Spatial and temporal diffusion of political violence in North and West Africa

David Skillicorn, Olivier Walther, Quan Zheng, Christian Leuprecht

Publikation: Kapitel i bog/rapport/konference-proceedingKapitel i bogForskningpeer review


Introduction The study of how crime and political violence diffuse across time and space has greatly benefited from the increasing availability of geo-referenced data and the use of spatial statistical analysis (O’Loughlin and Raleigh 2008; Zammit-Mangion et al. 2013; Metternich et al. 2017). In urban policing, for example, the design and use of hot-spot analysis based on historical data allows us to predict when and where various kinds of crime are most likely to occur, and to preposition policing assets accordingly (Braga 2005). In this limited sense, predictive modeling of crimes has been remarkably effective. The urban environment lends itself to this kind of analysis: criminals are creatures of habit, they tend to travel limited distances, and some areas are naturally more target-rich than others. If we try to adapt this approach to attacks by violent extremist organizations in North and West Africa there are some obvious difficulties. Just as in urban settings, some natural targets attract repeated attacks; for example, foreign workers in West African capitals or government forces stationed on military bases. Most victims of recent conflicts in the region are, however, civilians, killed in a rather unpredictable manner by armed groups whose main objective is ethnic or tribal homogeneity (Kaldor 2012). In such “new wars,” control over people, not territory, leads a multiplicity of state and non-state actors to build a complex ecosystem of affiliated and opposing groups that also constrain when and where an attack by a particular group might take place (Walther and Tisseron 2015; Zheng et al. 2015). Attacks also reflect competition between traffickers and violent extremist groups struggling to control trans-Saharan criminal networks, who often clash far from inhabited areas (Lacher 2012). Furthermore, many violent groups in the region do not limit their attacks to a particular “turf ” as might urban gangs; instead, they move relatively freely across the region, including across state boundaries. The situation is far removed from a conventional Clausewitzian framework, which recommends attacking the enemy with maximum force at its strongest point. Insurgent groups have fewer resources and compensate by striking at locations that maximize impact, even abstractly via publicity, while minimizing cost.

Attackers often rely on guerrilla warfare. They avoid head-on confrontation, thereby blurring the line between zones of war and zones of peace. Naval battles are a more apt analogy: notwithstanding strategic constraints such as the need to blockade enemy fleets, the precise locations at which battles occur are not contingent upon terrain in the way in which many engagements on land are. Against this background, this chapter explores the spatial and temporal diffusion of political violence in North and West Africa. To this end, it models the strategic landscape in a group commander’s mind, taking into account that, far from being clinically abnormal, most terrorists pursue collective goals rather than personal fantasies (Sageman 2004; Horgan 2014). In that sense, most violent extremists may be seen as rational actors that tend to make choices based on costs and benefits, although their goals and actions are clearly not normal in a moral sense. The location of an attack requires a complex calculus that combines properties of the comparative attractiveness of targets, the physical geography of the terrain between the current location and potential targets, the obstacles and impediments to movement between the current location and targets, including borders that must be crossed, the difficulty of operating close to targets, and the need to maintain an element of surprise. We wish to understand what motivates or constrains a group leader to attack at a location other than the most obvious one: that is, the one that would yield the greatest overt pay-off. This chapter leverages the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED) dataset that catalogues violent extremist incidents in North and West Africa since 1997. We use these data to generate a form of “social network” whose nodes are administrative regions, an approach similar to the one described by Batagelj et al. (2014), and whose edges are of qualitatively different types: undirected edges representing geographic distance, undirected edges representing the costs associated with having to cross borders, and directed edges representing consecutive attacks by the same group at two locations. We analyze the resulting network using spectral embedding techniques that combines these different edge types into a “map” of North and West Africa that depicts the permeability to attacks from the perspective of any violent group. This map of permeability reflects the impact of distance, borders and time on violent group actions, and so provides a first step toward principled planning, prepositioning and response. The chapter proceeds as follows. The next section outlines existing literature on the two geographic features that are most likely to influence how attacks are conducted across space and time: the distance between places, and the impediment of state boundaries. The third section describes the geographical and temporal distribution of attacks in the region. The fourth section develops spectral techniques that model the effects of border costs and analyzes attack location over time. The fifth section discusses the main implications of our work before concluding.
TitelAfrican Border Disorders : Addressing Transnational Extremist Organizations
RedaktørerOlivier Walther, William Miles
ISBN (Trykt)9781138054684
ISBN (Elektronisk)9781315166483
StatusUdgivet - 2018
NavnRoutledge Studies in African Politics and International Relations

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