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An Agent Based Approach for Understanding Complex Terrorism Behaviors


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Understanding the behavior of a terrorist group is a complex phenomenon because of the uncertainty in strategies and tactics used by terrorists. Current literature suggests that terrorism has an evolutionary nature and terrorist groups change behavior according to a government’s counter-terrorism policies. The goal of this research is to model how terrorist groups and government influence each other. In this regards, an agent-based modeling with network topology is used to model the system composed of interacting agents (attacks) and groups. The terrorist groups’ tactics are modeled based on the success rate of attacks and the defense level of a particular location. The proposed model is validated using real-world data of suicide attacks in Iraq. The model can be used to support governmental counterterrorism policy-making.
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Proceedings of the 2016 Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference
H. Yang, Z. Kong, and MD Sarder, eds.
An Agent Based Approach for Understanding Complex
Terrorism Behaviors
Salih Tutun
Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering
Turkish Military Academy, Ankara, Turkey, and Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY
Haifeng Wang
Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering
State University of New York at Binghamton, Binghamton, NY
Zhao Liu
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
State University of New York at Binghamton, Binghamton, NY
Mehmet F. Yıldırım
Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering
Turkish Military Academy, Ankara, Turkey, and Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY
Sina Khanmohammadi
Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering
State University of New York at Binghamton, Binghamton, NY
Understanding the behavior of a terrorist group is a complex phenomenon because of the uncertainty in strategies and
tactics used by terrorists. Current literature suggests that terrorism has an evolutionary nature and terrorist groups
change behavior according to a government’s counter-terrorism policies. The goal of this research is to model how
terrorist groups and government influence each other. In this regards, an agent-based modeling with network topology
is used to model the system composed of interacting agents (attacks) and groups. The terrorist groups’ tactics are
modeled based on the success rate of attacks and the defense level of a particular location. The proposed model is
validated using real-world data of suicide attacks in Iraq. The model can be used to support governmental counter-
terrorism policy-making.
Agent Based Modeling (ABM), Suicide Attacks, Human Behavior, Networks
1. Introduction
In recent years, suicide attacks have been increasing because they have a high probability of success. Preventing these
attacks is a significant challenge for governments due to the uncertain tactics and behavior of terrorist groups. Terror-
ist groups’ behaviors change dynamically over time and affect individual terrorist behaviors. Therefore, an essential
aspect of studying terrorism is to analyze dynamic organizational behaviors that change over time [1]. A strategic anal-
ysis of terrorist activity is made to understand interactions of terrorist organizations by using non-cooperative game
theory [2]. In addition, a behavioral analysis of terrorist activities is conducted, in order to understand campaigns, by
using a multidimensional Scalogram Analysis technique [3]. Despite this fact, most of the current studies focus on
understanding the relational structure of a terrorist group using network analysis [4]-[7]. These studies provide quali-
tative and quantitative results that may be helpful to understand relational structure. However, it is clear that terrorist
Tutun, Wang, Liu, Yıldırım and Khanmohammadi
organizations are complex, and their behavior cannot be fully understood using structural analysis [8].
In this regards, Agent Based Modeling (ABM) simulates the changing interactions among agents and can model
emergent collective behaviors. ABM has been shown to be an efficient tool for analyzing evolutionary dynamics
of terrorism networks and interactions [9]. In this study, we simulate events (terrorist attacks) by using ABM with
proposed network topology to understand the behaviors of complex terrorism behaviors. Evolutionary dynamics of
networks and relational structure are used to build the model. At the same time, a defense level of cities by government
after attacks is defined to simulate real system for terrorism.
In this research, the ABM is developed to analyze the behavior of suicide attacks by competing terrorist groups such
as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We validated our model by comparing terrorism data set and counter-terrorism tactics for
controlling the oil regions in Iraq and how different tactics spread among terrorist organizations. The rest of the paper
is organized as follows. Section 2 provides the materials and methodology of this study. In Section 3, the results and
discussion are provided, followed by the conclusion in section 4.
2. Materials and Methods
The method consists of two parts including network construction and ABM. In network construction, we construct
a network based on the relationship of different attacks in our data set. Then, we formulate the problem as ABM to
understand the dynamics of the topological changes of terrorist and counter-terrorist organizations. The details of each
section are provided below.
2.1 Data
The National Consortium for the study of terrorism and responses to terrorism (START) is employed in this study
[11]. We used part of this data set that includes 3,795 attack events. Based on the decision tree (e.g., ID3 algorithm),
nine attributes are selected for each attack event: attack type, weapon type, target type, the number of people killed,
the number of people wounded, location, terrorist group, property damage, and attributes factor. Moreover, rules for
successful attacks are defined by using a decision tree for each agent. We also have fitted a probability distribution for
the attack type, weapon type, target type, property damage, terrorist group, the number of people killed and wounded,
corresponding distributions. The probability distributions will be used in the proposed ABM.
2.2 Network Construction
The network model is built to model the behaviors and changes of attack events in the time domain. Each node in the
network represents an attack event at a certain time. The connections between any two nodes are explained as the simi-
larity (learning behavior) of the two attacks, which is judged based on attribute factor and the attack behavior of the two
attacks. For each node, nine attributes are applied: (1) Terrorist group, two terrorist groups are considered in the model,
and they are encoded as 0 and 1, (2) Attack type, nine candidate attack types are applied: ’Assassination’, ’Hijacking’,
’Kidnapping’, ’Barricade Incident’, ’Bombing/Explosion’, ’Unknown’, ’Armed Assault’, ’Unarmed Assault’ and ’Fa-
cility/Infrastructure Attack’, (3) Weapon type includes 11 categories: ’Biological’, ’Chemical’, ’Radiological’, ’Nu-
clear’, ’Firearms’, ’Explosive/Dynamite’, ’Fake Weapons’, ’Incendiary’, ’Melee’, ’Vehicle’ and ’Sabotage’, (4) Target
type contains 12 types: ’Business’, ’Government’, ’Police’, ’Military’, ’Abortion-Related’, ’Airports’, ’Government
(Diplomatic)’, ’Educational Institution’, ’Food Water Supply’, ’Media’, ’Maritime’ and ’NGO (non-government orga-
nization)’, (5) Number of killings means the number of people killed in the attack, (6) Number of wounded indicates
the number of people wounded by that attack, (7) Location is the position of that attack, (8) Attribute factor describes
the attack pattern for each event, 0 or 1, (9) Property damage indicates whether the attacks cause property damage, 1
represents yes and 0 shows no.
The similarity between different attack events (edges of the network) is calculated as follows:
Ssimi =
wixi+exp(da,b)(D f la+D f lb)(1)
where wirepresents the weight for each attributes, xirepresent the similarity for ith attribute. xiequals to 1 if attack
type, weapon type, and target type are the same, and xiequals 0 if they are different. For the number of people killed
Tutun, Wang, Liu, Yıldırım and Khanmohammadi
and wounded, if the difference is less than 20 percent of the mean value of the distribution than xiis equal to 1,
otherwise 0. da,bis the distance between the location of attack aand b.D f laand D f lbrepresent the defense level of
corresponding location for attack aand b, respectively. Ssimi represents the similarity between two nodes. If Ssimi is
greater than a predefined threshold, then an edge will be added to them. We use the information obtained from this
network to construct our ABM.
2.3 Agent Based Modeling
An ABM is developed to express the behavior of attacks in each year. Hence, all agents in our ABM have the same
time point. The notations of the variables used in the ABM are given in Table 1. In this research, the variables are
divided into basic and control variables, where we mainly considered the impact of these control variables to the
terrorist attack behaviors.
Table 1: The notations of the variables used in the ABM
Notations Definition Type Category
nEvent j: Number of candidate attack events for terrorist group jDiscrete
Basic variables
p: Population factor of the world, indicates population size Continuous
nKj:Number of people killed in the last five years for terrorist group jDiscrete
D f ll:Defense level of location lin the world Continuous
W: World size Continuous
f: Attribute factor Binary
sjl : Success rate of an attack from terrorist group jat location lContinuous
d f : Defense factor of the world, an effort factor of government Continuous
Control variablesaj: Aggressive factor for terrorist group jContinuous
dc: Cooling factor of the defense Continuous
The process of constructing our ABM is as follows:
1. The data structure to store the attributes of the agents:
Each agent corresponds to a node in our constructed network in the previous section. Therefore, each agent
represents an attack event, which also includes nine attributes.
2. The data structure to store the states of the environment:
The environment is a discrete world map, where each location has an attribute called defense level (D f l) to
represent the degree of danger in that location. Initially, the world is safe, so all the defense levels are zero.
The higher defense level indicates a lower chance of attack and a smaller success rate for the following attacks.
We also include another parameter called d f , which indicates a government’s willingness to prevent terrorist
3. Rules for how agents interact with each other:
In this model, the interaction of agents represents the learning behavior of terrorist groups. The learning behavior
of terrorists modeled using the attribute of "number of people killed in last five years". The mathematical
formulation of learning behavior model is as follows:
4. Rules for how agents interact with the environment:
The interaction between agents and environment is modeled using defense level. When an attack happens, the
defense level around that area increases. In the model, the defense level of the government is defined as an
exponential function and the severity of attack events follows an exponential decay along the distance. The
defense level is formulated as Equation (3).
D f ll=d f exp ||ne|| (3)
where nrepresents the neighborhood of the newly generated attack, and eis the attack center.
Tutun, Wang, Liu, Yıldırım and Khanmohammadi
5. Rules for the dynamics of the environment:
At each iteration, the defense level of the environment follows a constant decay in the whole map. The decay is
described as a cooling factor of the defense, denoted as dc.
6. Rules for the dynamics of the agents:
Each agent represents an attack generated by a terrorist group. For each terrorist group, the aggressive factor is
used to indicate the aggressiveness, which describes the likelihood that terrorist groups generate attacks. Hence,
the aggressive factor is influenced by whether an attack can be successfully generated. The aggressive factor
gets updated based on four assumptions. First, the aggressive factors will decrease after a terrorist attack hap-
pened due to the potential loss of manpower and other resources. Second, the aggressive factors will increase if
one attack attempt fails. Third, the aggressive factor of terrorist group Awill increase when other terrorist group
has more successful attacks than A. This assumption is based on the fact that terrorist groups want to keep their
influence in the world by having more successful attacks than other group. Fourth, the aggressive factor will
decrease if a terrorist group launches more attacks than other group. The reason is that the group launching more
attacks will draw more attention from the government and will become the primary target of the government
and counter-terrorism agencies.
The number of new attacks (agents) is generated based on the aggressive factor, population, learning, and de-
fense level as shown in Equation (4).
nEvent j=aj(p
(D f l)+nK j
plog((D f l)
d f ·W)) (4)
After determining the number of candidate attacks that could happen (nEvent j), we need to evaluate the success
rate of each attack to judge whether the candidate attack will happen or not. This criteria is formulated as
Equation 5.
sjl =f+nKjD f ll
d f (5)
After constructing the ABM, the model needs to be initialized by generating initial agents (attacks) and setting their
properties. The properties of initial attacks are set according to the distribution of each property obtained from real
data. The initial location properties are generated randomly. During the simulation process, in each iteration, new
attack events are generated for two different terrorist groups according to Equation (4). The maximum number of
attacks for each group at one iteration is restricted by a limiting factor defined using the mean value of defense level.
The location of each new attack is assigned randomly, and the number of people killed and wounded is regenerated
based on the previously fitted normal distribution. These new attack events also use the attack success rate as the
criteria to judge if the attack event will happen or not.
3. Results and Discussion
The results of the ABM for two terrorist groups (indicated by blue and red colors) are shown in Figure 2. As seen
in the figure, at the beginning terrorist groups are competitive as they want to take control of different locations. As
one group starts to take control of a location by launching more attacks, the other group begins to become more
aggressive. This competition continues until the government takes action by increasing the mean defense level for a
particular location. The interesting fact is that after this counter-terrorism measure takes effect, the terrorist groups
start to cooperate with each other to gain control of the location. This cooperation is apparent in the phase space of the
aggressive factors, where the aggressive factor of groups is balanced indicating that both groups are acting together as
one terrorist group rather than competing each other.
To validate the proposed model, we compared the actual suicide attack data of two major terrorist groups in Iraq (ISIS
and Al-Qaeda) to our simulation results. As shown in Figure 1, Al-Qaeda started to increase the number of attacks
after the September 2001 attack. However, the number of attacks by this group and ISIS is balanced until 2010. After
ISIS gained control of most of the oil resources in 2010, the two groups engaged in a competition between 2010 and
2012 by launching more attacks to take over oil resources in Iraq. However, after the international community took
further action against ISIS in 2012, both groups started to cooperate and launched an equivalent number of attacks
against government targets in Iraq. This pattern is similar to what we observed in our simulation results (Figure 2).
This information can be used by counter-terrorism agencies to take proper and timely action to prevent cooperation
Tutun, Wang, Liu, Yıldırım and Khanmohammadi
Figure 1: Actual behaviors of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the data. Note: Al-Qaeda and ISIS are showed by the blue line
and the green line, respectively
Figure 2: Simulation results of groups’ terrorism behaviors
between terrorist groups and to increase the security level at potential targets, thus ultimately preventing future terrorist
Therefore, the terrorist groups understand that they will lose control if they do not share information because when
the groups attack, the government increases the defense level. They need to share information and power against
the government. Afterwards, as seen in Figure 2, the phase space for aggressive factors are balanced because they
behave as one terrorist group. This means that the groups act together for attacks. The groups balance for aggressive
factors because they learn tactics and the government’s behavior. For sensitivity analysis of the results, the actual data
for ISIS and Al-Qaeda is compared so as to check our simulation results, as seen in Figure 1. Al-Qaeda started to
increase the number of attacks after September 2001. By 2011, both groups were attacking with equal intensity. After
2011, however, as ISIS was losing power, Al-Qaeda increased attacks to control the locations. Then by 2013, ISIS
again began increasing attacks. From 2013 onward, they behaved as one terrorist group in Iraq because Al-Qaeda lost
power or agreed with ISIS to merge in Iraq. As tactics, to make successful attacks, the bombing of military and police
became famous attacks in the simulation. At the same time, government can control aggressive factors to control the
terrorist attacks before they happen. We understand that after the groups became professionalized in terms of tactics
Tutun, Wang, Liu, Yıldırım and Khanmohammadi
and locations, they acted together against the government. As a result, if the government would like to take control of
places, they need a policy which divides the groups’ power.
4. Conclusion
In this research, we proposed an agent-based model to analyze the behavior of different terrorist groups and how their
behavior changes according to government policies (defense level). This analysis helps to predict each terrorist group’s
future behavior according to current information. The proposed model was validated using real-world data of suicide
attacks in Iraq. This research can help the government agencies to develop proper counter-terrorism polices according
to the predicted future behavior of terrorist groups.
The authors wish to thank the Turkish Military Academy and the Global Terrorism Database for supporting research
and their help in providing data, respectively. The authors would like to thank Dr. Hiroki Sayama for his valuable
comments and suggestions about the research.
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... However, the above applications of ABM require access to large sets of data to successfully model the targeted population characteristics [22]. Recently, Tutun et al. [23] aimed to model how terrorist groups and governments influence each other. To do so, an agent-based model with a network topology was used to model the system, which was composed of interacting agents (attacks) and groups. ...
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  • X Z H Chen
  • D Z W Mao
Wang, M. C. G. A., Chen, X. Z. H., and Mao, D. Z. W., 2011, "Intelligence and Security Informatics, ". Pacific Asia Workshop (PAISI).