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Conflict and Complexity: Countering Terrorism, Insurgency, Ethnic and Regional Violence (Understanding Complex Systems)

Fellman, Philip vos, Bar-Yam, Yaneer and Minai, Ali A. (eds.)
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2014
ISBN 978-1493917044 (pb)

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Reviewed by Claudio Cioffi-Revilla
George Mason University

Cover of book The field of “conflict and complexity”, as in the title of this book, has noble scientific roots in the work of Lewis Fry Richardson (1960a, 1960b), who pioneered the quantitative study of conflict and provided the first seminal contributions based on complexity-theoretic concepts and principles, such as power-laws and fractals. In more recent decades, the social science of conflict—including terrorism and other forms of violence short of inter-state warfare, such as in the subtitle of this book—has advanced through numerous and major contributions based on systematic theory and research employing statistical, mathematical, and computational models based on rigorous methodology. Today, scientific work in this area is assessed by standards comparable to those of peer-reviewed articles published in this same journal of computational social science, JASSS, as well as others, such as the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory, or the Journal of Peace Research, among others.

This book was published by the New England Complex Systems Institute as an edited volume in that organization’s own book series through Springer, and contains a rather heterogeneous collection of chapters written mostly by NECSI authors and a mix of non-academic, professional, and academic contributors. The volume contains sixteen chapters divided into three thematic parts. The first part aims at providing “Theoretical Background” and contains an Introduction to the entire volume, written by the lead co-editor, followed by five chapters on “Complex Systems and Terrorism” (Czeslaw Mesjasz), “The Psychology of Terrorism” (Elena Mastors), a chapter on agent-based modeling of social identity dynamics (M. Afzal Upal), the DIME/PMESII scheme used in American national security analysis and policy (Dean S. Hartley), and a chapter entitled “Net-Centric Logistics: Complex Systems Science Aims at Moving Targets” (Thomas Ray).

The focus of the second part is on “Applications and Case Studies”. It contains five chapters, on “A Fractal Concept of War” (Maurice Passman), “Disrrupting Terrorist Networks: A Dynamic Fitness Landscape Approach” (Philip Vos Fellman, the lead co-editor, joined by four co-authors), “Comparison of Approaches for Adversary Modeling Decision Support for Counterterrorism” (Barry Ezell and Gregory S. Parnell), “The Landscape of Maritime Piracy and the Limits of Statistical Prediction” (by the lead co-editor and four co-authors), and a chapter on “Identities, Anonymity and Information Warfare” (Stuart Jacobs, Lou Chitkushev, and Tanya Zlateva).

Finally, the third part of this edited volume is dedicated to “Broader Horizons” and consists of five chapters written by NECSI member contributors, exclusively. The first addresses “The Geography of Terrorism” in three countries (Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and India), “Food Security and Political Instability”, “South African Riots”, “Conflict in Yemen”, and “Complexity and the Limits of Revolution: What Will Happen to the Arab Spring?”

Based on common standards that apply in the contemporary scientific literature on conflict and complex systems, this volume suffers from a troubling number of shortfalls that seem uncommon in a book provided by a distinguished publisher such as Springer. When agent-based models are used in this volume, they are not properly documented in terms of basic design, verification, validation, and analysis, as is normally required in the computational social science literature, leaving the reader wondering about the nature of the models being used. When complexity-theoretic concepts and principles are applied, very little is provided by way of rigorous analysis; with some notable exceptions noted below. When data sets are analyzed, they seem weakly documented. Quite a number of the chapters seem more like short informal pieces appearing in popular science publications for a general audience, rather than scientific contributions in applied complexity science. From a purely stylistic and editorial perspective, most chapters contain missing references to well-known scientific publications, numerous graphs could stand improvements (readability, scales, aspect ratios, among other deficiencies), and the “Parts” of the volume are not effective in informing the reader as to what belongs where (e.g., Part 2 contains at least one theoretical chapter, whereas Part 3 contains several applications, which is the theme of Part 2).

By far the best chapter is the one by Ezell and Parnell (Chapter 9), which provides a useful description and rare review of several valuable modeling methods from applied discrete mathematics, such as formal logic, event trees, probability, and other related tools for modeling and understanding conflict, terrorism, insurgency, and other forms of armed violence and asymmetric warfare—and similar methods are also applicable to inter-state conflicts. Interestingly, this is also an effective theoretical chapter, which would have been more appropriate in Part I (Theoretical Background), although it aims to address decision support systems in intelligence analysis. Readers interested in the psychology of terrorism, and in fractals applied to conflict, will find Chapters 3 and 7 useful, respectively, albeit the former is unrelated to complexity and the latter applies to all forms of conflict, not just terrorism.

* References

RICHARDSON, Lewis Fry (1960a). Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Boxwood Press.

RICHARDSON, Lewis Fry (1960b). Arms and Insecurity. Philadelphia: Quadrangle Press.


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