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Dsquare Design. Contact Us. With the U. Not only did the data fit a power curve, but the shape of that curve was nearly identical to the one describing the Colombian conflict. Around that time, a Santa Fe Institute computer scientist named Aaron Clauset was applying the same approach to what seemed like a distinctly different problem.
Rather than looking at specific guerrilla movements, Clauset was examining total deaths caused by global terrorist attacks since When he plotted nearly 30, incidents on a graph, they formed a curve to the power of —2.
The power number is negative because it reflects a decrease rather than an increase in the number of events as death tolls rise. With its characteristic downward slope, the curve was eerily similar to those generated by Johnson and Spagat for Colombia and Iraq.
To rule out coincidence, Johnson, Spagat, and University of Oxford physicist Sean Gourley gathered data on nine other insurgencies. The Indonesian campaign against rebels in East Timor from to —2. The Palestinian second intifada: —2. By contrast, traditional conflicts in which two armies squared off against each other such as the Spanish and American civil wars yielded graphs that looked a lot more like bell curves than power curves.
Although the politics, religion, funding, motives, and strategies of the insurgencies varied, the power trends did not. In an age of biological weapons and dirty nukes, the implications are chilling. 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.
And there is ample reason to believe that an even bigger one is on the way, sooner or later. For Johnson, a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated physicist who has studied stock markets and other apparently unpredictable systems, the power law was familiar territory. Whether in New York, Tokyo, or London, markets tend to follow the same boom-bust cycles, with little daily upticks and downticks punctuated every few decades by a big crash or boom.
Department of Defense—funded think tank called the Mitre Corp.
But if they were going to develop a predictive model, Johnson and his team would have to figure out what it was about the behavior of insurgents and terrorists that made their bloody fingerprints so similar all around the world. They started by tossing the traditional take on insurgencies out the window. Conventional counterinsurgency thinking tries to get into the heads of rebels by understanding their motivations and methods. Political scientists and sociologists studying the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have emphasized tribal affiliations, nationalism, religion, social networks, and other cultural concerns.
Using lessons learned or perhaps mislearned?
But these assumptions were off. Guerrilla fighters in Vietnam, like U. Johnson likens the insurgent groups in his computer model to a pane of glass that shatters into smaller and smaller splinters with each hit.
The bigger shards are capable of delivering the deepest, nastiest cuts, but they are also the easiest to target. The smallest slivers of glass, on the other hand, might deliver the casualty equivalent of a pinprick, but there are so many of them, and they are so hard to spot, that the total amount of damage they cause stays high.
However obvious this seems today, it was a concept that escaped American military planners when the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan began nearly a decade ago. You have to change the entire dynamic.
The military has never published on the issue, but Johnson says that strategists have recently heard about his ideas. The splintered, disorganized nature of insurgencies became still clearer when Johnson and his colleagues looked at the timing of attacks.
Spagat and Johnson argue that the missing element is the role played by media and other sources of information. For an insurgent group, a successful strike is not one that does the most damage, but one that draws the most attention.
If there are more than a few attacks on a given day, your story tends to get lost in the system.