Mon, Jun 20, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Physicists try for tool to predict attacks

A physicist may not seem like an obvious person to study terrorist activity, but for months, Neil Johnson and his team have used a mathematical model to sift order from the chaotic pro-terrorism online universe

By Pam Belluck  /  NY Times News Service

An explosion in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Kurdish and Islamic State fighters in October 2014. Researchers found a spike in the formation of small online groups connected to the Islamic State before the attack began in September of that year.

Photo: AP

After Orlando, Florida; San Bernardino, California; and Paris, there is new urgency to understand the signs that can precede acts of terrorism. And with the Islamic State’s prolific use of social media, terrorism experts and government agencies continually search for clues in posts and Twitter messages that appear to promote the militants’ cause.

A physicist may not seem like an obvious person to study such activity. But for months, Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami, led a team that created a mathematical model to sift order from the chaotic pro-terrorism online universe.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Johnson and Miami colleagues searched for pro-Islamic State posts each day from mid-2014 until August of last year, mining mentions of beheadings and blood baths in multiple languages on Vkontakte, a Russia-based social media service that is the largest European equivalent to Facebook. Ultimately, they devised an equation that tries to explain the activity of Islamic State sympathizers online and might, they say, eventually help predict attacks.


Experts who study terrorism and online communication said that the new research was informative, and that they appreciated that the authors would make their data available to other researchers. But they cautioned that the actions of terrorist groups were extremely difficult to anticipate and said more information was needed, especially to substantiate any predictive potential of the team’s equation.

“This is an interesting approach, this is a potentially valuable approach, and more research should be done on the approach,” said J.M. Berger, a fellow in George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and a co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror. “But to jump ahead to the utility of it, I think, takes more work.”

Johnson, who also heads the Complexity Initiative, an interdisciplinary research program at the University of Miami, said the study’s goal was to start “a proper quantitative science of online extremism to replace the black-box narrative that is currently used.”

Instead of focusing only on large social media groups or trying to track millions of individual users, the researchers suggest focusing on small, nimble groups because they reflect groundswells of new activity and, if followed, can potentially point to where that activity is going. While such tracking in itself might not prevent individual acts, like the massacre in Orlando, it can help identify when conditions are ripe for such acts to happen, the study said.


The tracking of terrorists on social media should take a cue from nature, Johnson said, where “the way transitions happen is like a flock of birds, a school of fish.”

“There’s no one fish saying, ‘Hey, I want everyone to be about 5 inches away from someone else, and we’re going to have this shape,’” he said.

The study focused on small groups of Islamic State supporters that formed online and found about 200 such groups, with more than 100,000 members combined. The groups’ postings included pledges of allegiance to the extremists, fundraising appeals and survival tips, like how to protect oneself during drone attacks. The pull of small groups is strong. So-called lone wolf sympathizers do not remain alone long, the study said: They usually join a small group within weeks.

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