Calculated Terror

How a computer model predicts the future in some of the world's most volatile hotspots.

On Oct. 27, a Katyusha rocket was fired from Lebanon and struck down in an open area outside the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmone. This was the ninth such rocket strike since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but smaller Palestinian groups hoping to spark another round of fighting are the most likely suspect. Hezbollah, despite its extreme anti-Israel politics, did not join the fight, even after Israeli counterstrikes.

The "Blue Line" separating Israel from Lebanon is one of the most volatile borders in the world. But predicting when this area, and other tense regions throughout the world, will erupt into violence often appears to be little more than guesswork. How can policymakers overcome their own biases and limited information to anticipate if an incident like the recent rocket strike on Israel will spark a larger conflict, like the 2006 war, or fizzle out?

Increasingly, the answer is: Develop a computer model from historical data. The University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics (LCCD) constructed one such model that predicted this period of quiet along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and also provides insight into Hezbollah's priorities. LCCD developed a framework, known as Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents (SOMA), that examines historical data and automatically generates rules assessing the probability that a group will take certain actions under certain conditions.

SOMA examines historical data about the group's behavior and tries to find conditions such that, when the condition is true, the group takes a given action with high probability and, when the condition is false, the group takes the action with very low probability. A human analyst could make these connections when there are relatively few variables being tracked. But when there are dozens of variables there are millions of such possible rules -- far more than an analyst can process. This is often the case in the interconnected world of Middle East politics, where events are shaped by the actions of many actors working in a diverse array of countries.

SOMA rules have also been extracted on the behavior of other Middle Eastern groups. Hamas, for example, is twice as likely to commit kidnappings during periods of conflict with other Palestinian organizations (the probability increases from approximately 33 percent to 67 percent). If another round of Fatah-Hamas fighting erupts in the West Bank, this may present a new challenge for Israeli security. While the rules had not been extracted in 2006, it is worth noting that the Israeli soldier Galid Shalit was kidnapped as the conflict between Hamas and Fatah expanded after the 2006 Palestinian elections.

SOMA is not specifically designed to model the behavior or Hezbollah or even of terrorist organizations -- it has also examined the behaviors of various actors in the Afghan drug trade under different circumstances. This model was built on a hypothetical situation, not systematically gathered data, but demonstrates the way in which SOMA can be applied to a broad range of conflicts and scenarios. The analysis showed that frequently used strategies such as burning poppy fields and destroying drug labs in Afghanistan are unlikely to lead to a long-term decline in the Afghan drug trade.

Models require data, and limitations of that data can limit the accuracy of a system such as SOMA. For the analysis of Hezbollah (and several other groups) SOMA used the Minorities at Risk Organization Behavior (MAROB) data set created at the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management. MAROB identifies factors that motivate members of ethnic minorities to form activist organizations and move from conventional politics to terrorism. MAROB has systematically collected information on more than 150 variables from over 100 organizations across the Middle East during the last several decades. Hezbollah is one of the organizations profiled; the data collected covers Hezbollah from its 1982 founding through 2004.

In examining the rules generated by SOMA about Hezbollah's behavior, the most striking finding was the correlation between Hezbollah attacks on Israeli citizens and Lebanese elections. Since the re-establishment of Lebanon's parliamentary democracy in 1992, there was a 62 percent chance Hezbollah would target Israeli civilians (primarily through rocket attacks) in any given year through 2004. In off-election years the likelihood jumped to 78 percent, while in election years the probability was negligible. The one election year in which Hezbollah fired rockets at Israel was 1996. Though Hezbollah won a propaganda victory when Israel's response caused heavy Lebanese civilian casualties, the organization lost parliament seats in the 1996 elections. Hezbollah has since sought to keep its fighting with Israel within certain boundaries, avoided major escalations during election years, and re-emphasized its provision of social services within Lebanon.

The test for any model is whether or not its predictions hold. During Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza, there was concern that Hezbollah would initiate a second front to aid its ally. But Hezbollah offered only rhetorical support to Hamas. During the Gaza operation, a few rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel and Hezbollah quickly and credibly denied responsibility. With an election later in the year, Hezbollah determined that it could not risk renewed violence with Israel -- particularly in the wake of the 2006 war, which many Lebanese felt was brought on by Hezbollah and that left much of south Lebanon in ruin.

Beyond its predictive value, these findings provide insight into Hezbollah's behavior and priorities. The SOMA results highlight how Hezbollah needs to maintain its position within Lebanon's political system, even if that restricts its ability to wage war on Israel. Though the conflict with Israel is the organization's raison d'être, Hezbollah's leadership has taken steps -- such as participating in the Lebanese parliament -- to prevent the party from being politically isolated.

However, this balancing act is becoming more difficult to maintain, as these two aspects of Hezbollah are coming into increasing conflict. The 2006 war inflicted massive costs on the Lebanese people, which has made them less likely to tolerate Hezbollah's foreign adventurism. Earlier in October an explosion at a private home revealed the presence of a Hezbollah arms cache (Hezbollah disputes this). This incident reminded the Lebanese that Hezbollah remains capable of launching another round of fighting with Israel, and raised the specter of the conflict being sparked by accident. The recent Israeli seizure of a cargo ship carrying nearly 400 tons of weapons apparently intended for Hezbollah raised further concerns that Lebanon could again become a battlefield between foreign powers. If one appreciates that Lebanese popular opinion exerts a strong influence on Hezbollah's actions, it should be clearer that another Israel-Hezbollah war remains unlikely.

SOMA's analysis of Hezbollah's behavior serves both analysts and policymakers by making a specific prediction about the group's likely actions, and also by highlighting this important underlying dynamic. As the data collected expands in breadth and depth, it may become possible to make specific predictions about how, when, and under what circumstances regional changes will occur. While the Oct. 27 rocket strike on northern Israel seems to be just the sort of incident which could cause an unpredictable chain reaction in the region, in the future its repercussions may largely be known before the rocket leaves the ground.



How al Qaeda Dupes Its Followers

Osama bin Laden's terror network has perfected the art of masking its unpopular agenda with a recruitment pitch that can hook just about anyone.

Last week, five young men from northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., were arrested in Pakistan, alleged to have been eager volunteers for a terrorist-linked militant group in a region rife with insurgency. The facts remain sparse so far, but this would not be the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that Americans have left their country to heed al Qaeda's call to arms.

These men, however, look different -- at least from the outside. The FBI explained that the five don't fit the typical profile of a militant supporter of al Qaeda, the Christian Science Monitor reported. They were from the middle class, educated, and not visibly marginalized from American society. Their grievances were not readily apparent.

In fact, these men fit exactly the profile that the FBI and the world should now come to expect: no profile at all. A militant's profile lies not in his age, race, culture, or education; anyone can join or be adopted by the al Qaeda network, the only prerequisite being a willingness to accept the group's radical, cult like ideology. So if there is a lesson to be learned from these recent arrests, it is that profiling won't work. We need something better.

According to family members and those who knew them, the five were hooked in by radical messages of precisely the sort that al Qaeda is known for. They are thought to have watched the militant rhetoric on YouTube, enough to encourage them to take the trip abroad. Across the world, al Qaeda encourages could-be recruits to do exactly the same -- to become muhajiroun or "émigrés" who move away from non militant communities, families, and friends to join the brotherhood of armed jihadists. Indeed, one of the young men abandoned his career in dental school; another left his family only a farewell video promising to defend Islam.

Such a desertion seems at first unfathomable. But al Qaeda succeeds because, for more than two decades, the network has waged a successful information campaign that pushes its message out to the world as effectively asymmetrical as its use of suicide bombers on the battlefield. Al Qaeda has dominated the battlefield of the soul among the disaffected, disenfranchised, and dissatisfied. It promises action instead of discussion. It avows to defend Islam through suicide bombings and mass murder. (Recovered jihadists are often horrified to learn, with the help of mainstream clerics, that they have been duped by a fantastical corruption of Islam, best called bin Ladenism.)

Indeed, so persuasive is the rhetoric that al Qaeda regularly convinces converts to reject 1,431 years of Islamic teachings in favor of a mission whose intention is the destruction and re-engineering of Islam itself. Osama bin Laden has managed to replace fear of God and adherence to the Quran with his philosophy of jihad above all else. What's behind that facade is the true philosophical intentions of al Qaeda: the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate that will defeat democracy as the greater of the two political orders. Al Qaeda's leaders seek to reverse what they claim are corrupt Islamic practices bookended by the Mongol invasions in 1256 and Ataturk's ending the caliphate in 1924. Theirs is a fight to turn Islam's clock back to the time of Prophet Muhammad's original followers.

How does al Qaeda do it? The network has perfected the art of turning fantastically corrupt ideas into mainstream, cultist philosophy. Back when al Qaeda first began its campaign, it targeted individuals though face-to-face distribution of militant lectures on cassette tapes, locally produced books, and pamphlets. The network leapt at the opportunity to harness the Internet beginning around 1995, which al Qaeda used to spread its word unencumbered until 2001. The Web's endless reach magnified a once-localized message. Meanwhile, the message also became more universally appealing to the dispossessed: Come fight in a brotherhood of men who give up their homes, families, and lives to live as a nomadic knights. Be part of something. Return Islam to its seventh-century origins. Recruits would embody the mythology they were being told. And all they needed was a few household chemicals, a soft target, and the desire to die.

But bin Laden can be defeated by his own game. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, and Indonesia have successfully broken up al Qaeda wings using appeals to save the souls of the misguided, breaking recruitment and logistics support from within the community. These countries have realized that bullets cannot kill terror in their midst, and their rehabilitation programs are focused on training the militants with a counterideology. Mentors and counselors show deep concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of the former militants, asking them to debate with Islamic scholars who bring the ex-terrorists to see the cause itself as so un-Islamic that the end result in the next life could only be damnation. Militants meet with others who have renounced terrorism, and their redemption and forgiveness are linked with accepting a new worldview.

The arrest of these five in Pakistan is just one of several recent examples of the stakes. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, may also have found a path to militancy through Internet-disseminated rhetoric. Every such arrest should go one step further to disproving terrorist stereotypes. What's really at work here is not any one man's disposition; it's an ideology packaged to kill.

WEDA/AFP/Getty Images