14 key features that define a successful insurgency

by seangourley on December 21, 2009

Insurgencies are by their very nature difficult to understand. However each time an attack is launched and every time an IED explodes we start to know a little more about the structure of an insurgency. If we combine together enough of these attacks we start to build up a mosaic picture of the insurgency. Their actions can start to be defined mathematically and we can work backwards from these signatures to understand the fundamental forces that underlie the insurgency. This is exactly what we did in our latest research study “Common Ecology Quantifies Human Insurgency“.

With these models we can for the first time quantitatively understand more about what makes an insurgency successful. From our analysis and modeling we find that there are 14 key characteristics that define a successful insurgent ecosystem; these are listed below with a short name to describe the feature.

  1. Many body: There are many more autonomous insurgent groups operating within conflicts than we had previously thought. For example there are 100+ autonomous groups operating in Iraq (as of 2006).
  2. Fluidity: The insurgents are loosely grouped together to form fluid networks with short half-lives. This is very different from the rigid hierarchical networks that have been proposed for insurgent groups.
  3. Redundancy: If we remove the strongest group from the system another group will rise to replace the previous strongest group
  4. Splinter: When a group is broken it does not generally split in half but instead shatters into multiple pieces
  5. Redistribute: When a group is broken the components are redistributed amongst the other groups in the system. The redistribution is biased towards the most successful remaining groups.
  6. Snowball: The strongest groups grow fastest
  7. Tall poppy: The strongest groups are the predominant targets for opposition forces
  8. Internal competition: There is direct competition amongst insurgent groups for both resources and media exposure. They are competing with each other in addition to fighting the stronger counterinsurgent forces.
  9. Independent co-ordination: Autonomous groups act in a coordinated fashion as a result of the competition that exists between them.
  10. Emergent structure: Attacks in both Iraq and Colombia become ‘less random’ and more coordinated over time
  11. Evolution: The strategies employed by the groups evolve over time where successful groups/strategies survive and unsuccessful strategies/groups are replaced.
  12. High dimensional: Connection occurs over high dimensions (i.e. Internet, cell phone etc) and is not dominated by geographic connections.
  13. Non-linear: It is approximately 316* times harder to kill 100 people in an attack than it is to kill 10 people. (*Results for a conflict with alpha=2.5).
  14. Independent clones: the fundamental structure and dynamics of insurgent groups is largely independent of religious, political, ideological or geographic differences.

What can we learn from insurgents? Should the US military adopt more of these principles? Can we apply these organizational characteristics to other problems? You can read more about the research over at the TED blog, including the in depth interview I did with them.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad March 8, 2010 at 9:49 pm

interesting list, but these concepts you describe are known and although the public may be largely unaware of insurgency characteristics, the military for the most part has known and taught these concepts as far back as Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Spain, Gaul, and Britania.

physician assistant April 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Aiken Ortiz September 16, 2010 at 5:00 am

interesting list, but these concepts you describe are known and although the public may be largely unaware of insurgency characteristics, the military for the most part has known and taught these concepts as far back as Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Spain, Gaul, and Britania.
+1

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