Do terror attacks cause more terror attacks? If they do then they are self exciting. In this post I will do some programming in Julia and apply a type of self-exciting statistical model to a dataset of terror attacks to see whether each attack leads to an increase in probability of another terror attack.

To cut to the chase I find that terror attacks are self exciting and each terror attack has a 93% chance of spawning another attack. This probability of another attack lasts on average for about two months, decreasing with each day that passes.

But why terror attacks?

One of the chapters in my PhD was all about applying Hawkes processes to terror attacks. I was concerned about extreme terror attacks and how a Hawkes process can model them in variety of ways to try and understand the statistical consequences of a large terror attack.

In this blog post I will do the same, but focus on all terror attacks across a variety of countries and build two Hawkes models to see how well they describe these attacks. This will be the first blog post I’ve written on applying my HawkesProcesses.jl Julia package, so should serve as a more practical introduction than my previous outline of the package which I wrote about previously here.

This is a chunky blog post and is laid out as follows:

Before I get into the meat and bones of the work though, I’d like the chance to ask you to sign up to my newsletter. Its a short monthly recap of anything and everything I’ve found interesting recently plus any posts I’ve written. So sign up and stay informed!

With that out the way, onto the statistics.

The Data

using CSV, DataFrames, DataFramesMeta
using Dates, HawkesProcesses
using Statistics, Distributions, StatsBase

I will be using the RAND MIT database of terror attacks that you can download from here.

rawData ="/Users/deanmarkwick/Downloads/RAND_Database_of_Worldwide_Terrorism_Incidents.csv")
rawData |> head

6 rows × 8 columns (omitted printing of 3 columns)

19-Feb-68Buenos AiresArgentinaUnknownFirearms
212-Feb-68Santo DomingoDominican RepublicUnknownExplosives
313-Feb-68MontevideoUruguayUnknownFire or Firebomb
521-Feb-68Washington, D.C.United StatesUnknownExplosives
621-Feb-68Neot HakikarIsraelUnknownUnknown

For each terror attack we get a date, city, country, perpetrator and weapon. We are just interested in the country and date of the attack. The dates are formatted unconventionally, so takes a little bit of formatting.

function formatDate(dt::Date)
    (year.(dt) .<= 9) && (year.(dt) .>= 0) ? dt + Year(2000) : dt + Year(1900)

rawData = @transform(rawData, DateF = Date.(:Date, "dd-u-YY"))
rawData = @transform(rawData, DateF2 =  formatDate.(:DateF))

minDate = minimum(rawData.DateF2)
maxDate = maximum(rawData.DateF2)
maxT = (maxDate - minDate).value;

As there are days where there are potentially more than one terror attacks, we group by the country and date and sum the total number of attacks on that day.

gdata = groupby(rawData, [:DateF2, :Country])
sumData = @based_on(gdata, N=length(:Date))
sumDataCountry = groupby(sumData, :Country)
totalData = @based_on(sumDataCountry, N=sum(:N))
sort!(totalData, :N, rev=true) |> head

6 rows × 2 columns

2West Bank/Gaza2038

Iraq experienced over 100,000 terror attacks and comes out as the most eventful country, five times more than the next country.

Hawkes Processes

A Hawkes process use three parameters to describe events.

  • The background rate, \(\mu\)

This describes when random terror attacks happen that weren’t spawned from any other attack.

  • The child rate, \(\kappa\)

On average, how many terror attacks does each terror attack cause. This is a number between 0 and 1. If the \(\kappa\) value was greater than 1 then the process would explode and never stop.

  • The kernel, \(\beta \exp(-\beta t)\)

How long the impact of each terror attack lasts. It’s an exponential distribution so the impact decays over time.

Every time a terror attack happens, the probability of another terror attack increases from the background rate with an addition of \(\kappa \beta \exp(-\beta t)\). If that attack then causes another attack we get another addition of \(\kappa \exp(-\beta t)\). In short, we can see where the self exciting comes from, each event increases the probability of another event.

When we fit a Hawkes process to the data, we want to find the best \(\mu, \kappa, \beta\) values that fit the data.

If you want the full technical details on how to fit a Hawkes process check out my Github repo here.

The Models

We are fitting two models

  1. Individual

Each country has its own set of Hawkes parameters (a background rate, \(\kappa\) and kernel value) which means using the fit function of HawkesProcesses to each countries terror attacks separately.

  1. Hierarchical

There will be just three Hawkes parameters that describe the terror attacks. This means that the terror attacks of each country will influence these overall parameters, but not as if a terror attack in Iraq could influence a further terror attack in say, the Philippines.

These two models represent the two extremes of modeling choice, we want to know if there is enough information in the data to warrant individual parameters, or is the nature of terror attacks across all countries similar such that the parameters can be homogenous. Or more simply, do we overfit if we let each country have their own set of parameters?

The Individual Model

For the top 50 countries, we find the best fitting \(\mu, \kappa, \beta\) value using the fit function. We train on 70% of the data, leaving the last 30% for model checking.

modelCountries = totalData.Country[1:50]

dataset = Array{DataFrame}(undef, length(modelCountries))
modelParams = Array{DataFrame}(undef, length(modelCountries))
intensity = Array{DataFrame}(undef, length(modelCountries))

allEvents = Array{Array{Float64}}(undef, length(modelCountries))
allEventsTrain = Array{Array{Float64}}(undef, length(modelCountries))

for (i, country) in enumerate(modelCountries)
    subData = @where(sumData, :Country .== country)
    rawTS = subData.DateF2
    ts = getfield.(rawTS .- minDate, :value)
    trainInds = Int64(floor(length(ts)*0.7))
    trainEvents = ts[1:trainInds]
    allEventsTrain[i] = trainEvents 
    allEvents[i] = ts
    #Fit the models
    bgSamps1, kappaSamps1, kernSamps1 =[i] .+ rand(length(allEventsTrain[i])), maxT, 5000)
    bgSamps2, kappaSamps2, kernSamps2 =[i] .+ rand(length(allEventsTrain[i])), maxT, 5000)
    #Take averages of the parameters
    bgEst = mean(bgSamps1[500:end])
    kappaEst = mean(kappaSamps1[500:end])
    kernEst = mean(kernSamps1[500:end])
    #Calculate the intensity over time
    intens = HawkesProcesses.intensity(collect(0:maxT), ts, bgEst, kappaEst, Exponential(1/kernEst))

    #Calculate the likelihood
    likelihoodTrain = HawkesProcesses.likelihood(allEventsTrain[i], bgEst, kappaEst, Exponential(1/kernEst), maxT)
    likelihoodAll = HawkesProcesses.likelihood(ts, bgEst, kappaEst, Exponential(1/kernEst), maxT)
    intensity[i] = DataFrame(Country = country, Intensity=intens, t=collect(0:maxT), Date = collect(minDate:Day(1):maxDate))
    dataset[i] = DataFrame(Country = country, EventTimes = ts, Dates = rawTS)    
    modelParams[i] = DataFrame(Country = country, N=length(ts), 
                       BG = bgEst,
                       Kappa = kappaEst,
                       Kern = kernEst,
                       LikelihoodTrain = likelihoodTrain,
                       LikelihoodAll = likelihoodAll)

allData = vcat(dataset...)
allParams = vcat(modelParams...)
allIntensities = vcat(intensity...);

With the fitting complete we can now examine the final parameters. I select 10 random countries out of the 50 the model was fitted and plot there individual parameters.

using Plots
using StatsPlots
sort!(allParams, :Kappa)

plotInds = Int64.(floor.(rand(10) * 50))
paramPlot = Array{Plots.Plot}(undef, 3)
for (i, param) in enumerate((:BG, :Kappa, :Kern))
    paramPlot[i] = bar(allParams[plotInds, :Country], allParams[plotInds, param], orientation = :horizontal, label=:none, title=string(param))



  • Higher background values: the overall rate of terror attack is higher.
  • Higher \(\kappa\) values: the self-exciting jump is higher as each event has $\kappa$ children events.
  • Higher kernel value, \(\beta\): the decay of the terror attack excitement is quicker.

We can also examine the intensity profiles of some countries. If the intensity is high, the probability of another terror attack is also high.

selCountrys = ["Iran", "Russia", "Spain", "Israel"]
intPlots = Array{Plots.Plot}(undef, length(selCountrys))
for (i, country) in enumerate(selCountrys)
    subData = @where(allIntensities, :Country .== country, year.(:Date) .>= 2000)
    intPlots[i] = plot(subData.Date, subData.Intensity, label=country,


For Iran, we can see that the attacks are coming in bursts with periods of down time. Whereas for the other three countries there is a more fluid ebb and flow of the intensity.

The Hierarchical Model

We now turn to fitting the hierarchical model, where there is just one background, $\kappa$ and kernel parameter shared across all the countries. This is a newly implemented feature of my HawkesProcesses package and you can fit a simple Hawkes process with exponential kernel across multiple timeseries in a hierarchical model.

hierParams1 = HawkesProcesses.hierarchical_fit(allEventsTrain, maxT, 5000);
hierParams2 = HawkesProcesses.hierarchical_fit(allEventsTrain, maxT, 5000);
paramEstimates = map(x->mean(x[500:end]), hierParams1)
(0.0011, 0.94, 0.016)

Here we can see that across all countries, each terror attack has on average 0.94 children terror attack. So they are very self exciting. From the kernel parameter we can see that this impact lasts 60 days on average.

Now all the models I’ve been fitting have been using a Bayesian algorithm, so we want to assess whether the parameters have converged to the same value. I’ve fit two chains to also assess the convergence of the model.

bgPlot = plot(hierParams1[1][500:end], title="Background", label=:none)
plot!(bgPlot, hierParams2[1][500:end], label=:none)

kappaPlot = plot(hierParams1[2][500:end], title="Kappa", label=:none)
plot!(kappaPlot, hierParams2[2][500:end], label=:none)

kernPlot = plot(hierParams1[3][500:end], title="Kernel", label=:none)
plot!(kernPlot, hierParams2[3][500:end], label=:none)

plot(bgPlot, kappaPlot, kernPlot)


Everything is looking good.

Now we are happy with the model, we can compare their outputs and see how they differ.

We will calculate the likelihood and intensity functions. The likelihoods will allow us to perform some model criticism later, whereas the intensity will give us a visual inspection of the model output.

hierIntensities = Array{DataFrame}(undef, length(modelCountries))
hierLikelihood = Array{DataFrame}(undef, length(modelCountries))
for (i, country) in enumerate(modelCountries)
  intens = HawkesProcesses.intensity(collect(0:maxT), allEvents[i], 
                                     paramEstimates[1], paramEstimates[2], Exponential(1/paramEstimates[3]))
    hierIntensities[i] = DataFrame(Intensity = intens, t=collect(0:maxT), 
                                   Country=country, Date = collect(minDate:Day(1):maxDate))
    hierLikelihood[i] = DataFrame(HierLikelihoodAll=HawkesProcesses.likelihood(allEvents[i], paramEstimates[1], paramEstimates[2], Exponential(1/paramEstimates[3]), maxT),
                               Country = country,
                               HierLikelihoodTrain = HawkesProcesses.likelihood(allEventsTrain[i], paramEstimates[1], paramEstimates[2], Exponential(1/paramEstimates[3]), maxT))

hierIntensities = vcat(hierIntensities...);
hierLikelihood = vcat(hierLikelihood...);

Likelihoods calculated, I can compare the intensities for both models and see how different they look.

selCountrys = ["Iran", "Russia", "Spain", "Israel"]
intPlots = Array{Plots.Plot}(undef, length(selCountrys))
for (i, country) in enumerate(selCountrys)
    subData = @where(allIntensities, :Country .== country, year.(:Date) .>= 2000)
    subDataHier = @where(hierIntensities, :Country .== country, year.(:Date) .>= 2000)
    p = plot(subData.Date, subData.Intensity, label="Individual", title=country)
    plot!(subDataHier.Date, subDataHier.Intensity, label="Hierarchical")
    intPlots[i] = p


Despite the difference in parameters, the final output appear quite similar. Which is reassuring. For Iraq we can see that the hierarchical model decaying slower, but across all countries the spike after each attack is of similar magnitude.

Model Checking

Are terror attacks actually self exciting though? To check for this we fit a model that doesn’t have any self exciting behaviour and see if it is better than the Hawkes models.

To check if one model is better than the other, we use the time change theorem. By using the intensity functions we can transform the event times and see how close they fall to a straight line. A perfect model would fall exactly on the straight, a bad model would be far away from a straight line.

residPlots= Array{Plots.Plot}(undef, length(selCountrys))

for (i, country) in enumerate(selCountrys)
   subData = @where(allData, :Country .== country)
   subParams = @where(allParams, :Country .== country)
   nullResid = HawkesProcesses.time_change_null(subData.EventTimes, maxT) 
   hierResid = HawkesProcesses.time_change_hawkes(subData.EventTimes, paramEstimates[1], paramEstimates[2], Exponential(1/paramEstimates[3])) 
   indResid = HawkesProcesses.time_change_hawkes(subData.EventTimes, subParams.BG[1], subParams.Kappa[1], Exponential(1/subParams.Kern[1]))
   p1 = plot(nullResid[1], nullResid[2], label="Null", title=country)
   plot!(p1, hierResid[1], hierResid[2], label="Hierarchical")
   plot!(p1, indResid[1], indResid[2], label="Individual")
   plot!(0:0.1:1, 0:0.1:1, label="Theoretical", colour="black", legend=:topleft) 
   residPlots[i] = p1


Here we can see that both Hawkes models improve on the model without self exciting (the null model) as they are closer to the theoretical straight black line. This suggests there is some notion of self excitability between the events, which means we can move onto deciding which Hawkes model is better, the individual or the hierarchical model?

Model Comparison

How do we know what model is better? I’ve written about deviance information criteria before (here) and it is implemented in this HawkesProcesses package. But I might aswell use this to illustrate other information criteria’s; Bayesian and Akaike. Both are about weighing up the likelihood with the number of parameters in the model. There is an important point to note that these methods are not strictly Bayesian and don’t make full use of the full posterior sampling, but I think it is useful to have a general indicator and comparison between models, even if it isn’t strictly pure. Plus this also highlights the benefits of a Bayesian approach, you can reduce it to a frequentist estimate just by taking your point estimate of the parameters.

By assuming that each country is independent of each other, we arrive at a final likelihood value by summing up each individual likelihood for the country. Then by separating the training set likelihood and total likelihood we can come up with a test set likelihood, which we can use to perform our model comparison.

indLikelihood = @select(allParams, :Country, :LikelihoodAll, :LikelihoodTrain)
allLikelihood = leftjoin(indLikelihood, hierLikelihood, on=:Country)
allLikelihood = @transform(allLikelihood, 
                        LikelihoodTest = :LikelihoodAll - :LikelihoodTrain, 
                        HierLikelihoodTest = :HierLikelihoodAll - :HierLikelihoodTrain)

indAll = sum(allLikelihood.LikelihoodAll)
indTest = sum(allLikelihood.LikelihoodTest)
indTrain = sum(allLikelihood.LikelihoodTrain)

hierAll = sum(allLikelihood.HierLikelihoodAll)
hierTrain = sum(allLikelihood.HierLikelihoodTrain)
hierTest = sum(allLikelihood.HierLikelihoodTest)

allEventsN = sum(map(length, allEvents))
trainEventsN = sum(map(length, allEventsTrain))
testEventsN = allEventsN - trainEventsN

finalResults = vcat(DataFrame(Model = "Ind", 
                              Params = 3*length(modelCountries),
                              Sample = ["All", "Test", "Train"], 
                              Likelihood = [indAll, indTest, indTrain],
                              NEvents = [allEventsN, testEventsN, trainEventsN]),
                    DataFrame(Model = "Hier", 
                              Params = 3,
                              Sample = ["All", "Test", "Train"],  
                              Likelihood = [hierAll, hierTest, hierTrain],
                              NEvents = [allEventsN, testEventsN, trainEventsN])

6 rows × 5 columns


Here we can see that the individual model has a lower likelihood by around 600. But, it has 150 parameters compared to the hierarchical model that has just 3. We can use Akaike Information Criteria which takes into account the number of parameters.

\[\text{AIC} = 2k - 2\mathcal{L}\]

The better model will have a lower AIC value.

There is also the Bayesian information criteria, which is slightly different in that it also takes into account the number of datapoints.

\[\text{BIC} = k\ln(n) - 2 \mathcal{L}\]

Again, we want the model with the lower BIC.

finalResults = @transform(finalResults, AIC = 2*:Params - 2*:Likelihood)
finalResults = @transform(finalResults, BIC = :Params .* log.(:NEvents) - 2*:Likelihood)
@where(finalResults, :Sample .== "Test")

2 rows × 7 columns


When we look at just the test set we can see that the likelihood is higher and both the BIC and AIC are lower, which shows the hierarchical model is preferred. Especially since there are just 3 parameters compared to the 150.

The hierarchical model is also preferred as it shows how the model is generalisable to countries not included in the test set. Whereas for the individual model there is no way of using parameters of other countries to apply to a new country.

There is another model that is in between both one set of parameters for all countries and \(3N\) parameters for \(N\) countries and that involves partial pooling, I’ve written about pooling before here and you can take similar ideas and apply them to this applications. It takes a bit more work and is beyond the scope of this blog post, so I will save that for another blog post.

National Security Policy Implications

Let’s say you are a government official reading this post and think it is useful but want to know how the Hawkes parameters and structure could be directly incorporated into terror attack responses. In the UK we have threat levels: Low, Moderate, Substantial, Severe and Critical. So we could split up the Hawkes intensity in 5 quantiles, where each quantile occupies one of these levels.

ukIntensity = @where(hierIntensities, :Country .== "United Kingdom")
levls = quantile(ukIntensity.Intensity, [0.2, 0.4, 0.5, 0.8])

plot(ukIntensity.Date, ukIntensity.Intensity, label="Hawkes Intensity")
hline!(levls, label="Threat Level Boundaries")


Each horizontal line represents the boundary between the different threat levels. Each attack causes a move across two boundaries making it quite reactive. As you can see at the end of this dataset we were back into “low” level having not seen an attack in a while.

We can also use the parameters to learn about the structure between events. As it is also a hierarchical model, these interpretations apply to all terror attacks not just those in the UK.

(0.0011, 0.94, 0.016)

Each terror attack has 0.94 children terror attacks, which is very high and suggests quite a bit of self-excitation. We can see this above as each terror attack causes that large spike. Using the kernel parameter we see that the half-life of the kernel is \(\frac{1}{0.016} = 62.5\) days. So it takes roughly two months for the increased intensity to reduce by half. So, after each terror attack increase readiness for 60 days! It is a shame that the data set is almost 10 years out of date so we can’t get an to date picture of where we are right now. If you know of a more recent datasource, please let me know below.


Quite the chunky blog post and on a heavier subject than what I usually write about, but a nice application of the Hawkes process and how it can be used in this terror attack context. I’ve fitted two Hawkes models and shown that they improve on a null Poisson model, then between the Hawkes models I found that the hierarchical model with the same parameters per country was a better model than one with separate parameters for each country. Potentially, the individual parameter model overfit the data and didn’t generalise to the unseen events. I then has a guess about how the outputs from this type of model could be used to adjust terror related public policy.