Could Computers One Day Predict Terrorist Attacks?

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Could math and computer programs one day predict terrorist attacks? That's the question at the heart of Andrew Curry's summer piece for Discover, published online today. It turns out scientists have made a surprising discovery: there's this "common [pattern] in math" called a "power law curve," which "describes a progression in which the value of a variable ... is always ramped up or down by the same exponent"--and it turns out that this type of curve can accurately describe both FARC attacks and attacks by Iraqi insurgents. Not only that, but the same curve shape holds for both conflicts. It also holds for Indonesian rebellion, the conflict in Afghanistan, and the Palestinian second intifada. There's a very similar curve, too, for "total deaths caused by global terrorist attacks since 1968."

Although truly massive power-law events--like the Great Depression or killer storms--are drastically less common than smaller disruptions, they still occur. In the normal distribution of a bell curve, you never get such extremes, but the pattern underlying the power curve enables a few rare events of extraordinary magnitude. One might use the math to argue that the 9/11 attack that killed more than 2,700 people in New York City was bound to happen. And there is ample reason to believe that an even bigger one is on the way, sooner or later.

The researchers have even gotten to the point where they can isolate the variable that adds in extra noise: media attention. "For an insurgent group, a successful strike is not one that does the most damage, but one that draws the most attention," explains Curry. "The data suggest that terrorists and insurgents aim to stage their attacks when they will have the media's undivided attention."

So what's the bottom line?

As fascinating as their mathematical patterns are, Johnson and Spagat remain far from their goal: anticipating attacks and being able to stop them. Atran says the researchers' findings bear out what he has seen during his fieldwork on the psychology of suicide bombers and the importance of media attention. But that level of understanding is not good enough. In the end, the math may not explain it all, he contends.

That said, Curry points out that social scientists are getting deluged with data like never before, finding patterns in all kinds of seemingly random events--like Wall Street crashes. He ends on an optimistic note: "Notable military research groups such as Mitre and the Pentagon's IED Defeat Organization have met with Johnson and Spagat to talk about their work." The jury, it appears, is still out.

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