Thursday, September 23, 2010

Terrorism academics tell us what we already ought to know

Physorg reports that experts on terrorism are writing theses and mathematical tracts to tell us what we already know. Philip Vos Fellman, a Lecturer at Suffolk University, Boston, uses network analysis, agent based simulation, and dynamic NK Boolean fitness landscapes, whatever they are, to try and understand the complexities of terrorist networks. He wants to know how “long term operational and strategic planning might be undertaken so that tactics which appear to offer immediate impact are avoided if they cause little long term damage to the terrorist network”. It means he hopes to avoid a load of wasted effort!

His computer simulations of terrorist networks suggest that it is not worth the effort to target small cells within a large network. Effort should be on the hubs of the networks. From all this mathematics and computer wizardry, Vos Fellman discovers:

If you are not focused on the top problems, then considerations of opportunity cost suggest that it may be better to do nothing rather than to waste valuable resources on exercises which are doomed to fail.

Taking out the hub, like the ancients trying to take out the king or the general in battle, induces the collapse of the network around it, leaving the individual cells or soldiers isolated!

It seems that terrorist networks are “typical of the structures encountered in the study of conflict, in that they possess multiple, irreducible levels of complexity and ambiguity”. Moreover they are covert!

Key elements may remain hidden for extended periods of time, and the network itself is dynamic… A dynamic network contrasts starkly with the structure of the armed forces or homeland security systems, which tend to be centralized and hierarchical.

So all that computing and mathematical modeling tells us what ancient generals took for granted, that conflicts are rarely simple, that terrorists operate in secret, and you kill the commander to win the battle. Amazing!

Elsewhere, a Dr Gill of University College Dublin, Ireland, completed his doctorate showing that suicide bombings have become the ultimate smart bomb in the militant groups repertoire! Most suicide bombers today are male Muslims under 35. They typically cause more human and structural damage than conventional bombings, and a successful suicide bombing may also increase the membership of a militant organization or increase wider constituent support for the organizations campaign, dontcha know! He reckons that the IRA would have been using suicide bombers had it not first decided to settle for electoralism, when they realized that suicide bombing might not have been popular among Catholics as well as Protestants. The same happened with Hamas and Hezbollah. As they became involved in elections, they decreased their number of violent attacks. For his profound efforts, Dr Gill is now at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) at Pennsylvania State University.

Suicide bombers range from 15 to 70 years old, are both well educated and uneducated, male and female, from all socio economic classes, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, religious and secular, single and married, white and black. Consequently, counter terrorism should not bother trying to “profile” suicide bombers, and instead move towards a model of the structural and situational processes that facilitate and encourage the recruitment of suicide bombers. Does he actually mean we should try to find out why they are doing it? That really is revolutionary, but his new US employers are hardly likely to like it.

If people feel that there is a viable alternative to protracted violence, they may be more willing to denounce acts of suicide bombing. Opinion polls in Palestine show that when there was a peace plan on the table, support for suicide bombings decreased. The perceived level of threat in the local community then eased. Anti terrorism policies should focus on this, not on “Gung Ho”, “over the top” militarism which have never worked in such wars over many decades—rather showing that these wars are not meant to be won! They are there to be publicized to domestic audiences as a constant threat, to justify military waste that benefits only a narrow but rich caste in US society.

A way of decreasing the threat of suicide bombing is peaceful negotiation with all the insurgent groups. Excluding some causes bitterness, and makes that group more likely to continue the bombing at a level meant to convey a message of their determination.

So, we have discovered that profiling terrorism is a waste of time, we ought to want to know why people are blowing themselves up, and we should try to negotiate with them, presumably, if we are serious about stopping the attacks, by trying to solve the root problem. Amazing!

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