In my day job at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics I work with a team of computer scientists and socials scientists to build models of terrorist group behavior. As the in-house TerrorWonk my role is to “interpret” the results and see if they yield any useful insights. I’ve co-authored papers on both Hezbollah and Hamas ( only the abstract is posted online).
The models use a system called SOMA (Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents) that calculates probabilities of a group acting in a given way in a given situation.
Obviously, we hope that our models can achieve a high level of prediction accuracy. But, regardless they can often reveal facets of an organization’s behavior that were not previously evident. Just as military experts say, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything,” I heard one speaker at a conference say, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Following are short summaries of the findings.
Hezbollah: The Model Holds
On hearing the news that rockets had been fired from Lebanon into Israel yesterday morning, I was surprised as the single clearest rule about Hezbollah behavior was that they do not like to target Israeli civilians during election years – and Lebanon has parliamentary elections coming up in April. Hezbollah even kept their rocket attacks down for 1998’s local elections. It turns out the model held, Hezbollah quickly distanced itself from the rocket launch and did not reply to Israeli counter-fire.
Extrapolating, this trend indicates how highly Hezbollah values its legal and political standing in Lebanon and its recognition that this standing is damaged when it is held responsible for provoking Israeli strikes. This provides a working explanation as to why Hezbollah had not renewed hostilities with Israel in the past few years – Lebanon’s presidential selection crisis, while not exactly an election, had some similar dynamics.
Beyond some utility for predicting (on an annual basis) when Hezbollah might launch rocket strikes, it provides real insight into Hezbollah and even a possible counter-strategy. While Hamas’ rhetoric remains stridently anti-Israel, the group is pressed by its need to satisfy its domestic constituency, the Lebanese Shia, who are a bit tired of being the Muslim world’s spearhead against Israel.
Military efforts against Hezbollah have not been effective, but these findings raise two related questions: how popular is Hezbollah really among its constituents and could political efforts against Hezbollah be successful at marginalizing them. It is worth noting that Hezbollah receives something like $100 million annually from Iran and the Lebanese Shia population is only about 1.5 million people, so these resources would buy a great deal of influence. Other Lebanese Shia groups do not possess comparable resources.
Hamas: Anything but Resistance is Futile
The results of our Hamas model were very different. Strategic decisions to reduce violence were not in evidence. The key driver appeared to be capability. First, the likelihood of suicide bombings (the data set does not include rocket attacks) increased after Hamas came into contact with Hezbollah in 1993, and received training in suicide terror. The other factor, which increased the likelihood of suicide attacks was Hamas’ provision of social services (which would seem counter-intuitive – but as Matt Levitt shows, the social services infrastructure is also a critical part of the terror network.)
Interestingly, when Hamas was participating in the Palestinian democratic process they were also very likely to carry out suicide attacks on Israel. However, the sample size was relatively small and capability seemed like a likelier explanation.
Perhaps the most interesting finding was that certain attacks, such as kidnappings and property attacks on Palestinians, tracked with internal Palestinian conflict. Although it occurred after the data was collected, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit occurred during the Hamas-Fatah civil war. Another round of Hamas-Fatah fighting is likely in the West Bank, so more of these kinds of actions should be expected.
It could be argued that the 2006 war in Lebanon was a relative success – Hezbollah has kept that border quiet since. The likelihood of a similar modus vivendi with Hamas is Gaza seems less likely based on the model and also based on Hamas rhetoric. In an interview given just days before Hamas began launching rockets the deputy chief of Hamas’ Damascus wing stated:
[Your] question implies that the Tahdiah [truce] is a central issue behind [our] decisions, consultations, and mediation attempts. However, the opposite is true… [for us,] resistance is the main [element] in the relations between the Palestinian people and the Zionist occupation.
Reducing Hamas’ desire to commit violence does not seem possible, it is essential that Israeli strategy reduce their capability. In that regard, cutting the Hamas supply lines of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt (and attacking the broader smuggling network) is critical.