Published online: 12
July 2005; | doi:10.1038/news050711-5
Is terrorism the next format for war?
statistics in Iraq suggest conflict is turning into a 'war
As bombings in London attract
international attention, one study claims that terrorist
patterns of attack might be the natural endpoint for all
modern armed conflicts.
People topple a statue of Saddam
Hussein in Iraq.© AP
Ongoing wars in Iraq and Colombia,
which had quite different causes and began as very different
kinds of conflict, are developing a characteristic signature
of long-term terrorist activity, say economist Mike Spagat of
Royal Holloway, University of London, and his
have found that the death statistics in both of these
conflicts are converging on a particular mathematical pattern.
This pattern is shared by fatality counts from terrorist
attacks in countries that are not major industrialized
The team's conclusion supports Mary
Kaldor, a political scientist at the London School of
Economics and Political Science, who argues: "The ongoing war
in Iraq is a new type of war."
Kaldor asserts that US military action in Iraq has
been predicated on the view that it is a war of the sort that
was fought until the middle of the twentieth century, where
two military states battle for control of a territory. But
this, she says, is the wrong approach.
| These conflicts may be all part
of one great big ongoing global war. |
"The US failure to
understand the reality in Iraq and the tendency to impose its
own view of what war should be like is immensely dangerous,"
she says. Instead of approaching it as a conflict that can be
conclusively won by military force, they should see it as an
ongoing effort, Kaldor argues.
Neil Johnson, a
physicist at the University of Oxford, UK, who collaborated
with Spagat on his study, thinks that the apparent convergence
between the Iraq and Colombia conflicts could have even more
chilling implications. Given that they share the same
statistical description, he says, "are they separate
conflicts, or are they a part of one big ongoing global war, a
mother of all wars?"
Pattern of war
wars and conflicts seem to generate a common and distinctive
pattern of death statistics. Fifty years ago, the British
mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson found that graphs of the
number of fatalities in a war plotted against the number of
wars of that size follow a relationship called a power law,
where all the data points fall on a straight line if plotted
This power law encodes the way in
which large battles with large numbers of deaths happen very
infrequently, and smaller battles happen more often.
Recently, the same kind of power laws were found to
hold for terrorist attacks over the past four decades or so.
But the precise form of the power law depends on the type of
country to which it relates. Terrorist attacks in Western
industrialized nations are rare but tend to be large when they
happen. Terrorist attacks in the less-industrialized world
tend to be smaller, more frequent events2.
says that the bomb attacks on London's public transport system
on 7 July, in which more than 50 people were killed, fit this
statistical picture. "They absolutely fall into line," he
In Iraq, the battle
began as a conventional confrontation between large armies,
says Spagat. But the presence of coalition forces "has
fragmented the insurgency into a structure in which smaller
attack units now predominate", he says. Since 2003, the
'casualties per attack event' for Iraq, measured over 30-day
windows, have followed a gradually changing power law. The
slope was initially equal to that found by Richardson for
traditional warfare, but it is now approaching the value found
for non-Western terrorism.
team finds that the Colombia conflict, which has been fought
between the government and various left- and right-wing
guerrilla groups for many decades, is also approaching this
The researchers conclude that
armies in Iraq and Colombia should be using different tactics.
"If you believe that you need to fight like with like, a
conventional army is the complete opposite of what you need.
You have to do away with centralization," says Johnson. In
many ways, he says, it is like fighting an illness that
continually evolves, adapts and changes.
broader worry is that terrorist-style conflicts seem to be
sustainable indefinitely. "These wars," Kaldor agrees, "are so
much harder to end than to begin."
- Johnson N., et al.
- Clauset A., Young M., et al.