arXiv:physics/0606007v3 [physics.soc-ph] 6 Mar 2007
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events
Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM, USA and
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA.
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA.
Kristian Skrede Gleditsch
University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, UK and
Centre for the Study of Civil War, Oslo, Norway.
Summary. In the spirit of Richardson’soriginal (1948) study of the statistics of deadly conflicts,
we study the frequency and severity of terrorist attacks worldwide since 1968. We show that
these events are uniformly characterized by the phenomenon of scale invariance, i.e., the
frequency scales as an inverse power of the severity, P(x) ∝ x−α. We find that this property
is a robust feature of terrorism, persisting when we control for economic development of the
target country, the type of weapon used, and even for short time-scales. Further, we show
that the center of the distribution oscillates slightly with a period of roughly τ ≈ 13 years,
that there exist significant temporal correlations in the frequency of severe events, and that
current models of event incidence cannot account for these variations or the scale invariance
property of global terrorism. Finally, we describe a simple toy model for the generation of these
statistics, and briefly discuss its implications.
Keywords: terrorism; severe attacks; frequency statistics; scale invariance; Richardson’s Law
Richardson first introduced the concept of scale invariance, i.e., a power-law scaling
between dependent and independent variables, to the study of conflict by examining
the frequency of large and small conflicts, as a function of their severity (Richardson,
1948). His work demonstrated that for both wars and small-scale homicides, the
frequency of an event scales as an inverse power of the event’s severity (in this case,
the number of casualties). Richardson, and subsequent researchers such as Ceder-
man (2003), have found that the frequency of wars of a size x scales as P(x) ∝ x−α,
where α ≈ 2 and is called the scaling exponent. Recently, similar power-law statis-
tics have been found to characterize a wide variety of natural phenomena including
The journal version of this pre-print appeared as “On the Frequency of Severe Terror-
ist Events,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 51(1):
58 – 88 (2007), which can be found at
Address for correspondence: Aaron Clauset, 1399 Hyde Park Rd., Santa Fe NM, 87501 USA.
E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
2 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
disasters such as earthquakes, floods and forest fires (Bak and Tang, 1989; Malamud
et al., 1998; Newman, 2005), social behavior or organization such the distribution of
city sizes, the number of citations for scientific papers, the number of participants in
strikes, and the frequency of words in language (Zipf, 1949; Simon, 1955; Newman,
2005; Biggs, 2005), among others. As a reflection of their apparent ubiquity, but
somewhat pejoratively, it has even been said that such power-law statistics seem
“more normal than normal” (Li et al., 2006).
In this paper, we extend Richardson’s program of study to the most topical kind
of conflict: terrorism. Specifically, we empirically study the distributional nature
of the frequency and severity of terrorist events worldwide since 1968. Although
terrorism as a political tool has a long history (Congleton, 2002; Enders and Sandler,
2006), it is only in the modern era that small groups of so-motivated individuals
have had access to extremely destructive weapons (Shubik, 1997; Federal Bureau of
Investigation, 1999). Access to such weapons has resulted in severe terrorist events
such as the 7 August 1998 car bombing in Nairobi, Kenya which injured or killed
over 5200, and the more well known attack on 11 September 2001 in New York City
which killed 2749. Conventional wisdom holds that these rare-but-severe events are
outliers, i.e., they are qualitatively different from the more common terrorist attacks
that kill or injure only a few people. Although that impression may be true from
an operational standpoint, it is false from a statistical standpoint. The frequency-
severity statistics of terrorist events are scale invariant and, consequently, there is
no fundamental difference between small and large events; both are consistent with
a single underlying distribution. This fact indicates that there is no reason to expect
that “major” or more severe terrorist attacks should require qualitatively different
explanations than less salient forms of terrorism.
The results of our study are significant for several reasons. First, severe events
have a well documented disproportional effect on the targeted society. Terrorists
typically seek publicity, and the media tend to devote significantly more attention
to dramatic events that cause a large number of casualties and directly affect the
target audience (Wilkinson, 1997; Gartner, 2004). When governments are uncertain
about the strength of their opponents, more severe terrorist attacks can help terror-
ist groups signal greater resources and resolve and thereby influence a government’s
response to their actions (Overgaard, 1994). Research on the consequences of ter-
rorism, such as its economic impact, likewise tends to find that more severe events
exert a much greater impact than less severe incidents (Enders and Sandler, 2006,
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events3
Ch. 9). For instance, Navarro and Spencer (2001) report dramatic declines in share
prices on the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, and Amex after the devastating
11 September attacks in the United States. In contrast, although financial markets
fell immediately following the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, share prices quickly
recovered the next day as it became clear that the bombings had not been as se-
vere as many initially had feared.1Recent examples of this non-linear relationship
abound, although the tremendous reorganization of the national security appara-
tus in the United States following the 11 September 2001 attacks is perhaps the
most notable in Western society. Second, although researchers have made efforts
to develop models that predict the incidence of terrorist attacks, without also pre-
dicting the severity, these predictions provide an insufficient guide for policy, risk
analysis, and recovery management. In the absence of an accurate understanding
of the severity statistics of terrorism, a short-sighted but rational policy would be
to assume that every attack will be severe. Later, we will show that when we adapt
current models of terrorism to predict event severity, they misleadingly predict a
thin tailed distribution, which would cause us to dramatically underestimate the
future casualties and consequences of terrorist attacks. Clearly, we need to better
understand how our models can be adapted to more accurately produce the ob-
served patterns in the frequency-severity statistics. That is, an adequate model of
terrorism should not only give us indications of where or when events are likely to
occur, but also tell us how severe they are likely to be. Toward this end, we describe
a toy model that can at least produce the correct severity distribution.
Past research on conflict has tended to focus on large-scale events like wars, and
to characterize them dichotomously according to their incidence or absence, rather
than according to their scale or severity. This tendency was recently highlighted
by Cederman (2003) for modeling wars and state formation, and by Lacina (2006) for
civil wars. Additionally accounting for an event’s severity can provide significantly
greater guidance to policy makers; for instance, Cioffi-Revilla (1991) accurately
predicted the magnitude (the base ten logarithm of total combatant fatalities) of
the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which could have helped in estimating the political
consequences of the war.
As mentioned above, research on terrorism has also tended to focus on inci-
dence, rather than severity. Recently, however, two of the authors of this study
1See figures for the FTSE 100 index of the 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock
Exchange at http://www.econstats.com/eqty/eq d mi 5.htm.
4 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
demonstrated for the first time that the relationship between the frequency and
severity of terrorist events exhibits the surprising and robust feature of scale in-
variance (Clauset and Young, 2005), just as Richardson showed for wars. In a
subsequent study, Johnson et al. (2005) considered data for fatal attacks or clashes
in the guerilla conflicts of Colombia and Iraq, suggesting that these too exhibit
scale invariance. Additionally, they claim that the time-varying behavior of these
two distributions are trending toward a common power law with parameter α = 2.5
– a value they note as being similar to the one reported by Clauset and Young
(2005) for terrorist events in economically underdeveloped nations. Johnson et al.
then adapted a dynamic equilibrium model of herding behavior on the stock market
to explain the patterns they observed for these guerilla conflicts. From this model,
they conjecture that the conflicts of Iraq, Colombia, Afghanistan, Casamance (Sene-
gal), Indonesia, Israel, Northern Ireland and global terrorism are all converging to
a universal distribution with exactly this value of α (Johnson et al., 2006). We will
briefly revisit this idea in a later section. Finally, the recent work of Bogen and
Jones (2006) also considers the severity of terrorist attacks primarily via aggregate
figures to assess whether there has been an increase in the severity of terrorism over
time, and to forecast mortality due to terrorism.
This articles makes three main contributions. First, we make explicit the util-
ity of using a power-law model of the severity statistics of terrorist attacks, and
demonstrate the robust empirical fact that these frequency-severity statistics are
scale invariant. Second, we demonstrate that distributional analyses of terrorism
data can shed considerable light on the subject by revealing new relationships and
patterns. And third, we show that, when adapted to predict event severity, existing
models of terrorism incidence fail to produce the observed heavy-tail in the severity
statistics of terrorism, and that new models are needed in order to connect our
existing knowledge about what factors promote or discourage terrorism with our
new results on the severity statistics.
2. Power laws: a brief primer
Before plunging into our analysis, and for the benefit of readers who may be un-
familiar with the topic, we will briefly consider the topics of heavy-tailed statistics
and power-law distributions. What distinguishes a power-law distributions from
the more familiar normal distribution is its heavy tail, i.e., in a power law, there
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events5
is a non-trivial amount of weight far from the distribution’s center. This feature,
in turn, implies that events orders of magnitude larger (or smaller) than the mean
are relatively common. The latter point is particularly true when compared to a
normal distribution, where essentially no weight is far from the mean. Although
there are many distributions that exhibit heavy tails, the power law is a particularly
special case, being identifiable by a straight line with slope α on doubly-logarithmic
axes2, and which appears widely in physics. The power law has the particular form
in which multiplication of the argument, e.g., by a factor of 2, results in a propor-
tional division of the frequency, e.g., by a factor of 4, and the ratio of these values
is given by the “scaling parameter” alpha. Because this relationship holds for all
values of the power law, the distribution is said to “scale”, which implies that there
is no qualitative difference between large and small events.
Power-law distributed quantities are actually quite common, although we often
do not think of them as being that way. Consider, for instance, the populations
of the 600 largest cities in the United States (from the 2000 Census). With the
average population being only ?x? = 165 719, metropolises like New York City
and Los Angles would seem to be clear “outliers” relative to this value. The first
clue that this distribution is poorly explained by a truncated normal distribution
is that the sample standard deviation σ = 410 730 is significantly larger than
the sample mean. Indeed, if we model the data in this way, we would expect to
see 1.8 times fewer cities at least as large as Albuquerque, at 448 607, than we
actually do. Further, because it is more than a dozen standard deviations from
the mean, we would never expect to see a city as large as New York City, with a
population of 8 008 278; for a sample this size, the largest city we would expect
to see is Indianapolis, at 781 870. Figure 1 shows the actual distribution, plotted
on doubly-logarithmic axes, as its complementary cumulative distribution function
(ccdf) P(X ≥ x), which is the standard way of visualizing this kind of data.3The
scaling behavior of this distribution is quite clear, and a power-law model (black
line) of its shape is in strong agreement with the data. In contrast, the truncated
normal model is a terrible fit.
2A straight line on doubly-logarithmic axes is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a
distribution to be a power law; for example, when we have only a small number of observations
from an exponentially distributed variable, it can appear roughly straight on double-logarithmic
3The ccdf is preferable to the probability distribution function (p.d.f) as the latter is signifi-
cantly noisier in the upper tail, exactly where subtle variations in behavior can be concealed. If a
distribution scales, it will continue to do so on the ccdf
6 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
city population, x
Fig. 1. The complementary cumulative distribution function (ccdf) P(X ≥ x) of the population x of
the 600 largest cities in the United States, i.e., those with x ≥ 50 000, based on data from the 2000
Census. The solid black line shows the power-law behavior that the distribution closely follows, with
scaling exponent α = 2.36(6), while the dashed black line shows a truncated normal distribution with
the same sample mean.
As a more whimsical second example, consider a world where the heights of
Americans were distributed as a power law, with approximately the same average as
the true distribution (which is convincingly normal when certain exogenous factors
are controlled). In this case, we would expect nearly 60 000 individuals to be as
tall as the tallest adult male on record, at 2.72 meters. Further, we would expect
ridiculous facts such as 10 000 individuals being as tall as an adult male giraffe,
one individual as tall as the Empire State Building (381 meters), and 180 million
diminutive individuals standing a mere 17 cm tall. In fact, this same analogy was
recently used to describe the counter-intuitive nature of the extreme inequality in
the wealth distribution in the United States (Crook, 2006), whose upper tail is also
distributed according to a power law.
Although much more could be said about power laws, we hope that the curious
reader takes away a few basic facts from this diversion. First, heavy-tailed distri-
butions do not conform to our expectations of a linear, or normally distributed,
world. As such, the average value of a power law is not representative of the entire
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events7
distribution, and events orders of magnitude larger than the mean are, in fact, rel-
atively common. Second, the scaling property of power laws implies that, at least
statistically, there is no qualitative difference between small, medium and extremely
large events, as they are all succinctly described by a very simple statistical rela-
tionship. Readers who would like more information about power laws should refer
to the extensive review by Newman (2005). With these ideas in hand, we can begin
our analysis of the severity statistics of terrorism.
3. Data sources for terrorist events
Many organizations track terrorist events worldwide, but few provide their data in
a form amenable to scientific analysis. The most popular source of information on
terrorist events in the political science literature is the ITERATE data set (Mickolus
et al., 2004), which focuses exclusively on transnational terrorist events involving
actors from at least two countries. In principle, however, and from the standpoint
of frequency and severity statistics, we see no reason to restrict our analysis to
transnational events. Instead, we use the data contained in the National Memo-
rial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (2006, MIPT) database, which largely
overlaps with the ITERATE data, but also includes fully domestic terrorist events
since at least 1998. We note, however, that our analyses can easily be applied to
the portion of the ITERATE data that reports event severity, and indeed, doing
so yields evidence similar to that which we present here. Thus, without loss of
generality and except where noted, we will focus exclusively on the MIPT data
for the remainder of this article.The MIPT database is itself the compilation
of the RAND Terrorism Chronology 1968-1997, the RAND-MIPT Terrorism In-
cident database (1998-Present), the Terrorism Indictment database (University of
Arkansas & University of Oklahoma), and DFI International’s research on terrorist
By 18 June 2006, the MIPT database contained records for over 28 445 ter-
rorist events in more than 5000 cities across 187 countries worldwide since 1968.
Although alternative definitions for terrorism exist, the MIPT database uses a rel-
atively standard one that may be summarized as any violent act intended to create
fear for political purposes. Each entry in the database is quite narrow: it is an
attack on a single target in a single location (city) on a single day. For example,
the Al Qaeda attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 appear as three
8 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
events in the database, one for each of the locations: New York City, Washington
D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Each record includes the date, target, city (if
applicable), country, type of weapon used, terrorist group responsible (if known),
number of deaths (if known), number of injuries (if known), a brief description of
the attack and the source of the information.
Of the nearly thirty thousand recorded events, 10 878 of them resulted in at
least one person being injured or killed, and we restrict our analyses to these events
as they appear to be the least susceptible to any reporting bias. Further, it is
a reasonable assumption that the largest events, due their severity both in terms
of casualties and political repercussions, will have the most accurate casualty es-
timates. Finally, if there is a systemic bias in the form of a proportionally small
under- or over-estimate of event severity, it will have only a small effect the results
of our statistical analysis and will not change the core result of scale invariance – as
with Richardson’s study of the severity of wars, simply obtaining the correct order
of magnitude of an event reveals much of the basic scaling behavior. Throughout
the remainder of the paper, we take the severity of an event to be either the number
of injuries, the number of deaths, or their sum (total casualties), where the severity
is always at least one. Unless otherwise noted, we focus exclusively on the statistics
of these values.
4. Frequency-severity distributions for attacks since 1968
Collecting all events since 1968 as a histogram of severities, we show their com-
plementary cumulative distribution functions (ccdfs) P(X ≥ x) in Figure 2. The
regular scaling in the upper tails of these distributions immediately demonstrates
that events orders of magnitude larger than the average event size are not outliers,
but are instead in concordance with a global pattern in the frequency statistics of
terrorist attacks. Significantly, the scaling exists despite large structural and politi-
cal changes in the international system such as the fall of communism, variations in
the type of weapon used, recent developments in technology, the demise of individ-
ual terrorist organizations, and the geographic distribution of events themselves. In
subsequent sections, we will examine the robustness of the scale invariance property
to both categorical and temporal analysis.
If we make the idealization that events are independent and identically dis-
tributed (iid), we may model the distribution as a power law with some exponent
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events9
1 10100 100010000
severity of event, x
P(X ≥ x)
Fig. 2. The frequency-severity distributions P(X ≥ x) of attacks worldwide since 1968 by injuries,
deathsand their sum. The solid line indicatesthe power-law scaling found by the maximum likelihood
method. Details of fits for these distributions are given in Table 1.
α, where the scaling behavior holds only for values at least some lower-bound xmin.
Obviously, significant correlations exist between many terrorist events, and such an
idealization is made only for the purpose of doing a distributional analysis. Using
the method of maximum likelihood, we estimate two parameters of the power-law
model from the data (details of our statistical methodology are discussed in the
Appendix). Models found in this way for the full distributions described above
are summarized in Table 1. Using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov goodness-of-fit test,
we find that these simple iid models are a surprisingly good representation of the
death and total severity distributions (both pKS> 0.9), although a more marginal
representation of the injuries distribution (pKS> 0.4).4
In Section 8, we will see that we can further decompose these distributions
into their components, each of which are strongly scale invariant but with differ-
ent scaling and limit parameters. As mentioned earlier, the power law is not the
only distribution with a heavy tail, and although testing all such alternatives is
4The Kolmogorov Smirnov test evaluates whether observed data seem a plausible random sample
from a given probability distribution by comparing the maximum difference between the observed
and the expected cumulative distributions.
10 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
Table 1. A summary of the distributions shown in Figure 2, with power-law fits from
the maximum likelihood method. N (Ntail) depicts the number of events in the full (tail)
distribution. The parenthetical value depicts the standard error of the last digit of the
estimated scaling exponent.
beyond the scope of this paper, we considered another common distribution, the
log-normal (see, for instance, Serfling, 2002), and found in all cases that we may
convincingly reject this model (pKS< 0.05).
5. Evolution of terrorism over time
Because events in the database are annotated with their incidence date, we may
write them down as a time-series and investigate the severity distribution’s behavior
as a function of time.5Although we are ultimately interested in the property of
scale invariance over time, we first consider a simple, model-agnostic measure of the
distribution’s shape: the average log-severity. Sliding a window of 24 months over
the 38.5 years of event data, we compute the average log-severity (deaths) of events
within each window.
For highly skewed distributions, such as those we show in Figure 2, the average
log-severity measures the position on the independent axis of the distribution’s
center. The average log-severity is significantly less sensitive to variations in the
length of the upper tail, which may arise from the occasional presence of rare-but-
severe events, than is the average severity. The resulting time series of this measure
is shown in the upper-pane of Figure 3, along with one standard deviation. Notably,
this function is largely stable over the nearly forty years of data in the MIPT
database, illustrating that the center of the distribution has not varied substantially
5In 1998, the management of the database was transferred from the RAND Corp. to the MIPT,
which resulted in several observable differences in the database records. For instance, although
some purely domestic events appear prior to 1998, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing,
domestic events make up a significant fraction of the events entered subsequent to 1998, suggesting
that the true number of events for some period directly prior to 1998 is greater than we observe
in the database. Although this effect could create problems for analyses that count incidents in
a simple way, it does not effect the scale invariant shape of the frequency-severity distribution,
primarily, we believe, because the large events that comprise the tail of the distribution were the
least susceptible to any under-reporting bias. We shall explore this point more in the next section.
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events11
196819721976 1980 198419881992 19962000 2004
mean log2 ( severity )
012345678 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
separation time, τ (years)
Fig. 3. (upper) The average log-severity (deaths) of events within a sliding window of 24 months,
for the entire 38.5 years of data. The upper dashed line indicates one standard deviation, while the
other shows the average log-severity for the entire span of time. (lower) The autocorrelation function
of the average log-severity, illustrating a strong periodicity in the breadth of the distribution at roughly
τ ≈ 13 years. Similar results apply when we analyze total or injury severity, but with slight changes
to the magnitude or location of the anomalous peak in the autocorrelation function.
over that time.
A closer examination of the fluctuations, however, suggests the presence of poten-
tial periodic variation. We investigate this possibility by taking the autocorrelation
function (ACF) of the time series, which we show in the lower-pane. The noticeable
sinusoidal shape in the ACF shows that the fluctuations do exhibit a strong degree
of periodicity on the order of τ ≈ 13 years. If we vary the size of the window,
e.g., windows between 12 and 60 or more months (data not shown), the location
and magnitude of the peak are, in fact, quite stable. But, these features do vary
slightly if we instead either examine the total or injury distributions, or truncate
the time-series. As such, we conjecture that some periodicity is a natural feature
of global terrorism, although we have no explanation for its origin. It has been
suggested that the τ ≈ 13 value may be related to the modal life-expectancy of the
average terrorist group. However, we caution against such conclusions for now, as
these aforementioned variations on our analysis can shift the peak by several years.
12 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
6.Scale invariance over time
Turning now to the question of scale invariance over time, we again use a sliding
window of two years, but now shifted forward by one year at a time. To remain
parsimonious, we make the idealization that events within each window were drawn
iid from a two-parameter power-law model. After fitting such a model to each win-
dow’s frequency-severity distribution, we calculate its statistical significance as a
way to check the model’s plausibility for that time-period. Obviously, this assump-
tion of no temporal correlations is quite strong, and, where appropriate, we discuss
what light out analysis sheds on its accuracy. Johnson et al. (2005) used a similar
approach to study the time-varying distributions for the conflicts in Colombia and
Iraq, but did not consider the accuracy of their models’ fit or give any measure of
their statistical significance.
In Figure 4a we show the estimated scaling parameters α for each time period.
For the first 30 years of data, the scaling parameter appears to fluctuate around
α ≈ 2, which suggests that the scaling behavior was relatively stable over this period.
Subsequent to 1998, when a larger number of domestic events were incorporated
into the database, the scaling parameter shifts upward to α ≈ 2.5, but again shows
no consistent trend in any direction. This shift, taken with the apparent stability of
the scaling behavior over time, suggests that the absence of domestic events before
1998 may have biased those distributions toward more shallow scaling, i.e., before
1998, larger events appear to be more common.
Although many (41%) of these iid power-law models appear to match the distri-
bution of severities quite well (pKS> 0.9), nearly half (49%) achieve only a middling
level of statistical significance (0.5 < pKS≤ 0.9; Figure 4b upper). That is, there are
significant temporal correlations within the time series, or perhaps there are strong
but temporally localized deviations from the long-term structure of the power-law
distribution, that cause our simple model to yield a poor fit at these times. Either
case is unsurprising for this kind of real-world data. An interesting line of future
inquiry would be a close study of the tail events’ political context, which may reveal
the origin of their correlations and explain when temporally local deviations from
the long-term behavior occurred.
Further, we observe that the frequency of the most severe events, i.e., events in
the upper tail of the distribution, has not changed much over the past 30 years. In
Figure 4b (lower pane), we plot the reciprocal of those frequencies, the mean inter-
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events13
1968 1972 1976 1980 1984 1988 1992 1996 2000 2004
scaling exponent α
1968 19721976 1980 19841988 1992 19962000 2004
19681972 19761980 19841988 1992 1996 2000 2004
1968 19721976 19801984 1988199219962000 2004
Fig. 4. Results of fitting a simple power-law model to the tail of the severity (deaths) distribution
of terrorist events within discrete periods of time since 1968. We divide time into two year periods,
sliding the window forward one year at a time; similar results apply for larger windows. (a) The aver-
age scaling exponent α for each two-year period, with circle size being proportional to the statistical
significance value pKS; solid circles indicate p > 0.9. We omit the data point for 1997 as it spans
the transition of the database management. (b) Three panes showing aspects of the models; (top)
significance values computed from a one-sided KS test showing that most models do not achieve
high significance, (middle) the estimated xmin values, and (bottom) the average inter-event interval
for events in the tail, i.e., those with severity greater than xmin.
event intervals, for each two-year period. Notably, from 1977–1997, the inter-event
interval for extreme events averaged 6.9±3.7 days, while from 1998–2006, it averaged
5.3±4.0 days. Although this result may appear to contradict recent official reports
that the frequency of terrorist attacks worldwide has increased dramatically in the
past few decades (United States Department of State, 2003), or that the frequency
of “major” events has decreased, it does not. Instead, the situation is slightly more
complicated: our analysis suggests that the changes in event frequencies have not
been evenly distributed with respect to their severity, but rather that less severe
attacks are now relatively more frequent, while the frequency of “major” or tail-
events has remained unchanged. This behavior is directly observable as the upward
movement of the lower-bound on the scaling region in recent years, precisely when
attacks overall are thought to be more frequent (Figure 4b, middle pane).
Taking the above results together with those of the average log-severity time-
series (Figure 3) in the previous section, we can reasonably conclude that the domi-
nant features of the frequency-severity statistics of terrorism have not changed sub-
stantially over the past 38.5 years. That is, had some fundamental characteristic
14 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
of terrorism changed in the recent past, as we might imagine given recent political
events, the frequency-severity distribution would not display the degree of stability
we observe in these statistical experiments.
7. Variation in scale invariance by target-country industrialization
Returning to the full distributions, we now consider the impact of industrialization
on the frequency-severity statistics – given that each attack is executed within a
specific country, we may ask whether there is a significant difference in the scaling
behaviors of events within industrialized and non-industrialized countries. Toward
this end, we divide the events since 1968 into those that occurred within the 30
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations (1244
events, or 11%), and those that occurred throughout the rest of the world (9634
events, or 89%). We plot the corresponding total severity distributions in Figure 5a,
and give their summary statistics in Table 2.
Most notably, we find substantial differences in the scaling of the two distri-
butions, where industrialized-nation events scale as αOECD = 2.02(9) while non-
industrialized-nation events scale more steeply, as αnon−OECD= 2.51(7). That is,
while events have been, to date, less likely to occur within the major industrial-
ized nations, when they do, they tend to be more severe than in non-industrialized
nations. Although this distinction is plausibly the result of technological differ-
ences, i.e., industrialization itself makes possible more severe events, it may also
arise because industrialized nations are targeted by more severe attacks for politi-
cal reasons. For instance, the OECD events are not uniformly distributed over the
30 OECD nations, but are disproportionately located in eight states: Turkey (335
events), France (201), Spain (109), Germany (98), the United States of America
(93), Greece (76), Italy (73) and the United Kingdom (62). These eight account
for 84.2% (1047) of all such events, and 141 of those are tail events, i.e., their total
severity is at least xmin= 13. These eight nations account for 89.2% of the most
severe events, suggesting that industrialization alone is a weak explanation of the
location of severe attacks, and that political factors must be important.
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events15
1 10100 1000 10000
severity of event, x (total)
P( X ≥ x )
Events inside OECD
Events outside OECD
P(X ≥ x)
severity, x (total)
severity, x (total)
Fig. 5. (a) The frequency-severity (total) distributions P(X ≥ x) of attacks worldwide between
February 1968 and June 2006, divided among nations inside and outside of the OECD. (b) Total-
severity distributionsfor six weapon types: chemical or biological agents (0.2% of events), explosives
(44.8%, includes remotely detonated devices), fire (1.2%), firearms (42.3%), knives (2.3%) and other
(9.2%; includes unconventional and unknown weapon types). For both figures, solid lines indicate
the fits, described in Table 2, found by the maximum likelihood method.
8. Variation in scale invariance by weapon type
As our final characterization of the frequency-severity distribution’s scale-invariance,
we consider the connection between technology, represented by the type of weapon
used in an attack, and the severity of the event. Figure 5b shows the total severity
distributions for chemical or biological weapons, explosives (including remotely det-
onated devices), fire, firearms, knives and a catch-all category “other” (which also
includes unconventional6and unknown weapons). We find that these component
distributions themselves exhibit scale invariance, each with a unique exponent α
and lower limit of the power-law scaling xmin. However, for the chemical or bio-
logical weapons, and the explosives distributions, we must make a few caveats. In
the former case, the sparsity of the data reduces the statistical power of our fit,
and, as discussed by Bogen and Jones (2006), the severity of the largest such event,
the 1998 sarin gas attack in Tokyo, is erroneously high. For the latter distribution,
another phenomenon must govern the shape of the lower tail, and we investigate its
causes below. Table 2 summarizes the distributions and their power-law models.
By partitioning events by weapon-type, we now see that the origin of the bend-
ing in the lower tail of the injury and total severity distributions (Figure 2a) are
6The attacks of 11 September 2001 are considered unconventional.
16 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
Table 2. A summary of the distributions shown in Figure 5, with power-law fits from the
maximum likelihood method. N (Ntail) depicts the number of events in the full (tail) distri-
bution. The parenthetical value depicts the standard error of the last digit of the estimated
scaling exponent. As described in the text, the statistical significance of the explosives
distribution model increases to pKS ≥ 0.82 when we control for suicide explosive attacks.
primarily due to explosive attacks, i.e., there is something about attacks utilizing
explosives that makes them significantly more likely to injure a moderate or large
number of people than other kinds of weapons. However, this property fails for
larger events, and the regular scaling resumes in the upper tail. In contrast, we
see no such change in the scaling behavior in the lower tail for other weapons –
this demonstrates that the property of scale invariance is largely independent of the
choice of weapon. Further, by partitioning events according to their weapon type,
we retain high estimates of statistical significance (pKS> 0.9).
What property of explosives attacks can explain the large displacement of the up-
per tail in that distribution? Pape (2003) demonstrated, through a careful analysis
of all suicide attacks between 1980 and 2001, that suicide attacks cause significantly
more deaths than non-suicide attacks on average, being 13 and 1, respectively. Sim-
ilarly, for our data set, the average total severity for suicide attacks using explosives
is 41.11, while non-suicide attacks have an average total severity of 14.41. Con-
trolling for these attacks (692 events, or 12.9%) does not significantly change the
curvature of the lower-tail in the explosives distribution. It does, however, improve
the statistical significance of our best-fit model to the upper tail (α = 2.55(9),
xmin= 47, pKS≥ 0.82), suggesting that the severity of suicide explosives attacks
deviates strongly from the general scaling behavior, and further that such attacks
are not the source of the lower-tail’s curvature. Conditioning on additional factors,
either singly or jointly, such as the target, tactic or geographic region, can reduce
the curvature in the lower-tail to varying degrees, but can never eliminate it (results
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events17
By analyzing the sequence of events, however, we find evidence that the cur-
vature is at least partially a temporal phenomenon. When we divide events into
the four decades beginning with 1968, 1978, 1988 and 1998, we see that the dis-
placement of the upper tail xminincreases over time, ranging from between 2–20 for
the first three decades, to 49 for the most recent decade. Indeed, because most of
the explosives events in the database occurred recently (3034 non-suicide events, or
72.6%), the scaling behavior of this decade dominates the corresponding distribu-
tion in Figure 5b. Separating the data by time, however, yields more statistically
significant models, with pKS≥ 0.8 for the latter three decades, and progressively
more curvature in the lower tail over time. Thus, we cannot wholly attribute the
curvature to the inclusion of domestic events in more recent years, although cer-
tainly it is largest then. Rather, its behavior may be a function of changes in the
explosives technology used in terrorist attacks over the past 40 years. The valida-
tion of this hypothesis, however, is beyond the scope of the current study, and we
leave it for future work.
9.A regression model for the severity of terrorist events
There is an extensive literature on what factors promote terrorism and make gov-
ernments more likely to become targets of terrorism. We refer to Reich (1990), Pape
(2003), and Rosendorff and Sandler (2005) for overviews of existing studies of ter-
rorism. Notably, however, existing studies say nothing about the frequency-severity
distribution of events, and empirical research on terrorism has tended to focus on
predicting terrorist incidence. In this section, we consider to what extent models
proposed to predict the incidence of terrorism data can account for the severity of
terrorism, and to what extent they can reproduce the observed frequency-severity
As a recent example of empirical studies on the frequency of terrorist attacks, we
use that of Li (2005). Although different studies have suggested different features
to predict variation in terrorist incidents, the Li study is both careful and generally
representative of the structure of cross-country comparative studies. Li empirically
explores the impact of a large number of political and economic factors that have
been hypothesized to make transnational terrorist incidents more or less likely, and
argues that while some features of democratic institutions, such as greater executive
constraints, tend to make terrorist incidents more likely, other features, such as
18 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
Table 3. Coefficients for a negative binomial regression model on terrorist event incidence,
after Li (2005), and its ability to predict observed severity statistics; parenthetical entries
give robust standard errors.
Per capita income-0.177
Regime durability -0.076
2232 2232 1109 2232
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events19
democratic participation, are associated with fewer incidents. Model (1) in Table 3
displays the coefficient estimates for Li’s original results from a negative binomial
regression of the number of transnational terrorist events, with each country-year
as the unit of observation. We refer to the original Li (2005) article for all details
on variable construction, etc.
Since our data are based on terrorist incidents that are not limited to transna-
tional events, we first replicate the Li model for incidents in the MIPT data to ensure
that our results are not an artifact of systematic differences between transnational-
only and transnational-plus-domestic terrorist events. The coefficient estimates for
the Li model applied to the number of incidents in the MIPT data shown as Model
(2) in Table 3 are generally reasonably similar to the results for the original Model
(1), suggesting that the model behaves similarly when applied to the two sources of
data on terrorism.
Next, we examine to what extent the right-hand side covariates in the Li model
allow us to predict to differences in the severity of terrorism. Model (3) in Table 3
displays the results for a negative binomial regression of the number of deaths among
the lethal events in the MIPT data. Comparing the size of the coefficient estimates
to their standard errors suggest that none of these coefficients are distinguishable
from 0, with the possible exception of the estimate for Europe and the post-Cold
War period. In other words, none of the factors proposed by Li seem to be good
predictors of the severity of terrorist events.Moreover, the proposed Li model
fails to generate predictions that in any way resemble the observed variation in the
number of deaths: the largest predicted number of deaths for any observation in
the observed sample is less than 10, far below the actual observed maximum of 2749
(i.e., the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center).
The original Li model examines the number of incidents by country-year, and it
may therefore be argued that looking only at events with casualties could under-
state the possible success of the model in identifying countries that are unlikely to
become targets of terrorist incidents. The results for the Li model applied to the
total events for all country-years, Model (4) in Table 3, however, do not lend much
support to this idea. Very few of the features emphasized by Li have coefficient es-
timates distinguishable from 0 by conventional significance criteria, and the highest
predicted number of deaths for any one country-year in the sample is still less than
16. As such, this model is clearly not able to generate the upper tail of the observed
20 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
10. A toy model for scale invariance through competitive forces
Having shown that a representative model of terrorism incidence is a poor predic-
tor of event severity, we now consider an alternative mechanism by which we can
explain the robust statistical feature of scale invariance. As it turns out, power law
distributions can arise from a wide variety of processes (Kleiber and Kotz, 2003;
Mitzenmacher, 2004; Newman, 2005; Farmer and Geanakoplos, 2006). In the case
of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, forest fires, strikes and wars, the model of
self-organized criticality (SOC) (Bak et al., 1987), a physics model for equilibrium
critical phenomena7in spatially extended systems, appears to be the most rea-
sonable explanation (Bak and Tang, 1989; Malamud et al., 1998; Cederman, 2003;
Biggs, 2005) as events themselves are inherently spatial. However, such models seem
ill-suited for terrorism, where the severity of an event is not merely a function of the
size of the explosion or fire. That is, the number of casualties from a terrorist attack
is also a function of the density of people at the time and location of the attack,
and of the particular application of its destructive power, e.g., a small explosion on
an airplane can be more deadly than a large explosion on solid ground.8
In the context of guerilla conflicts, Johnson et al. (2005; 2006) have adapted
a dynamic equilibrium model of herding behavior on the stock market to produce
frequency-severity distributions with exponents in the range of 1.5 to 3.5, depending
on a parameter that is related to the rates of fragmentation and coalescence of the
insurgent groups; they conjecture that the value 2.5 is universal for all asymmetric
conflict, including terrorism. Given the variation in the scaling behaviors that we
measure for different aspects of terrorism (Figures 2, 4a and 5a,b), this kind of uni-
versalism may be unwarranted. As an alternative explanation to the origin of the
scale invariance for terrorism, we propose and analyze a simple, non-spatially ex-
tended toy model of a stochastic, competitive process between states and non-state
7Critical phenomena characterize a phase transition such as the evaporation of water, while an
equilibrium critical phenomenon is one in which the critical state is a global attractor of system
8A trivial “spatial” model for the frequency-severity scale invariance would be a tight connection
with size of the targeted city and the number of casualties.
city populations are distributed as a power law, and we might suppose that an event’s severity is
proportional to the size of the target city. If target cities are chosen roughly uniformly at random,
an obviously unrealistic idealization, then a power law in the frequency-severity statistics follows
naturally. Tabulating population estimates for cities in our database from publicly available census
data, we find that the correlation between an event’s severity and the target city population is very
weak, r = 0.2(2) for deaths and r = 0.2(1) for total severity, where the number in parentheses is
the standard error from a bootstrap resampling of the correlation calculation.
That is, as we saw earlier, large
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events 21
actors (Clauset and Young, 2005). The model itself is a variation of one described
by Reed and Hughes (2002), and can produce exponents that vary depending on
the choice of model parameters – a feature necessary to explain the different scal-
ing behaviors for industrialization and weapon types. Central to our model are
two idealizations: that the potential severity of an event is a certain function of
the amount of planning required to execute it, and that the competition between
states and non-state actors is best modeled by a selection mechanism in which the
probability that an event is actually executed is inversely related to the amount of
planning required to execute it.
Consider a non-state actor (i.e., a terrorist) who is planning an attack. Although
the severity of the event is likely to be roughly determined before planning begins,
we make the idealization that the potential severity of the event grows with time,
up to some finite limit imposed perhaps by the choice of weapon (as suggested by
Figure 5), the choice of target, or the availability of resources. If we further assume
that the payoff rate on additional planning is proportional to the amount of time
already invested, i.e., increasing the severity of a well-planned event is easier than
for a more ad hoc event, then the potential severity of the event can be expressed
as p(t) ∝ eκt, where κ > 0 is a constant.
However, planned events are often prevented, aborted or executed prematurely,
possibly as a result of intervention by a state. This process by which some events
are carried out, while others are not, can be modeled as a selection mechanism.
Assuming that the probability of a successful execution is exponentially related to
the amount of time invested in its planning, perhaps because there is a small chance
at each major step of the planning process that the actors will be incarcerated or
killed by the state, or will abandon their efforts, we can relate the severity of a
real event to the planning time of a potential event by x ∝ eλt, where λ < 0 is a
constant. Thus, to derive the distribution of real event severities, after the selection
mechanism has filtered-out those events that never become real, we must solve the
following identity from probability theory9
Doing so yields p(x) ∝ x−αwhere α = 1 − κ/λ. Again considering the competitive
nature of this process, it may be plausible that states and actors will, through
9Note that this operation is isomorphic randomly sampling the potential severity distribution.
22 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
interactions much like the co-evolution of parasites and hosts, develop roughly equal
capabilities, on average, but perhaps with a slight advantage toward the state by
virtue of its longevity relative to terrorist organizations, such that |κ| ? |λ|. In this
case, we have a power law with exponent α ? 2, in approximate agreement with
much of our empirical data.
Although our toy model makes several unrealistic idealizations, its foundational
assumptions fit well with the modern understanding of terrorism, and also with ex-
amples of recent attacks and foiled attempts. Whereas the plans for 11 September
2001 attacks in the United States are believed to have been underway since 1996,10
subsequent attacks and attempts in the United Kingdom carried out by less orga-
nized groups and with less advance planning have failed to create a similar impact.
For example, the 21 July 2005 attacks on the London Underground are now be-
lieved to have been a direct copycat effort initiated after the prior 7 July bombings.
The attack was spectacularly unsuccessful: none of the four bombs’ main explosive
charges actually detonated, and the only reported casualty at the time was later
found to have have died on an asthma attack. Even though the suspects initially
managed to flee, all were later apprehended.
The competitive relationship of states and non-state actors has been explored
in a variety of other contexts. Hoffman (1999) suggests that the state’s counter-
terrorism efforts serve as a selective measure, capturing or killing those actors who
fail to learn from their peers’ or predecessors’ mistakes, leaving at-large the most
successful actors to execute future attacks. Overgaard (1994), Sandler and Arce M.
(2003), Sandler and Lapan (2004), and Arce M. and Sandler (2005) give a similar
view, arguing that the actions of states and actors are highly interdependent –
that actors typically make decisions on who, where, when or what to attack based
on a careful assessment of the likelihood and impact of success, with these factors
being intimately related to the decisions states make to discourage certain forms
of attacks or responses. Governments make a similar calculus, although theirs is
primarily reactive rather than proactive (Arce M. and Sandler, 2005). Looking
forward, a game theoretic approach, such as the one used by Sandler and Arce
M. (2003) to produce practical counter-terrorism policy suggestions, will likely be
necessary to capture this interdependence, although presumably it will be roughly
similar to the selective process we describe above.
10On the planning for the 11 September 2001 attacks, see the summary of a documentary aired
by Al-Jazeera at archives.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/meast/09/12/alqaeda.911.claim/index.html.
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events23
Obviously, the practical, geopolitical and cultural factors relevant to a specific
terrorist attack are extremely complex. Although our toy model intentionally omits
them, they presumably influence the values assumed by the model parameters and
are essential for explaining the variety of scaling exponents we observe in the data,
e.g., the different scaling exponents for OECD and non-OECD nations and for
attacks perpetrated using different weapons. It may be possible to incorporate these
factors by using a regression approach to instead estimate the parameter values of
our toy model, rather than to directly estimate the event severity.
11. Discussion and conclusions
Many of the traditional analyses of trends in terrorism are comparative, descriptive,
historical or institutional, and those that are statistical rely on assumptions of nor-
mality and thus treat rare-but-severe events as qualitatively different from less se-
vere but common events (Reich, 1990; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1999; United
States Department of State, 2003; Rosendorff and Sandler, 2005). By demonstrating
that Richardson’s discovery of scale invariance in the frequency-severity statistics of
wars extends to the severity statistics of terrorism, we show that these assumptions
are fundamentally false. Our estimates of the scaling behavior for terrorism, how-
ever, differs substantially from that of the severity of wars; in the latter case, the
frequency-severity distribution scales quite slowly, with αwar= 1.80(9), while the
distribution scales much more steeply for terrorism, αdeaths= 2.38(6), indicating
that severe events are relatively less common in global terrorism than in interstate
Taking Richardson’s program of study on the statistics of deadly human conflicts
together with the extensive results we discuss here, our previous, preliminary study
of terrorism (Clauset and Young, 2005), and the study by Johnson et al. (2005; 2006)
of insurgent conflicts, we conjecture first that scale invariance is a generic feature
of the severity distribution of all deadly human conflicts, and second that it is the
differences in the type of conflict that determine the particular scaling behavior, i.e.,
the values of the scaling exponent α and the lower-limit of the scaling xmin. Indeed,
this variation is precisely what we observe when we control for attributes like the
degree of economic development, and the type of weapon used in the attack. In
honor of Richardson and his pioneering interest in the statistics of deadly conflict,
we call our conjecture Richardson’s Law. A significant open question for future work
24Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
remains to determine how and why the distinguishing attributes of a conflict, such
as the degree of asymmetry, the length of the campaign, and the political agenda,
etc., affect the observed scaling behavior.
With regard to counter-terrorism policy, the results we describe here have several
important implications. First, the robustness of the scale invariant relationship
between the frequency and severity of attacks demonstrates the fact that severe
events are not fundamentally different from less severe ones. As such, policies for
risk analysis and contingency planning should reflect this empirical fact. Second,
although severe events do occur with much greater frequency than we would expect
from our traditional thin-tailed models of event severity, their incidence has also
been surprisingly stable over the past 30 years (Figure 4b, lower pane). This point
suggests that, from an operational standpoint, and with respect to their frequency
and severity, there is nothing fundamentally new about recent terrorist activities,
worldwide. Third, limiting access to certain kinds of weapons and targets is clearly
important, with this being particularly true for those that are inherently more likely
to produce a severe event, such as high explosives, or targets like airplanes and other
mass transit systems. But, severe events themselves are not only associated with
one or a few weapon-types (or targets). Restricting access to some weapons and
targets will likely induce the substitution of less easily restricted ones (Enders and
Sandler, 2006) – a contingency for which we should plan. Fourth, the trend we
identify for explosives, i.e., that such attacks have produced progressively more
casualties over time, is particularly worrying given the sheer number of explosives
attacks in the recent past. Both their severity and their popularity suggest that
current international regulation of explosives technology is failing to keep these
weapons out of the hands of terrorists, and that current diplomacy is failing to keep
terrorists from resorting to their use. And finally, although it may be tempting to
draw an analogy between terrorism and natural disasters, many of which also follow
power-law statistics, we caution against such an interpretation. Rather, a clear
understanding of the political and socioeconomic factors that encourage terrorist
activities, and an appropriate set of policies that directly target these factors, may
fundamentally change the frequency-severity statistics in the future, and break the
statistical robustness of the patterns we have observed to date.
In closing, the discovery that the frequency of severe terrorist attacks follows a
robust empirical law opens many new questions, and points to important gaps in our
current understanding of both the causes and consequences of terrorism. Although
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events25
we have begun to address a few of those, such as showing that the severity of suicide
attacks using explosives does not follow the same frequency-severity statistics as
other forms of terrorism, many more remain. We hope to see the community of
conflict researchers making greater use of these new ideas in future research on
A.C. and M.Y. thank Cosma Shalizi, Cristopher Moore and Raissa D’Souza for
helpful conversations. K.S.G. thanks Lindsay Heger, David A. Meyer, and Quan Li.
We are also grateful to the editor at JCR and two anonymous reviewers for valuable
comments on a previous version of the manuscript. This work was supported in part
by the National Science Foundation under grants PHY-0200909 and ITR-0324845
(A.C.), CCR-0313160 (M.Y.), and SES-0351670 (K.S.G.), and by the Santa Fe
Appendix: Statistical methodology, and the use of power laws in empirical studies
Because the use of power laws and other heavy-tailed distributions in the social
sciences is a relatively new phenomenon, the statistical tools and their relevant
characteristics may not be familiar to some readers. This appendix thus serves
to both explain our statistical methodology and to give the interested reader a
brief tutorial on the subject. We hope that this material illuminates a few of the
subtleties involved in using power laws in real-world situations. Readers interested
in still more information should additionally refer to Newman (2005) and Goldstein
et al. (2004).
To begin, we note that there are two distinct kinds of power laws, a real-valued or
continuous kind and a discrete kind. Although both forms have many characteristics
in common, the numerical methods one employs in empirical studies can be quite
different depending on whether the data are best treated as continuous or discrete.
Examples of the former might be voltages on power lines, the intensity of solar flares
or the magnitude of earthquakes. In cases where discrete data takes values that are
quite large, they can often be safely treated as if they were continuous variables,
such as for the population of US cities, books sales in the US or the net worth of
Americans. In the social sciences, however, data more frequently assume integer
26 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
values where the maximum value is only a few orders of magnitude larger than the
minimum, i.e., the tail is heavy but rather short. Examples of this kind of data might
be the number of connections per person in a social network, casualty statistics for
terrorist attacks, and word frequencies in a text. If such data are treated as a
continuous variable, estimates of the scaling behavior or other statistical analyses
can be significantly biased.
Instead, these heavy but relatively short tails should be modeled explicitly as a
discrete power law,
P(x) = x−α/ζ(α) ,
with x assuming only integer values greater than zero, and ζ(α) being the Riemann
zeta function, the normalization constant. In what follows, we will first consider
the necessity of generating a random deviate with a power-law distribution, and
then consider methods for estimating power law parameters from data itself. Both
sections describe the statistical methods employed in this study, and provide a brief
comparison with alternative methods.
Generating power-law distributed data
Statistical modeling often necessitates the generation of random deviates with a
specified distribution, e.g., in simple null-models or statistical hypothesis tests.
Newman (2005) gives a simple analytic formula, derived using the transformation
method Press et al. (1992), for converting a uniform deviate into a continuous power
x = xmin(1 − r)−1/(α−1),
where x is distributed as a real number over the interval [xmin,∞], and r is a
uniform deviate. Although it may be tempting to simply take the integer portion
of each deviate x in order to obtain a discrete power law, the resulting distribution
will actually differ quite strongly from what is desired: such a procedure shifts a
significant amount of probability mass from smaller to larger values, relative to the
corresponding theoretical discrete power-law distributed deviate.
A more satisfying approach is to use a deviate generator specifically designed
for a discrete power law. Because the discrete form does not admit a closed-form
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events27
1.52 2.53 3.5
scaling exponent of theoretical PDF, α
KS distance from theoretical CDF, DKS
continuous power law deviate
discrete power law deviate
1.52 2.53 3.5
scaling exponent of theoretical PDF, α
estimated scaling exponent, αest
Fig. 6. (a) The closeness, in the sense of the Kolmogorov-Smirnov goodness-of-fit measure, of
power-law distributed deviates, generated using the two methods described in the test, to the target
distribution, a discrete power law with scaling parameter α = 2.5. Results are for xmin = 1 and n =
10 000, with similar results holding for other values, although the difference decreases as xmin → ∞.
Quite dramatically, the discrete deviate generator does a significantly better job at matching the
theoretical distribution than does the continuous method discussed in the text. (b) The results of
using the three methods discussed in the text for estimating the scaling parameter of discrete power-
law distributed data, with parameters xmin = 1 and n = 10 000; similar results hold for other values,
although the estimates get increasingly noisy as the number of observations shrinks, and the two
maximum likelihood estimators increasingly agree as xmin → ∞. Error bars are omitted when they
are less than the size of the series symbol.
analytical solution via the transformation method like the continuous form, the
generator must instead take an algorithmic approach to convert uniform deviates via
the inverse cumulative density function of the discrete power law. Such an approach
is a standard practice, and fast algorithms exist for doing so (Press et al., 1992). To
illustrate the differences between these two power-law deviate generators, we show
in Figure 6a that the latter approach produces distributions that are significantly
closer to the desired theoretical one than does the former method, and it is the
latter which we use for our statistical studies in the main text.
Estimating scaling parameters from data
Since Richardson first considered the scale invariance in the frequency and severity
of wars, statistical methods for characterizing power laws have advanced signifi-
cantly. The signature feature of a tail distribution that decays as a power law is a
straight-line with slope α on doubly logarithmic axes. As such, a popular method
of measuring the scaling exponent α has been by a least-squares regression on log-
28 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
transformed data, i.e., one takes the log of both the dependent and independent
variables, or one could bin the data into decades, and then measures the slope using
a least-squares linear fit. Unfortunately, this procedure yields a biased estimate
for the scaling exponent (Goldstein et al., 2004). For continuous power-law data,
Newman (2005) gives an unbiased estimator based on the method of maximum
likelihood; however, it too yields a biased estimate when applied to discrete data
like ours. Goldstein et al. (2004) studied the bias of some estimators for power-law
distributed data, and, also using the method of maximum likelihood, give a tran-
scendental equation whose solution is an unbiased estimator for discrete data. In
our main study, we use a generalization of this equation as our discrete maximum
To give the reader a sense of the performance of these methods, we show in
Figure 6b the results of applying them to simulated data derived from the dis-
crete generator described above. Quite clearly, the discrete maximum likelihood
estimator yields highly accurate results, with the other techniques either over- or
under-estimating the true scaling parameter, sometimes dramatically so. Johnson
et al. (2006) have also studied the accuracy of these estimators, but apparently only
for data derived from the continuous deviate generator described above.
The discrete maximum likelihood estimator of Goldstein et al. assumes that
the tail encompasses the entire distribution. A generalization of their formula to
distributions where the tail begins at some minimum value xmin≥ 1 follows, and
the value of αML that satisfies this equation is the discrete maximum likelihood
where the xiare the data in the tail, n is the number of such observations, and
ζ(α,xmin) is the incomplete Riemann zeta function. If desired, the latter can be
rewritten as ζ(α) − Hα
xmin, being the difference between a zeta function and the
xminth harmonic number of order α. When xmin= 1, the left-hand side reduces to
ζ′(α)/ζ(α), the values of which can be calculated using most standard mathematical
software. Alternatively, one can numerically maximize the log-likelihood function
On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events29
L(α | x) = −nlogζ(α,xmin) − α
which may be significantly more convenient than dealing with the derivative of the
incomplete zeta function. This approach is what was used in both the present study,
and in our preliminary study of this terrorism data (Clauset and Young, 2005).
These equations assume that the range of the scaling behavior, i.e., the lower
bound xmin, is known. In real-world situations, this value is often estimated visually
and a conservative estimate of such can be sufficient when the data span a half-dozen
or so orders of magnitude. However, the data for many social or complex systems
only span a few orders of magnitude at most, and an underpopulated tail would
provide our tools with little statistical power. Thus, we use a numerical method for
selecting the xminthat yields the best power-law model for the data. Specifically, for
each xminover some reasonable range, we first estimate the scaling parameter αML
over the data x ≥ xmin, and then compute the Kolmogorov-Smirnov (KS) goodness-
of-fit statistic between the data being fit and a theoretical power-law distribution
with parameters αMLand xmin. We then select the xminthat yields the best such
fit to our data. For simulated data with similar characteristics to the MIPT data,
we find that this method correctly estimates both the lower bound on the scaling
and the scaling exponent. Mathematically, we take
where F(x;y,αML) is the theoretical cumulative distribution function (cdf) for a
power law with parameters αMLand xmin= y, andˆF(x;y) is the empirical distri-
bution function (edf) over the data points with value at least y. In cases where
two values of y yield roughly equally good fits to the data, we report the one with
greater statistical significance.
Once these parameters have been estimated, we first calculate the standard error
in α via bootstrap resampling. The errors reported in Tables 1 and 2, for instance,
are derived in this manner. Finally, we calculate the statistical significance of this fit
by a Monte Carlo simulation of n data points drawn a large number of times (e.g., at
least 1000 draws) from F(x;αML,xmin), where αMLand xminhave been estimated
30 Clauset, Young and Gleditsch
as above, under the one-sided KS test. Tabulating the results of the simulation
yields an appropriate table of p-values for the fit, and by which the relative rank of
the observed KS statistic can be interpreted in the standard way.
As mentioned in the text, there are many heavy-tailed distributions, e.g., the
, the stretched exponential e−αxβ, the log-normal, and even a
different two-parameter power law (c + x)−α. For data that span only a few orders
of magnitude, the behavior of these functions can be statistically indistinguishable,
i.e., it can be hard to show that data generated from an alternative distribution
would not yield just as good a fit to the power-law model. As such, we cannot
rule out all Type II statistical errors for our power law models.On the other
hand, we note that for the distributions described in Section 4, the statistical power
test versus a log-normal model indicates that the power law better represents the
empirical data. In some sense, the particular kind of asymptotic scaling in the data
is less significant than the robustness of the heavy tail under a variety of forms of
analysis. Simply the fact that the patterns in the real-world severity data deviate so
strongly from our expectations via traditional models of terrorism illustrates that
there is much left to understand about this phenomenon, and our models need to
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