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The Mathematical law of war: Predicting patterns of insurgent attacks

Posted on 12/12/2009
Unpredictability and the element of surprise are the hallmarks of modern insurgent attacks. However, the likelihood of these events, their timing and strength can now be predicted and managed before occurring, according to a new study by researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, University of Miami, the University of the Andes and Cambridge University.

The study, ‘Common Ecology Quantifies Human Insurgency’, is featured on the cover of this week’s issue of ‘Nature’. It puts forward a model that can help to quantify collective violent activity in humans and make a connection between human insurgency, global terrorism and ecology. This model could be used to help predict future violent events faced by society and potentially prevent their rapid escalation.

In the study spanning several years, the researchers looked at 54,679 violent events, such as those in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland. "We found strikingly regular and similar patterns in the sizes and timings of violent events," explains Professor Michael Spagat of the Economics department of Royal Holloway, University of London. "Our unified model of human insurgency reproduces these commonalities, and explains conflict-specific variations quantitatively in terms of underlying rules-of- engagement."

These patterns are significantly different from those found in traditional wars. This finding supports the belief that insurgent wars represent “fourth generation warfare” with different dynamics from conventional wars.

"There seems to be a common fundamental logic underlying to modern warfare that transcends the specifics of time, place, ideology, religion, history and politics", continues Professor Spagat."Of course, knowledge of such specifics is important to gain a deep understanding of particular conflicts. Still, it was a huge surprise for us to learn just how far our analysis could proceed without invoking these factors."

"The fact that we were able to identify fundamental patterns arising out of the apparent chaos of wars affords us some hope that in the future we may develop some further practical knowledge that can help us reduce conflict casualties,” he says.

According to Professor Spagat, the teams 'soup-of-groups' model in which there are no permanent networks or leaders challenges traditional theories about insurgencies based on rigid hierarchies and networks.

The researchers say their study found the way humans fight modern wars is the same “just like traffic patterns in Tokyo, London and Miami are pretty much the same.”

The findings also show this model of human insurgency bears a “striking similarity” to models of crowd behaviour of financial markets and therefore hints at a possible link between collective human behaviour in violent and non-violent settings.

In the future the researchers hope to explore what would happen if a third population is added to the analysis, such as a peace-keeping mission and how they should be deployed in order to minimize casualties.


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