Monthly Discussion



Forecasting Terrorism


In the beginning of the new millennium political violence seems to be concentrated around the notion of terrorism. In the United States political violence focuses on singular large-scale attacks on the population such as the Oklahoma bombing and the World Trade Center. In Europe political violence is expressed for decades now through a multitude of smaller-scale less singular acts committed by self-proclaimed revolutionary terrorist groups such as the german Red Army Faction (RAF), the italian Red Brigades, the french Action Direct, and the greek Revolutionary Organization 17 November. These groups target individual symbols of the social system they are trying to undermine. A slowly evolving pattern of action over the years makes such groups behave like distinct 都pecies and permits an analysis of the patterns of their acts in terms of natural-growth curves (S-curves).

This approach was originally suggested by Cesare Marchetti when he studied the acts of the Italian Red Brigades and demonstrated that when that group finally disbanded it had accomplished 90% of its 菟otential.*

In Exhibit 3 below I show the evolution of the number of victims of another European terrorist group recently disbanded (a Greek one this time), the 17 November. Again we see that that the 都pecies died after having achieved 96% of its 菟otential as determined by the fitted S-curve.

Not surprisingly, the nominal beginning of this group痴 activities (i.e., the 1% of the S-curve) points at April 1973, a time period that witnessed much violence directed from the Greek junta痴 police against protesting students. The situation degenerated and violence culminated with the death of many students of the National Technical University of Athens on November 17, 1973.

Exhibit 3. The Greek terrorist organization 17 November was dismantled when it had completed 96% of its 菟otential


In the same spirit one may be tempted to analyze Al-Qaeda痴 acts. The case is not as clean-cut as the Red Brigades and the 17 November for several reasons. First, with Al-Qaeda we have mostly suspected acts and not established facts. Secondly, Al-Qaeda is a diffuse organization with weak links across continents and cultures. Therefore it may not behave as a single species with well-defined characteristics. Still, it may be worth seeing what we can learn if indeed it were a species like the other terrorist organizations we have seen so far.

Counting acts (not number of victims) that so far have been generally attributed to Al-Qaeda we see in Exhibit 4 that the fitted S-curve is still far from being complete. In particular we seem to be presently at 24% of the ceiling of the organizations 菟otential estimated to be 40 acts. The organization痴 nominal beginning (1%) appears at the beginning of 1985. This date is back far enough in the past to suggest that possible Al-Qaeda roots extend to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.





Exhibit 4. At the top we see the cumulative Al-Qaeda acts. At the bottom the organization痴 life cycle. The data come mostly from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/terror-qaeda.html.


For what concerns the future and in view of the examples of the other organizations cited above, one could expect Al-Qaeda to continue its activities into the 2020s. An earlier 砥nnatural death for this 都pecies cannot be excluded. But it would require something more drastic than the war in Afghanistan!

* Cesare Marchetti, 徹n Time and Crime, Report WP-85-84, November 1985, International Institute of Advanced System Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria.