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17 July 2019

Researchers simulate mafia and terrorism recruitment

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Computational and social sciences help institutions prevent and fight the recruitment process of mafia and terrorist organisations. Researchers developed a new tool that will be made available to municipalities to ‘measure’ the future economic and social effects of their policies

One of the crucial steps to weaken and eradicate mafia and terrorism is blocking their means of enlisting new forces. The challenge is to change the social conditions that allow their networks to expand and regenerate themselves despite investigations and arrests.

“Mafia and terrorism can be fought at the root, by studying how recruitment processes are undertaken in our cities. Computational science can help us,” says Giulia Andrighetto, researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies at CNR in Rome, “We are developing a simulation model, then a computer model, to understand the recruitment processes and identify possible strategies to limit this phenomenon.”

Andrighetto’s colleague Mario Paolucci, in front of his computer, shows us the model used to study terrorist groups: “We simulate the daily activity in a district of Berlin called Neukölln. Here the so-called ‘agents’, representing the population of the neighbourhood, move between homes, offices and meeting places.”

“Among the 40,000 agents, three or four are recruiters. If these recruiters encounter a person who is ‘susceptible’, then that person may be recruited. How do you become susceptible? At the base of this model lies a theory called opinion dynamics. Each of these agents has a personal opinion on some facts, and these facts are those that the research has found to be detectors of possible recruitment: for example opinions that people have about the authorities or their perception of discrimination within their group,” he adds.

Watch the video of the simulations at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, CNR, Rome 

The research has an innovative approach that integrates social and computational sciences. “The factors we incorporated into these models have been selected on the basis of knowledge and meta-analyses provided to us by experts, who are partners within the EU project PROTON, which includes many European countries. There are also countries outside Europe, including Israel and the United States. So, it's a great consortium that has allowed us to access a lot of knowledge,” says Andrighetto.

To study mafia recruitment, researchers work on a different model: it is not a reproduction, although simplified, of a neighbourhood, rather it is a network simulating the social relationships within a certain group which may expand or contract according to the policies that are implemented.

“There are parameters that can be varied to attack the phenomenon of organized crime in a preventive [for example with welfare policies, ed. note] or a destructive way [for example with police operations and arrests, ed. note],” explains Paolucci.

Therefore it is a new tool that will be made available to “the institutions, the political forces and the judiciary that have to make decisions every day to counter this recruitment phenomenon,” says Andrighetto, “It will give them the opportunity to respond, for example, to questions such as ‘if we increase police on the street, what happens? If we open new places of education and socialisation, what happens?’ The simulations allow us to understand the effects of these types of intervention in both the short and long term, as well as quantify the economic and social costs, which  otherwise would not be possible.”

Palermo, with its dramatic history linking the Sicilian city to the mafia, will soon test this new instrument. The Municipality is in fact one of the project’s partners. Mayor Leoluca Orlando says: “To arrest a fugitive, five minutes are enough. To convince the son of the fugitive murderer that his father was in the wrong, five minutes are not enough. However, if we don’t convince the son that his murderer father was on the wrong path, we will have a second murderer.”

Watch the video interview with Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo

“This platform can give indications on the effectiveness of an intervention, in the sense that it can measure the intervention and give suggestions that reduce its economic burden. It can be important and significant because it is not only useful for judicial activity, but also for social activities, and a mayor and a municipal administration must deal mainly with this,” says Orlando.

He adds: “How many times does the judicial system pay attention to the individual? How often does is consider the individuals life in context? How often does it pay attention to the family dimension? We usually think that its focus can only be linked to mechanisms of reward or punishment and extenuating or aggravating circumstances…it is quite reductive”.

This focus on social aspects to fight the mafias outside courtrooms is in line with the initiatives of the Municipality with regards to the twentieth anniversary of the Palermo Convention. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 and signed by 189 countries, to promote global cooperation in the fight against transnational organized crime. The aim was to harmonise the different national legislations in the prevention and persecution of crimes.

“It was the first worldwide Convention to combat transnational organized crime and trafficking in human beings, with all the implications related to terrorist phenomena,” says Orlando, “But it has a purely judicial system. We believe instead that consideration of social aspects, in a preventive and rehabilitative dimension, is also necessary, along with the criminal sanctions of crime.”

He concludes: “For this reason, in view of the 20 years of the Palermo Convention, we are organising a great initiative, in agreement with the Italian government and with the United Nations, to have a UN Convention that considers not only the judicial but also the social aspects.” provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.