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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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  • Re:Uhuh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 2.7182 ( 819680 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @10:57AM (#30498470)
    Warning - a lot of things look like they follow a power law. You need a lot of data to be sure.
  • by belthize ( 990217 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:04AM (#30498498)

        I don't see what it is they think they've discovered. If you take a loose collection of 5000 people with a weak desire to cooperate you're going to get way more groupings of 10 than 100 than 1000. The desire for safety in numbers is offset by the risk of exposure by size. In fact I'd have drawn almost exactly their curve if somebody had asked what the distribution would look like.

        If the likelihood of an event is a coupled with critical mass of groupings then the event distribution will follow pretty much the same curve.

        If somebody understands what it is these folks found could you explain it.

  • Re:Uhuh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:11AM (#30498530) Journal
    Sure, but barring nukes and WMDs, it should be expected that it's harder for a group to kill 100 people in one incident, than it is for them to kill 10 people.

    So I'm not sure how useful this pattern is.

    My dinner spending patterns might follow a mathematical pattern too. I spend 10 bucks on dinner a lot more often than I spend 100 bucks. Whoopee.
  • Re:Uhuh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 2stein ( 871221 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:15AM (#30498550)

    Warning - a lot of things look like they follow a power law.

    Exactly. And in case it doesn't fit into a power law, you can probably make it fit into a Gaussian distribution.

  • Just Biology (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pz ( 113803 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:26AM (#30498620) Journal

    The result is cool, and important in the details, but is not that interesting in terms of breaking new ground. As a biologist, having measured countless number of behavioral parameters that all follow power laws, it is not surprising that yet another biological behavior, waging a particlar kind of war in this case, follows a power law. That part is ho-hum.

    Similarly it would only surprise me if things like, oh, the size of undergraduate populations at different universities, the number of cars in each country, the number of stray dogs in each city, the average brain mass for each species, or the number of bullets used in any given firefight, do NOT follow a power law. It's just biology. That's the way things work.

    And, to keep things in perspective, I'm just a biologist. It could be that all natural phenomena follow that sort of pattern, like the mass of celestial objects, the surface areas of land masses, the percent cloud cover at each point on Earth, etc. The basic idea of power laws -- lots of small versions of a thing, only a few big ones, and a smooth distribution between -- seems inherently universal to my small brain.

  • Hari Seldon. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jhon ( 241832 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:36AM (#30498668) Homepage Journal

    'nuff said.

  • by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd,bandrowsky&gmail,com> on Saturday December 19, 2009 @11:45AM (#30498716) Homepage Journal

    Let's see. It takes more energy, time, and complexity, to move into place the resources needed for a bigger attack. So, its not really surprising at all that bigger attacks occur less frequently or even obey a power law.

  • by mrsquid0 ( 1335303 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @12:00PM (#30498796) Homepage

    > The total amount of attack will/power stays the same, no matter what size
    > the individual attacks are? No shit? I could have told you that too.

    But you did not. I am constantly amazed that every time some sort of insightful discovery is
    made there is a chorus of voices saying " I could have told you that". Wake me when someone
    actually does "tell me that" before someone else publishes it.

  • by sp332 ( 781207 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @12:12PM (#30498850)
    As usual, there is a difference between the law and reality. It may not officially be a war, but it is definitely a war. :)
  • by BobMcD ( 601576 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @12:36PM (#30499014)

    ...if we brought them all home?

  • by foobsr ( 693224 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @01:35PM (#30499458) Homepage Journal
    In conclusion (and most remarkably) the data in his data set show a strong correlation across "insurgencies".

    Which may lead to the conclusion that the 'law' that he found describes his inclusion concept (friendly version).
    He fine-tuned his inclusion algorithm to the point that he could publish a valid 'law' and thus be eligible for DHS funding (reality insurges).

  • One more study to (Score:2, Insightful)

    by AnAdventurer ( 1548515 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @02:54PM (#30499944)
    Just what we need, another mathematical model show people are numbers and the dead and wounded (wounded; not like a broken finger, but like arm GONE) are only statistics.
  • Re:Past Data (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sanat ( 702 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @03:15PM (#30500032)

    Of course, you are correct. Thanks for the additional input.

    My position was though was that the randomness instead of being 50-50 like the coin flip might instead be 60-40 or even 70-30 but still a large unknown exists to predict with any sense of integrity of accuracy.

    Perhaps if it collapsed nearer to 100% such as 95-5 or 98-2 then I could see a usefulness for predicating a potential.

    It does remind me of the old adage "Figures lie and liers figure"

  • Correlation (Score:3, Insightful)

    by electrosoccertux ( 874415 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @04:52PM (#30500472)

    Solid post. This comment

    Can repeated examinations of alpha be used to measure the positive effect of a strategy or is it merely a measure of the temporary perturbation and inevitable return to 2.5 because humans are after all humans and 2.5 merely represents the steady state of humans desire for coalescence vs fragmentation.

    is about the best "correlation vs. causation" post I've seen lately.
    Correlation vs. Causation has turned into an overused meme IMO-- not around here, just digg and reddit.

  • Interesting... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tengeta ( 1594989 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @05:16PM (#30500568)
    Sir you are under arrest for a crime you would be committing in an hour. Our equation said so.
  • Re:Uhuh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by elnyka ( 803306 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @05:43PM (#30500686) Homepage

    Indeed. You don't get insurgents without an occupying power*.

    * For the semantic pedants: While technically insurgents could resist a domestic government, it's been the case in the 20th century and since that insurgent warfare is a response to invading forces.

    Uh, really, explain to me which were the invading forces that triggered a response from the following which are perhaps best known and most representatives of 20th insurgency: - UNITA insurgency during the Angolan Civil war) (Angola)

    - Tamil Tigers (Sri Lanka)

    - Lord's Resistance Army (Uganda)

    - AFDL (Congo)

    - FSLN/MILPAS/Contras (Nicaragua) - FMLF (El Salvador) - Shining Path (Peru) - Tupac Amaru (Peru) - EZLN (Mexico) - CPN-M (Nepal)

    - India's Naxalite insurgents

    - People's Mujahedin of Iran

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Saturday December 19, 2009 @08:25PM (#30501372) Journal

    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.

    I wonder if said constant relationship is the implicit criteria that we use to label the conflict an "insurgency" in the first place.

Loose bits sink chips.