In the West African Sahel and Sahara, armed groups do not limit their attacks to a particular sanctuary, territory or “turf” as urban gangs might. Instead, they move relatively freely across the region, including across state boundaries, and strike at locations that are often far away from each other.
The hostages liberated this month by French special forces in Burkina Faso, for example, had been captured in northern Benin and were believed to be handed over to the militant group Katiba Macina in Mali.
The mobility of these armed groups makes prediction particularly challenging. When and where might an attack by a particular group occur? How does distance affect the mobility of armed groups? What is the cost associated with having to cross borders to conduct an attack in a neighboring country?
We address these issues in a recent paper published in Terrorism & Political Violence, in which we explore the spatial and temporal diffusion of political violence in the region. We wish to understand what motivates or constrains a group leader to attack at a location other than the one that would yield the greatest overt payoff. To do so, we employ a relatively new approach known as spectral embedding, that allows us to measure the impact of distance and borders on the patterns of violent attacks in the region.
An interesting finding of our work is to show that some of the most violent places in the region are far from inhabited areas, such as the extreme north of Mali or the north-eastern reaches of Niger. Instead of thinking of conflicts as a function of place per se, we can now think of conflicts as a function of movement. Since movement, unlike place, is not fixed, strategic consideration can now be given to ways to influence, alter, or disperse some movements while generating and encouraging others.
Conflict has long been known to be dynamic. Our paper posits a method to model that dynamism, one that makes it possible to respond to conflict and violence in terms of strategic consideration of movement rather than simple spatial coordinates.