Skip to main content

Lifting the Fog of War

Lifting the Fog of War

  • Date18 October 2018

A new paper written by academics at Royal Holloway and George Washington University, predicts reliable patterns in violent events occurring within wars and terrorism, regardless of geography, ethnicity and religion.

Police, armed officers, SWAT - Terrorism and Counter Terrorism

The paper, Fundamental patterns and predictions of event-size distributions in modern wars and terrorist campaigns, published by PLOS ONE, is by Royal Holloway’s Professor Michael Spagat, independent researcher, Stijn van Weezel and Neil F. Johnson from George Washington University.

The paper examines 273 armed conflicts and 60 terrorist campaigns with the goal of gaining greater understanding of the ways humans fight with each other.

The team can predict with reasonably accuracy the mixtures of events of different sizes, for example, the number of events killing 10 or more people compared to the number of events killing 20 or more people.   

The mix of violent events of different sizes looks similar across the full range of modern wars and terrorist campaigns. In fact, it is possible to make good predictions on the distributions of event sizes for wars on one continent based only on event size data taken from another continent.  

The ISIS campaign of recent years fits right in the middle of the team’s prediction range.

This research programme began in 2009 with a publication in Nature by Johnson, Spagat and other co-authors. 

That paper focused on event-size data from nine modern conflicts where the size of an event, such as a suicide bombing or an air strike, is defined by the number of people killed.

The team for that article found that the size distribution of the violent events within the conflicts they studied all looked alike, at least in terms of their event-size distributions. 

Professor Mike Spagat, Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “The success in predicting such fundamental patterns within modern wars and terrorist campaigns suggests there is something about how humans fight with each other that remains stable across all sorts of diverse particulars such as time, geography, ethnicity and religion.

“It would be going too far to say that all modern wars are the same. But the predictability of event-size distributions suggests there are some very strong underlying similarities, and that is remarkable, given the apparently untamed nature of modern conflict.”


Related topics

Explore Royal Holloway

Get help paying for your studies at Royal Holloway through a range of scholarships and bursaries.

There are lots of exciting ways to get involved at Royal Holloway. Discover new interests and enjoy existing ones

Heading to university is exciting. Finding the right place to live will get you off to a good start

Whether you need support with your health or practical advice on budgeting or finding part-time work, we can help

Discover more about our 21 departments and schools

Find out why Royal Holloway is in the top 25% of UK universities for research rated ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’

Royal Holloway is a research intensive university and our academics collaborate across disciplines to achieve excellence.

Discover world-class research at Royal Holloway

Discover more about who we are today, and our vision for the future

Royal Holloway began as two pioneering colleges for the education of women in the 19th century, and their spirit lives on today

We’ve played a role in thousands of careers, some of them particularly remarkable

Find about our decision-making processes and the people who lead and manage Royal Holloway today