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Counterterrorism by Numbers
How mathematics can help break terrorist cells
By Davin Wilfrid

Jonathan d. farley, visiting associate professor of mathematics, believes that math could save lives. For much of the past two years, he has studied mathematical tools that could improve U.S. efforts to combat global terrorism, and now his work is attracting attention from defense-related organizations.

Farley employs “order theory”—a branch of abstract mathematics that looks at the hierarchies within groups—to characterize the terrorist cells that intelligence agencies are trying to break up. At present, some intelligence researchers use graphs to plot the organization of cell networks: points represent individual terrorists, connected by lines that denote communication. The problem, Farley says, is that such graphs don’t take into account the chains of command within cells. Order theory, he believes, would allow an agency to determine whether it has broken up a cell—and possibly foiled an act of terrorism—with greater certainty. With increased efficiency, counterterrorism agencies could free up money and energy for other operations.

This type of work is a big change for a “pure” mathematician whose research usually has no immediate practical application. “I thought it might be nice to actually do something that’s useful and potentially life saving,” Farley says. And while the math in this project is not as complex as his usual research, the potential benefits make it worthwhile. “I knew that significant mathematics need not be sophisticated mathematics,” he says.

Farley published his ideas in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism in November 2003; that same year, he cofounded a company called Phoenix Mathematical Systems Mod­eling to turn his ideas into software that will help intelligence agencies. He has spoken with interested defense organizations, including the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the Alexandria, VA–based Institute for Defense Analyses, and hopes to have a product ready within five years.

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Counterterrorism by Numbers

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