Discrete spatial choice approach to analyzing terrorist target selection

Zoe  Marchment1, Dr Paul Gill1
1University College London, London, United Kingdom

Several studies have produced descriptive statistics on the spatial and temporal distribution of terrorist attacks. However, research has neglected to include the alternatives that could have been chosen but were not. The discrete spatial choice approach concerns an individual’s choice between a set of two or more alternatives, based on the utility they expect to derive from each alternative. This approach allows target selection to be analysed by considering multiple factors at the same time. The following can be examined simultaneously: a) the origin of the offender; b) the location that was selected; c) the areas that could have been chosen but were not; d) other defined factors that may affect decision making, for example ideology.

This study uses this approach to analyse 150 attacks committed by core active members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army between 1969 and 1989. In this case, the set of alternatives takes the form of ‘small areas’ in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the expected utility of each potential target area is assumed to be evaluated according to the decision criteria presented. The findings suggest that terrorist actors are like traditional criminals in their decision making and they are influenced by spatial context. The results empirically demonstrate that the locations of attacks by PIRA were influenced by characteristics of the target areas (i.e. the presence of a premise relevant to their ideology), as well as the properties of their likely journey to the target (i.e. the distance from their home location to the attack location).

Zoe is currently a final year PhD candidate at the Department of Security and Crime Science, UCL. Her research examines the spatial patterns of terrorist target selection, with a focus on lone actors and Violent Dissident Republican activity. She holds a BSc in Psychology and MSc in Countering Organised Crime and Terrorism. Zoe has worked on projects for the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory; Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST); FP7 Preventing, Interdicting and Mitigating Extremism (PRIME) and the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence.


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