Forecasting Terrorist Attacks

At the start of the RMS Exceedance conference in New Orleans in March this year, I was interviewed for A.M. Best TV on terrorism risk, and specifically asked what I was envisaging for future terrorist attacks.

I replied that terrorists have been thwarted in their ability to produce large explosives for vehicle bombs, and are likely to use vehicles for ramming groups of people. Less than a day later, on March 22, 2017, such an attack took place on Westminster Bridge, London. Over the summer, several other terrorist vehicle ramming attacks have occurred in London, and one in Barcelona.

Image: New York City police officers secure the scene at the West Side Highway bike path on October 31, 2017. Image credit: Flickr/Governor Andrew Cuomo

The first U.S. terrorist attack of the Trump presidency has also employed this attack mode. It occurred around 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Halloween in Lower Manhattan. A rented pick-up truck was driven along the West Side Highway bike path, killing eight people and injuring another eleven. It has been reported that the driver was 29 year-old Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek national, who was radicalized domestically. News reports state that he had left a note stating that the attack had been done in the name of ISIS.

Terrorism is the language of being noticed: this attack took place just a few blocks from the 9/11 Memorial. This location supports the RMS modeling of terrorist targeting, which has always featured name recognition as the key factor. RMS modeling is uniquely based on universal principles, which are as true now as they were in 2002 when the first model was launched. One such principle is that terrorists follow the path of least resistance in their operations. If you can’t use chemical energy in an attack, use kinetic energy. Instead of vehicle bombing, try vehicle ramming.

The core principles that underpin RMS terrorism modeling allow events to be forecast in a manner that is not even achievable for natural hazards. An earthquake underwriter may well ponder where the next U.S. earthquake will occur, and how large it might be. Back at Exceedance in March, a terrorism risk underwriter might have guessed that the next U.S. terrorist attack would have been a vehicle ramming event in Manhattan.

Catastrophist, RMS
Gordon is a catastrophe-risk expert, with 30 years’ experience in catastrophe science, covering both natural and man-made hazards. Gordon is the chief architect of the RMS terrorism risk model, which he started work on a year after joining RMS in December 2000. For his thought leadership in terrorism risk modeling, he was named by Treasury & Risk magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in finance in 2004. He has since lectured on terrorism at the NATO Center of Excellence for the Defense against Terrorism, and testified before the U.S. Congress on terrorism-risk modeling. As an acknowledged, international expert on catastrophes, Gordon is the author of two acclaimed books: “The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes” (1999) and “Calculating Catastrophe” (2011). Dr. Woo graduated as the best mathematician of his year at Cambridge University and he completed his doctorate at MIT as a Kennedy Scholar and was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. He also has an Master of Science in computer science from Cambridge University.

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