A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

START launches new tool for counterterrorism community

Researchers develop knowledge matrix to help understand how to influence violent extremist organizations
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has released a new online tool to help counterterrorism planners and practitioners better understand how their policies and operations may influence violent extremist organizations (VEOs), such as al-Qaida, as well as what the unanticipated consequences of those influence operations may be based on historical data. START's Influencing Violent Extremist Organizations (I-VEO) Knowledge Matrix identifies and gauges the level of empirical support for more than 180 hypotheses about influencing VEOs, from positive incentives to punitive actions.


With the I-VEO Knowledge Matrix, users have ready access to an extensive list of popular and academic assertions regarding the efficacy of influence operations, as well as an estimation of the amount of empirical evidence for each of these assertions. This provides government officials, academicians and analysts with a broad range of concepts, theory, policy and doctrine to draw upon, encompassing findings from political science, public policy studies, criminology and psychology.

Using the knowledge matrix, planners can see qualitative and quantitative support for hypotheses such as "political reforms can lower VEO activity" or "metal detectors and increased law enforcement at airports decrease hijackings," as well as the potential implications for counterterrorism or counterinsurgency policy. Concise yet extensive literature reviews are also available for each hypothesis.

"The Knowledge Matrix is explicitly designed to be a one-stop shop for capturing and synthesizing the breadth of existing scientific knowledge related to influencing VEOs and to highlight those areas where, despite often vigorous assertion, the empirical evidence is lacking," said Gary Ackerman, the lead investigator on the project and the director of START's Special Project Division.

"It seeks to do this in a user-friendly repository that makes the results of hundreds of previous research products accessible to a variety of users, from operations planners to graduate students. Some users might want to merely browse or search the main matrix for summary results, while others can drill down to examine the literature itself or even produce a bibliography for further study."

While an initial analysis of the I-VEO Knowledge Matrix revealed that the empirical evidence in the majority of hypotheses was directly relevant to the context of VEOs, 50 of the 183 hypotheses did not have any relevant empirical evidence to support or contradict the assertion. Fifty-seven of the hypotheses had multiple qualitative and/or quantitative studies with contradictory conclusions. Only the six hypotheses below received the highest level of empirical support, while also being directly applicable to the context of VEOs.

  • If the adversary sees that there are no benefits to restraint, it will work against the deterring party.
  • In a country/issue context with multiple VEOs, negotiating with one VEO may lead to increased bad behavior by VEOs left out of negotiations.
  • Metal detectors and increased law enforcement at airports decreases hijackings.
  • On the whole, positive inducements seem more effective than negative ones in deradicalizing/disengaging.
  • Political reforms can lower VEO activity.
  • VEO "targeting errors" can lead to erosion of popular support for the group.

The I-VEO Knowledge Matrix was developed from an initial project, "Influencing Violent Extremist Organizations: Planning Influence Activities While Accounting for Unintended Side Effects," undertaken as part of the 2011 Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) initiative by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For its part, START endeavored to identify, collect and organize the comprehensive theoretical knowledge applicable to influencing VEOs, while also assessing the degree of empirical support for these theoretical assertions.

The I-VEO Knowledge Matrix can be found at http://www.start.umd.edu/start/data_collections/iveomatrix/.