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Tuesday, February 22

Mathematical Analysis of Terror Attacks

A graph of the number of attacks n plotted against their severity x (in terms of injuries and/or fatalities) reveals that n is roughly proportional to x -1.85. Put simply, this means that the frequency of attacks decreases as their size increases - which is what you'd expect - but also that this relationship holds for events ranging from those that injured or killed just a few people to those that, like the Nairobi car bomb in August 1998, produced over 5000 casualties.

Startling implications

This might sound like no more than a formal way of presenting the statistics, but the power-law relationship has startling implications. For example, Clauset and Young say that the statistics suggest a strong probability of an attack as devastating as that on the World Trade Center within seven years.

And the power-law relationship implies that the biggest terrorist attacks are not 'outliers': one-off events somehow different from the all-too-familiar suicide bombings that kill or maim just a few people. Instead, it suggests that they are somehow driven by the same underlying mechanism.


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