Spatial Syntax of Insurgency in Iraq

A team of three academics – Jerry Ratcliffe of Temple University in the U.S., Shane D. Johnson of University College London in the U.K., and Michael Townsley from Griffith University in Australia  – have published their research on quantifcation of the "Space Time Dynamics of Insurgent Activity in Iraq".  Still in press so not yet available to the public, the article is forthcoming in the Palgrave MacMillan periodical Security Journal. Here’s the abstract:

This paper describes analyses to determine whether there is a space-time dependency for insurgent activity. The data used for the research were 3 months of terrorist incidents attributed to the insurgency in Iraq during U.S. occupation and the methods used are based on a body of work well established using police recorded crime data. It was found that events clustered in space and time more than would be expected if the events were unrelated, suggesting communication of risk in space and time and potentially informing next event prediction. The analysis represents a fi rst but important step and suggestions for further analysis addressing prevention or suppression of future incidents are briefl y discussed.

My first impression on reading this was that the authors had made the standard error of either conflating terrrorist and insurgent spatial syntax, or insufficiently distinguishing one from the other. They haven’t done either. This is important work, innovating in an area of knowledge long predicated on historically-contingent macro theories of guerrilla warfare. It treats insurgency through a criminological lens and applies fine-resolution police crime mapping and conflict prediction approaches to conditions in Iraq. The authors draw from rational choice theory, based on the notion that 

we should consider terrorism as a type of crime and that the decision-making processes of criminals and terrorists are broadly similar. Terrorists have certain goals (both short and long term), and are constantly evaluating opportunities to achieve these in terms of a risk and reward calculus. Like offenders, terrorists have limited resources (money, time and personnel) and attempt to evade the attention of organisations dedicated to preventing their activity. In short, attacks are carried when the perceived reward exceeds the perceived risk. In concrete terms:

(1) not all targets are equally attractive to terrorists; and

(2) terrorists are unlikely to be able to strike at will because they are constrained by finite resources or excessive risk. 

Their methodology relied on "an epidemiological model of infectious diseases to test for the communicability of future risk" (p. 4), something they’d used previously to assess the potential spread of burglary risk. Finer resolution scoping of the problem, they argue, is well suited to supporting the tactical-level prediction necessary for operational counter-network collection, analysis, and defeat. But, they acknowledge, it doesn’t really help with strategic level threat assessments.

I won’t spoil the fun by outlining their findings; stay tuned to Security Journal to read them for yourself. What’s worth noting at this point is that sub-tactical/micro-spatial phenomena are being investigated with this kind of precision – essentially driving our understading of the phenomenon from the bottom-up before we’ve even indexed any macro-spatial and multi-dimensional variables. This is less a comment on the article than it is a critique of the state of the art. 

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