Friday, November 6, 2015

Social Network Analysis in the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence

Arie Perliger & Ami Pedahzur, 2010


Social Network Analysis (SNA) in the study of political violence has remained quite limited, and still amounts to only a small fraction of the research in the field due to the fact that the majority of political violence students have very limited acquaintance with the rationale, and the main concepts and methodological tools of SNA. Since September 11th, growing numbers of media outlets and the striking increase in the efforts and resources invested in data collection (for example, START at the university of Maryland and TIGER at the University of Texas at Austin), have simplified the adaptation of research methods which demands high resolution information about the terrorists and their groups, among them SNA. However, many of the researchers are still reluctant to exercise SNA in their studies and consequently tend to express doubt regarding its efficiency and relevance for the study of complex social phenomena.

How to Study Violent Social Networks

Naturally, in the case of terrorist groups, researchers strive to include all the actors who take part in the group’s activities and the social processes leading to the violent activities. However, this raises the question of what constitutes significant participation in these processes. A more inclusive perspective would involve all those who assisted in the execution of the attacks. This includes actors who were part of the group for short time, individuals who were not present in the formation stages of the group yet did not participate in the decision-making processes, or spiritual leaders who just provided moral support for the actual perpetrators. By contrast, an exclusive outlook would include only actors who are longtime members of the group, participating consistently in its activities and in the decision-making processes, and who have continuous relations with other members. The inclusive approach better fits mapping the network in its initial stages. However, exclusive approach will provide more valid representation of the network in the operational stages of its activities. After deciding which actors belong to the network, a decision must be made regarding the categorizations of tie types. While ties may have different characteristics—they can be binary or not, symmetrical or asymmetrical (even strength in both directions or stronger in one direction), negative or positive—it seems that measuring tie strength is most relevant for understanding the social dynamic within violent networks.

One of the main advantages, which SNA provides for researchers of terrorists groups, is the capability to uncover the informal division of influence and social capital within the group, which, in turn, influences the group’s internal political and social processes and the outcome of its activities. Besides, it also helps to better understand the motives beyond the group’s actions. A high number of ties is not the only criteria for detecting informal leaders. The actors who are in strategic locations and serve as connectors between the different subgroups possess significant power and are crucial for the survival of the network. While they do not have to be connected to high numbers of members, they can veto almost any operation that needs the cooperation of the different subgroups. Besides, there are those who do not have a particularly large number of ties, nor are they connectors between different parts of the network, but they are situated in a strategic location in terms of their proximity to hubs or to large numbers of members within the network; hence, they have high level of access to information and resources. Some of the prominent relevant measures, which can be effective in the study of violent groups, are degree of centrality, closeness and betweenness. Identifying the subgroups is also crucial point. It allows us to detect different functions of the network (founders, collaborators, passersby), network recruitment paths, operational characteristics and patterns of flow of information.

Since we can assume that actors’ behaviors are a product of their structural opportunities and constraints, we can expect actors with similar location characteristics to react in similar ways. Thus, SNA could be of high value for understanding the relations between different terrorist groups worldwide.


The article illustrates the potential of SNA in the study of political violence and terrorism.  This method can be highly useful for further developing and testing some of the current prominent theoretical frameworks in the field. However, the article does not give a deep insight. It just gives an overall idea about how to conduct SNA in political violence and terrorism domain.


Perliger, Arie and Pedahzur, Ami, "Social Network Analysis in the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence" (2010). Working Papers. Paper 48.


  1. Osman, I agree that this is another good article that mainly discusses the potential for SNA. You mention that many of the researchers are still reluctant to exercise SNA and express doubt regarding its relevancy. I don't know if the article elaborates on this point, but I would assume it is because of the somewhat subjective nature of SNA. What are your thoughts on its relative usefulness?

  2. The author does not elaborate the issue. However, I can infer that the author believe that SNA is a useful analysis technique for terrorism and political violence topics despite its constraints like subjectivity.

  3. I feel like this article does a good job of describing the importance of bridging members, and that they may not be well connected but they are highly influential. It seems that this is particularly important in the field of counter-terrorism since they represent a week point in the organization.

  4. I agree with Dan. I think this article does a good job at outlining SNA's potential to identify subgroups and highly influential people that are critical to the organization's activities. When discussing the different levels of intelligence (tactical, operational, and strategic), which level do you think this technique would help the most?

  5. I believe it works best for tactical and operational level.