--> Gill Blog: The Mathematics of Terrorism

Gill Blog

Friday, October 22, 2004

The Mathematics of Terrorism

An ordered-set representation of a
terrorist cell, where Members A, B, and C
are leaders and rank higher than all other


One of the underlying problems the insurance industry has to deal with in a post-9/11 world is an ongoing inability to frame the probability of terrorism within any statistical model. I was listening to this piece on CBC's The Current this week and it discussed some very interesting ways in which mathematical theory is being applied to counter-terrorism.

Kathleen Carley from Carnegie Mellon University was discussing how graph theory is being applied in identifying the holes, vulnerabilities and and strengths within systems, and Massimo Marchiori from MIT spoke about infrastructure vulnerabilities due to terrorism.

Despite the logical structure, there are limiations according to mathematician Jonathan D. Farley of MIT as quoted in this piece:
"Our view is that modeling terrorist networks as graphs does not give us enough information to deal with the threat," Farley wrote in a recent issue of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. "Modeling terrorist cells as graphs ignores an important aspect of their structure, namely their hierarchy, and the fact that they are composed of leaders and followers."

Farley believes a more robust depiction of networks can be represented by using basic principles of order theory, an approach also advocated by Fred Roberts of Rutgers University who spoke about its characteristics on The Current. Roberts also talked about a recent conference where a small group of mathematicians (including Dr. Farley) gathered to discuss counter-terrorism measures using mathematical principles such as complex systems theory.
Terrorism takes brains. You don't need political influence, military might or economic resources to plant bombs or take hostages; but without brains, terrorism is nothing more than random violence.

The theme of all this, I suppose, is that before we throw in the towel assuming certain nuts just can't be cracked, help is on the way, in fact lots of it to boot. I can't help but think of that familiar line so many of us used to throw at our parents when they told us we should be doing better in math - "Yeah, but what could I possibly do with math anyway?" - if they just were born a little later, I'm sure they'd have a much snappier retort.


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