Opinion polls could predict terror attacks

Opinion polls could predict terror attacks

A simple straw poll among citizens in say, Pakistan, to gauge their disapproval or approval of the Indian leadership, can be a strong indicator of the likelihood of terrorist attacks by that country against its neighbour, an analysis by US and Czech scientists to be published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science suggests.

Listen to director National Martime foundation C. Uday Bhaskar talk about the Science report on linking terrorism to opinion polls.

“It’s for the first time we’ve shown that public attitudes do seem to predict the incidents of terrorist attacks...and this could be a useful tool for formulating counter-terrorism policy," said Alan Krueger, US assistant secretary of the treasury for economic policy.

Even before the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 that claimed at least 183 lives, India was already counted among the top terror hot spots in the world.

Data from New Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses shows India has seen at least 73 terrorist attacks between January 2006 and December 2008, causing 668 deaths.

Krueger, author of several research papers on terror as an economist at Princeton, and Jitka Maleckova of Charles University, Czech Republic, juxtaposed results of a 2006-07 poll that asked a wide sample of citizens from 19 West Asian and North African countries, whether they approved or disapproved of the leadership in nine large countries. Selected because they are world powers in terms of size, population or military strength, these were: the US, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia and the UK.

The opinions, positive or negative, were then linked to the number of terrorist attacks conducted against property or people in these countries, by people from the 19 countries between 2004 and 2008, compiled by the US National Counterterrorism Center. The poll was conducted bv the Gallup Organization, and questioned respondents in 2006 and 2007.

The scientists then tabled pairs of each country, and ran a regression of the public opinion and terrorist attack counts. There were 952 terrorist attacks in this period, the results showed, 841 of them allegedly by groups based in Pakistan against India.

However, for most of the analysis, the researchers left out the Pakistan-India pair. “We didn’t want the large numbers of incidents to overtly affect our results... However, even including the pair doesn’t alter our main conclusions," said Krueger in an interview to Science Podcast.

Calls and emails to both authors were not returned.

The analysis showed that, on average, terrorist attacks increased a substantial 300%, or four times, from 0.41 to 1.57, if the number of people disapproving of the other country’s leadership rose from under 40% to 70% of the population. The authors reason it could be because a high level of disapproval could mean more people willing to support, or themselves take part, in terrorist activities. However, they said the data doesn’t show if terrorists respond to public opinion per se or the political views of terrorists are aligned with that of the general population.

The authors also mention that other possible causes of terrorist attacks such as poverty, and the geographical distance between countries, were not as well correlated to predicting terror attacks as opinion of leadership. However, the authors don’t corroborate this assertion in their paper.

“It’s an interesting approach. One of the significant aspects of the paper is that poverty doesn’t correlate well with the likelihood of terrorist attacks," said C. Uday Bhaskar, a New Delhi-based defence analyst and director of the National Maritime Foundation. Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management, termed the study “silly and trivial". He said if public opinion polls had such a strong predictive value, there would be a huge number of terrorist attacks by several Latin American countries on the US, and several more by India on Pakistan