Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quantifying Terrorism

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Discover Magazine has a fascinating article on how a particle physicists and an economist attempt to establish a model of terrorist behaviour.

“In political science literature, human rationality is primary. They assume groups are rational actors, have access to all the information, and make the right decisions,” Clauset says. “A physicist’s natural approach is to assume people are like particles, and their behavior the result of constraints beyond their control.”

The researchers found that the pattern of varying sizes of terrorists attacks against the number of casualties repeatedly formed a power law curve.

The splintered, disorganized nature of insurgencies became still clearer when Johnson and his colleagues looked at the timing of attacks. The numbers in Iraq, Colombia, Peru, and Afghanistan followed similar patterns, with “sudden bursts of activity, then quiet periods,” Spagat says. “If it were random, you would have far fewer busy days and far fewer quiet days than are captured in the data.” Without a centralized command to issue orders, there must be something else behind the clustered timing of attacks.

The article then delves into a debate on the strategic efficacy of adopting rational models of behaviour as opposed to context specific analysis.

Cultural context is not something Johnson pays much attention to. Accustomed to analyzing particles, which are not known for their reasoning capabilities or complex inner lives, physicists tend to ignore the why and go straight to the how. “All those questions of ‘why’ show a lack of understanding,” Johnson insists. “Whatever the reasons are, this is how they operate.” He has explained this to British and American military officers, Iraqi officials, and even security officials at the London Olympics. “Insurgents may be doing it for all sorts of reasons, but the mechanics are what matters.”

In the end the model still could not do what it had sought to accomplish, that is, to be able to predict terrorist attacks.

“Nothing we’ve done suggests we can predict there will be an attack in, say, the next two weeks,” Spagat freely concedes. “Rather, a physics-inspired insurgency model can help guide more general decisions. If the data show that attacks happen in a bursty pattern, it makes sense to have emergency medical teams able to react to several attacks at once. And the data offer a rough guide to how big those attacks might be, based on how they’ve looked in the past.” Moreover, he says, if the model is right about modern insurgencies’ being a constantly shifting collection of small, unconnected groups, it would be a useful tool for military planners trying to find the most effective tactics.

Definitely worth a read as the world continues to fly almost blindly in its counter-insurgency strategies, put together with the devastatingly horrible results of using quantitative analysis based strategies in Vietnam.

“a lot of people think counterinsurgency is very qualitative, very mushy, and should stay that way. It’s almost a mystical thing,”

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