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Math The Military Technology

Insurgent Attacks Follow Mathematical Pattern 181

Hugh Pickens writes "Nature reports that data collected on the timing of attacks and number of casualties from more than 54,000 events across nine insurgent wars, including those fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 and in Sierra Leone between 1994 and 2003, suggest that insurgencies have a common underlying pattern that may allow the timing of attacks and the number of casualties to be predicted. By plotting the distribution of the frequency and size of events, the team found that insurgent wars follow an approximate power law, in which the frequency of attacks decreases with increasing attack size to the power of 2.5. This means that for any insurgent war, an attack with 10 casualties is 316 times more likely to occur than one with 100 casualties (316 is 10 to the power of 2.5). 'We found that the way in which humans do insurgent wars — that is, the number of casualties and the timing of events — is universal,' says team leader Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami in Florida. 'This changes the way we think insurgency works.' To explain what was driving this common pattern, the researchers created a mathematical model which assumes that insurgent groups form and fragment when they sense danger, and strike in well-timed bursts to maximize their media exposure. Johnson is now working to predict how the insurgency in Afghanistan might respond to the influx of foreign troops recently announced by US President Barack Obama. 'We do observe a complicated pattern that has to do with the way humans do violence in some collective way,' adds Johnson."
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Insurgent Attacks Follow Mathematical Pattern

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  • by sp332 ( 781207 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @10:49AM (#30498438)
    Sean Gourley shows that if the exponent is larger or smaller than 2.5, the war becomes unsustainable and ends fairly quickly. []
  • Re:Uhuh (Score:4, Informative)

    by Chysn ( 898420 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:05AM (#30498506)

    a lot of things look like they follow a power law. You need a lot of data to be sure.

    Sadly,there's been an assload of data.

  • by forand ( 530402 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:44AM (#30498710) Homepage
    I believe the post right above yours [] brings the point home: the specific exponential power law followed appears to be unstable. That is if the frequency of attacks differs in a specific conflict the conflict ends shortly. The poster above nicely provided a link to a TED talk []
    Also being able to draw a straight line on a log log plot is all well and good but if you get the slope off by even a small amount you will soon be orders of magnitude off in your predictions. Thus while you might expect a power-law distribution from simple arguments getting the specific value is much more difficult.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 19, 2009 @04:04PM (#30500276)

    What they are saying is that regardless of culture, location, enviroment decade, reasons behind the conflict, etc., the relation between large and small attacks appears to be a constant.

    That wasn't obvious at all.

  • by psycho12345 ( 1134609 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @04:11PM (#30500314)
    Actually no it didn't, world war 2 started with the declarations of war by the British, the British Commonwealth, and France in response to the invasion of Poland by Germany. Remember that Germany had effectively already taken over Czechoslovakia and Austria with no resistance and it wasn't consider war at that point.
  • Re:Uhuh (Score:3, Informative)

    by habig ( 12787 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @05:29PM (#30500622) Homepage
    Warning - a lot of things look like they follow a power law. You need a lot of data to be sure.

    More interestingly, many things which are at their heart completely random follow power laws.

    For example, the arrival time distributions of cosmic rays, or the energy distribution of those particles one might observe. (ok, so I'm a cosmic ray physicist, so that's the topic I think a lot about). Thus, you can't use this information to predict anything about any one cosmic ray (or insurgent attack). What you can do is use the data to try and understand something about whatever's behind your ensemble of data, e.g. the sources accelerating the cosmic rays or organizing the insurgents.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @12:19AM (#30502138)

    You can get a copy of the pre-publication Nature paper "Common Ecology Quantifies Human Insurgency" as well as the more detailed supplementary info pdf at

    there is also a list on the site of other important papers for background reading about the research. A good resource to understand the topic. Also of interest is the website from co-author Sean Gourley at

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