Predicting bombs and bullets

Dr. Neil Johnson worked with scientists to create a mathematical model for predicting the likey location, timing and strength of modern insurgent attacks.

One of the most dangerous aspects to the war on terror is the unpredictably of insurgency attacks. Explaining and predicting why insurgency strikes happen when they are so erratic in nature, is something the U.S. military, political scientists and television pundits struggle with every day. From a field known more for numbers than case studies comes a possible solution.

University of Miami physicist Dr. Neal Johnson and his team of researchers have developed a model that they believe will predict the likelihood, timing and strength of where and when the enemy will be next.

“We have found a unified model of modern insurgent wars that shows a fundamental pattern in the apparent chaos of wars,” said Johnson, the principal investigator of the study. “In practical terms, our analysis can be used to create and explore scenarios, make predictions and assess risks, for present and future wars.”

The basic premise of Johnson’s study is that insurgency groups of all types, from terrorists in Afghanistan to Northern Ireland, form fluid networks and groups that are not ruled by a hierarchical system of any kind, but are always shifting and changing. Johnson and other researchers studied the size and timing of 54,679 violent events reported in nine countries.

“Despite the many different discussions of various wars, different historical features, tribes, geography and cause, we find that the way humans fight modern (present and probably future) wars is the same,” Johnson said. “Just like traffic patterns in Tokyo, London and Miami are pretty much the same.”

The study, entitled “Common Ecology Quantifies Human Insurgency,” was published in the scientific journal “Nature,” and is the first of its kind.

“It’s so common place to hear so many different theories on insurgencies,” Johnson said. “I’m used to the physics perspective, you have to look at the data. You have to compare your theories to the numbers. A lot of theories we hear in the media are plausible, but we didn’t need them at all to explain this data, there’s a pattern here.”

Johnson recognizes that terrorist attacks are difficult to predict, but says that they are only unpredictable when viewed through the lens of a hierarchical model. His study is based on a more ecological perspective, and looks at the way people and animals, not just terrorists, interact in informal situations.

Johnson says that attacks will be clustered, and that with his model there might be a way to deduce how strong or weak a terrorist group is feeling.

According to Dr. Joseph Parent, a professor of political science at UM who specializes in security studies, the data sets presented in Johnson’s study are promising.

“Although much work remains to be done on the subject, this is an exciting time to try to discover solutions to pressing problems like terrorism and insurgency,” Parent wrote in an e-mail with The Miami Hurricane. “How many other researchers have the potential to save so many lives?”

Saving lives is what Johnson hopes his study might lead to. The research presented may not be the end all solution to predicting terrorist attacks, but it is a step towards a better understanding of the chaos that has cost so many Americans their lives.

Laura Edwins may be contacted at

January 27, 2010


Laura Edwins

Managing Editor

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