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A Real Threat...or Not?

In these political times, many candidates, as well as the incumbent administration, will be tempted to play the terrorism card, claiming that terrorist attacks are up and only their side knows how to combat this. But a database that keeps track of terrorist attacks says that the NUMBER of international terrorist attacks is actually going DOWN.

The University of Maryland's Gary LaFree, director of the world?s largest and most comprehensive open-source terror database, says, "To me, the trends are clear?fatalities are up, terror attacks are flat." In other words, the number of attacks has stayed about the same, although more people have died. How can this be? It?s because official reports count Iraqi civilian deaths as terror incidents, instead of as casualties of a civil war.

Terrorists who attack soldiers and civilians rely on surprise and apparent randomness to compensate for their lack of organization, technology and firepower. Psychologists are trying to figure out if they can use past attacks to figure out where they?ll strike in the future, so we can be prepared. They?re also chasing terrorists using the internet.

Researcher Wes Colley says, "One way to combat these attacks is to identify trends in the attackers? methods, then use those trends to predict their future actions. Some trends from these attacks show important day-to-day correlations. If we can draw inferences from those correlations, then we may be able to save lives by heightening awareness of possible events or changing the allocation of our security assets to provide more protection."

Psychologists reviewed the behavior signatures of terrorists on 12,000 attacks between 2003 and mid-2007 to calculate relative probabilities of future attacks on various target types. The four steps were: create a database of past attacks; identify trends in the attacks; determine the correlation between attacks and use analysis to calculate the probabilities of future attacks and their location. The goal was not to try to predict exactly when and what type of attack is going to happen next, but rather, which target types are more likely to be attacked next. Colley says, "Our research won?t predict that an attack targeting civilians at a public market will take place tomorrow at 9:30 a.m."

One finding that surprised him involved sectarian violence. He says when members of the Shiite sect attack a Sunni, other attacks on Sunnis are likely to follow. However, the converse isn?t true: when Sunnis attacked Shiites, there is no greater incidence of a follow-on attack than normal. His team has received an Air Force contract for a six-month study.

In Project Reynard (which means "fox"), Homeland Security regularly scans the international internet for words that might signal terrorist plans. In BBC News, Chris Vallance quotes Andrew Cochran, of the Counterterrorism Foundation, as saying, "It's a positive step. For a number of years we were behind in chasing jihadists' presence on the net and detecting it." He quotes Ken Silva of Verisign as saying, "This [war] has to be fought at every level."

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

One of the best ways to get information about the future is to study the past?as long as we have the right interpreter! To learn more, click here, here and here.

NOTE: This news story, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.


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