David Kirkpatrick

November 5, 2010

Creating terrorists — here comes the science …

Looks like “taking the fight” to the terrorists on their turf to keep them from coming here is a fairly flawed strategy. Studies on phase transition show that action only serves to create many more terrorists than would ordinarily be running around as bad actors (and not in the emoting sense.)

From the link:

Feedback loops are interesting because they lead to nonlinear behavior, where the ordinary intuitive rules of cause and effect no longer apply. So a small increase in one type of behavior can lead to a massive increase in another. In the language of physics, a phase transition occurs.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens in August’s model. They show that for various parameters in their model, a small increase in the removal rate of active radicals generates a massive increase in passive supporters, providing an almost limitless pool from which to recruit more active radicals.

What this model describes, of course, is the cycle of violence that occurs in so many of the world’s trouble spots.

That has profound implications for governments contemplating military intervention that is likely to cause “collateral damage.” If you replace the term “active radical” with “terrorist” then a clear prediction of this model is that military intervention creates the conditions in which terrorism flourishes.

They say that this feedback loop can halted only if the removal of terrorists can be achieved without the attendant radicalizing side effects. As August and colleagues put it: “if this happened practically without casualties, fatalities, applying torture or committing terroristic acts against the local population.”

This is an interesting approach. It clearly shows that public opinion and behavior can change dramatically in ways that are difficult to predict.


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