The butterfly effect and violent extremism

You have all heard of the butterfly effect, right? The idea that a very small event can have enormous implications well beyond its initial parametres.  The official definition, courtesy of Wikipedia, is “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.”.  Like I said, small action, large reaction.

I’d like to think that the phrase comes from a Just So Story by Rudyard Kipling, The Butterfly Who Stamped. In that tale, a male butterfly tells his ?wife? that if he were to stamp his foot the whole palace of King Solomon would fall, all in an effort to win an argument.  The King, in a very non-Solomonic way, grants the male butterfly his wish, scaring the bejeezus out of everyone.

We do see the butterfly effect, in domains ranging from weather patterns to revolutions.  A scant six years ago a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor killed himself after his produce was confiscated and he was slapped by a female police officer. That tiny event led to the Tunisian revolution, the overthrow of the Ben Ali government and, by eventual extension, the cataclysm known as the Arab Spring.  All that over a produce cart.

Are we seeing another catalyst event in Morocco?  This time it is a fishmonger who had his catch taken by a municipal worker and was crushed to death trying to get it back.  His gruesome killing is leading to protests in the north of the country.  Some are already comparing it to Tunisia in 2010.

Others, including the Moroccan government, claim that Morocco is a stable country and that revolutions are unlikely to happen there. Officials are doing all the right things, like launching an inquiry and punish those responsible.  Just like Tunisia did and look what happened there.

The truth is we have no idea whether this tragedy will lead to greater change.  Societal upheavals, like all revolutions, are only analysed in hindsight, not in foresight.  Scholars had been predicting a general Arab uprising for decades and yet when it happened it not only started in the most humble way possible but in a region few believed ripe for violent overthrow.

As for revolution so for terrorism.  No one predicted the rise of Al Qaeda, or Islamic State, or Boko Haram or Al Shabaab or Jeamaah Islamiyah, or….  All these groups began in areas of the world where even if perhaps the conditions were right we had no warning as to the timing.  Given that we have a poor track record of modeling historical terrorism, why should we expect to do better with future terrorism?  When Islamic State dies, as it will, the next big threat will probably come as a surprise to all.

We also need to recognise, humbly, that no matter how complex our models are, and no matter how many data points we collect, we will fail to account for the inherent randomness of human decision making.  And since it is humans that create terrorism, we are not going to be able to proactively prepare for the next wave.

In Isaac Asimov’s classic series Foundation, the mathematician Hari Seldon develops the field of “psychohistory”, an algorithm that allows him to predict the future based on probability.  It works well in those novels, but there is a reason it is called science “fiction”.  Let us not be so arrogant to claim that we can follow in the great doctor Seldon’s footsteps.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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