Insurgent war: a power-law phenomenon?

This research looks promising, excerpt:

“Because it is a power-law distribution we know that conflicts are dominated by small attacks usually killing one or two people, but unlike what would be expected from a normal distribution, attacks that kill 100+ people will occur with a relatively high frequency,” added Dr Gourley.

“We can use the power-law distribution to accurately predict the likelihood of different sized attacks occurring on any given day. This is useful for military planning and allocating resources to hospitals.

“However the strength of the approach goes beyond simple statistics. By using the power-law distribution we can understand how insurgent cells form and break apart and how the insurgency as a whole is structured.

“Then by tracking the slope of the power-law, we can see in real-time how the structure of the insurgency changes in response to external actions such as the surge in Iraq.”

In particular, it suggests that the dynamics of insurgent group formation are the same across all arenas-from the jungles of Colombia through to the deserts of Iraq, and including the entire world stage of global terrorism.

In short, the way in which modern wars and terrorism are being waged has less to do with geography or ideology, and more to do with the day-to-day mechanics of human insurgency- it is simply the way in which insurgent groups of human beings fight when faced with a much stronger, but more rigid, opponent.

Fellow Kiwi Sean Gourley has a recent TED talk that hits the high points of this research. And here is a Fast Company quick-take :

Physicist Sean Gourley thinks he may be able to model and predict violence in Iraq.

And it’s not just Iraq; Gourley, who works for the San Fransisco-based startup YouNoodle, has used his military side project to map the distribution of attacks in wars in Afghanistan, Colombia and Senegal as well. His finding: the casualties in all four of those conflicts, despite the chaos, fall into a precise mathematical distribution.

Using data from 130 publicly-available sources like newspapers, cable news, and NGO reports, Gourley and his team think they may have found the nature of war. By plotting the deaths in each conflict by time, place and frequency, Gourley discovered that the casualties fell along a well-clustered line of best fit, with a common slope of 2.5. That, he believes, means that his model could be used to predict the probability of attack in a given place.

The secret lies in the group dynamics of the enemy. At a certain point in a war, Gouley argues, insurgent forces must adapt one of two specific models, or they collapse; they either become weaker and more numerous, or stronger and more consolidated. The degree to which they achieve one extreme or another corresponds to the slope of the line Gouley has graphed. To find out what his data says about the success of the recent surge in Iraq, watch the TED talk below.

For the details, check out this paper Modelling the Iraq conflict: A market for insurgency.

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