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UC Research Identifies Patterns Leading to Terrorist Attacks

UC Research Identifies Patterns Leading to Large-scale Terrorist Attacks

May 9, 2013

University of Canterbury (UC) research has found that terrorist incidents that kill a lot of people are often preceded by a number of small-scale attacks.

UC psychology lecturer Dr Andy Martens says terrorist attacks that result in heavy loss of life are especially important to understand because the vast majority of attacks kill one person or no one at all.

``Our research using the Global Terrorism Database produced by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism shows that of the 132,041 people killed in attacks between 1970 and 2008, a total of 42,703 people died in one percent of the attacks.

``The small number of more deadly attacks accounts for a disproportionate number of the total fatalities resulting from terrorist attacks,’’ Dr Martens says. 

``We tested for patterns of escalation in the subset of small-scale attacks that terrorists committed leading up to big attacks. We found that an escalating trajectory tends to emerge in the series of smaller attacks that precede major attacks, killing 20 people or more.

``Before any big attacks, the lethality of a group’s attacks tended to first decrease and then increase such that the number of people killed increased most steeply just prior to a big attack. Further, groups tend to attack frequently just prior to a big attack.

``However, not all terrorist groups show these patterns—many do not. But on the whole, there appears to be a general tendency to escalate leading up to big attacks.

``Given the disproportionate influence of major terrorist incidents, uncovering systematic patterns in attacks that precede and anticipate highly lethal attacks may be of value for predicting and understanding attacks that exact a heavy toll on life.’’

Dr Martens says future research may build on the UC research to improve the ability to forecast terrorist attacks and, in turn, more strategically steer intervention resources.

The present UC escalation model may also prove useful for interventions and monitoring killing in other contexts such as war, genocide and gang violence. His research included collaboration with colleagues from other universities.  


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