung HIaing who both have a history of violence against their own populations? And most importantly, might there be an underestimated threat emerging in countries that are currently not on the radar of the diplomatic, defence and intelligence communities?



Upcoming Events
Past Events




Julia Ebner | Why We No Longer Get Along | TedxOxford | Tedx Talks

Why We No Longer Get Along | Julia Ebner | TEDxOxford

Julia Ebner | The UK's counter terror strategy | BBC Newsnight | Institute for Strategic Dialogue

ISD's Julia Ebner discusses counter terror strategy on BBC Newsnight

Harvey Whitehouse | Quelling radicalization through new understanding of ritual, fusion and identity | World Economic Forum

Quelling radicalization through new understanding of ritual, fusion and identity Harvey Whitehouse


Julia Ebner | Helping predict real world violence among online users | ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2023 | ESRC Social 

Helping predict real world violence among online users | ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize 2023

Julia Ebner | ISD's Julia Ebner on 'Is there a growing far-right threat online?' (BBC News) | Institute for Strategic Dialogue

ISD's Julia Ebner on 'Is there a growing far-right threat online?' (BBC News)



Julia Ebner | Germany's New Nazis | BBC Panorama | 19 September 2017

Julia Ebner | The Enemy Within: The Far Right: Dispatches | Channel 4 | 9 May 2022

Julia Ebner at 13:16 | The World of Incels | BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour