Author Archives: Gordon Woo

About Gordon Woo

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.

Downward Counterfactual of the Seattle Suicide Pilot Crash

When hazard events occur, substantial resources are often committed to find out what happened, and investigate the factors that led up to them. Rarely is there a systematic investigation of downward counterfactuals, addressing the question: how could the loss consequences have been more severe?

On October 31, 1999, an Egyptian pilot, Gameel Al-Batouti, deliberately crashed EgyptAir 990 into the Atlantic, en route from JFK to Cairo. Batouti had waited to be alone in the cockpit of the Boeing 767, and had intentionally manouvered the airplane to its destruction, switching off the engines. His last words, repeated several times, were, ‘I trust in Allah’.

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Terrorism Modeling: The Challenges of Keeping One Step Ahead

A version of this article was published by Insurance Day

Terrorism is asymmetric warfare, and terrorism risk analysis entails knowing not only what has occurred in past terrorist campaigns, but also everything that could have occurred. Carl von Clausewitz, the foremost Prussian military theorist, insisted that perfecting the art of warfare entailed knowing not only what had occurred in previous wars, but also everything that could have occurred. The catalog of successful terrorist attacks is only a small subset of the much longer list of terrorist plots, most of which have been interdicted through the diligent surveillance and pre-emptive action of the counter-terrorism forces.

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RMS: Working for the Good of the Game

On November 13, 2015, the multiple terrorist attacks on Paris began with a suicide bomb blast at the 81,000 capacity Stade de France soccer stadium, where France were playing Germany in an international friendly. Soccer is the world’s most popular game, and terrorism is the language of being noticed. When France hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1998, Algerian terrorists planned to attack the opening match in Marseille between England and Tunisia, and follow-up by attacking the U.S. soccer team in their Paris hotel. Fortunately, a mole inside the Algerian terrorist organization passed on intelligence to the French security service, and the plot was disrupted.

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Reimagining the 1918 Pandemic

Ask any child, a world without Walt Disney would be unimaginable. Born in December 1901, Walt was sixteen years old when he caught the 1918 pandemic influenza — and survived. A century has passed since the great 1918 pandemic, in which tens of millions died, the deadliest in history. When an anniversary of a major event comes round, we can ask what if the event were to occur today.

Catastrophe modelers can also reimagine the event being different from what it actually was. This counterfactual perspective leads to important insights into pandemic risk, which have only recently emerged from virological research.

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Lassa Fever Outbreak in Nigeria

A few years ago, West Africa was struck by an epidemic of Ebola, which killed more than ten thousand people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The first case of Ebola was a child who had been playing in a bat-infested tree. From him, the disease rapidly spread from person to person in a chain reaction of contagion. A quite different type of hemorrhagic disease is Lassa fever, which was first identified in 1969, and named after the town in Nigeria where the first cases were observed.

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Terror in Manhattan

After Faizal Shahzad was arrested on May 1, 2010, for attempting to detonate a vehicle bomb in Times Square, Mayor Bloomberg commented, “It’s been said that when you find a terrorist, he’ll have a map of New York City in his back pocket.” A few blocks from Times Square is the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where a pipe bomb explosion occurred at 7.20 a.m. local time on Monday, December 11, 2017, in an underground passage, about 200 feet (60 meters) from the bus terminal.

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Reimagining the WannaCry Cyberattack

On Thursday April 6, 2017, President Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian military airfield. This was a direct response to President Assad’s use of sarin gas to attack Syrian dissidents. Just two days later, the password to an encrypted archive of cyber weapons (stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency) was posted by the so-called Shadow Brokers cyber group. This hacking group is thought to have connections with Russia, which is the leading supporter of the Assad regime. They were angered by President Trump’s action.

An immediate beneficiary of this password release was the Lazarus Group, linked with North Korea, which had been launching ransomware attacks at targets over the previous several months. What they lacked was an effective tool to propagate their ransomware from computer to computer. This missing tool, a Microsoft Windows bug called “EternalBlue”, they now were gifted thanks to Shadow Brokers.

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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.

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Reimagining History – Counterfactual Risk Analysis

Just under ten years ago, as the global financial crisis was unfolding, the book The Black Swan emerged as the most quoted critique of the financial modeling for rare events. The author, Nassim Taleb — the poster boy of sceptics — asserted that these could not be imagined, let alone predicted. Over the past decade, whenever an unmodeled catastrophe has occurred, such as the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami that struck Tohoku, Japan on March 11, 2011, catastrophe risk modelers have been reminded of these elusive “black swans”.

Ever since the publication of The Black Swan, I have challenged myself to develop a framework within which such events might be imagined. The solution lies in reimagining history. Since Copernicus, we no longer perceive the Earth as being specially located in the universe. Yet, the anthropocentric viewpoint has maintained that the historical past is somehow special, rather than being just one realization of what might have happened. Most events have either happened before, almost happened before, or might have happened before.

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Recent Attacks Illustrate the Principles of Terrorism Risk Modeling

Some fifteen years after terrorism risk modeling began after 9/11, it is still suggested that the vagaries of human behavior render terrorism risk modeling an impossible challenge, but still the core principles underlying terrorism risk modeling are not widely appreciated. Terrorism risk modeling, as it has developed and evolved from an RMS perspective is unique in being based on solid principles, which are as crucial as the laws of physics are to natural hazard modeling.  The recent high-profile terrorist attacks in London, Stockholm, and Paris adhere to many of these principles.

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