Sean Gourley and colleagues developed and analysed a large data set of attacks and casualties across a number of conflicts looking for commonalities.  Gourley provided a brief overview of his work at TED recently:

Analysis of the data revealed a power-law, whereby the probability of an attack of resulting in x number of casualties equals a constant multiplied by x raised to the power of -α.  This points to an underlying structure to armed conflict, where moderated by the coefficient α.  Gourley et al argue that α reflects the organisational structure of the insurgency.  Values above 2.5 indicate a fragmented structure; values below 2.5 reflect a more consolidated structure.

Finding power laws in such data is not unexpected: there are many attacks with few casualties and few attacks with high number of casualties.  I looked at not dissimilar data, from different sources, a few years ago.

The ‘so what’ questions remains, as Gourley acknowledges.

Gourley et al considered the effects of the Iraqi surge.  They believed that consolidation at least offered the opportunity to negotiate with a group, and expected the surge to assist with consolidation.  In the event, under the surge groups initially did seem to coalesce, but then fragmented again.

A few points:

  • these results are robust across different conflicts, but each still has its own peculiarities, and while at a system-level, and over time, outcomes are consistent, it may be easily perturbed at a micro-level;
  • we don’t know what influences, or how to influence, insurgent (or non-state actors or mob) organisational dynamics to an outcome we want;
  • conflict is not a closed system, but open to a range of outside and transitional influences;
  • insurgent groups will interact and co-evolve with each other.  Perhaps there is some sub-system grouping that needs to be taken into account; and
  • technology will act as a mediator on the conflict, the nature and rate of fatalities, and insurgent group behaviour as well.

Last, the benefits or otherwise of coalesence versus fragmentation is contextual.  It is true that ending a civil war via negotiation depends on having someone, representative of the insurgency, with whom to negotiate, and that can be hard to achieve.  The emergence of such a party probably depends as much on dynamics internal to the insurgency as on external pressure.  Once achieved, such a position of strength may not translate easily into a willingness to negotiate.  But civil wars also often simply peter out, as the parties lose will, energy and resources.  When that happens, fragmentation may indicate such a transition.

So the results are of interest, but there is a way to go to generate some further insights and understandings.  I do note that Gourley’s group has been applying their ideas and findings to other areas; there may be some transfer back into the realm of conflict.


Collier, P. and N. Sambanis (2002). “Understanding Civil War: A New Agenda.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46(1): 3-12.