We were delighted to welcome so many representatives of the insurance industry to the RMS Terrorism Risk seminar in New York last month. Our seminar gave us a chance to update (re)insurance risk management professionals on the latest trends in global terrorism threat, its relevance to the insurance industry, and to share some of the latest developments and approaches for managing terrorism risk. Our keynote speakers included Bruce Hoffman from Georgetown University; Jack Riley, Vice President of the National Security Research Division at RAND Corporation, and Steven Simon from Amherst College.
What a difference a week makes. A week before the tragic events in Manchester, RMS was in New York, and the previous week in London as we hosted over 400 risk professionals from across the (re)insurance industry at two half day terrorism seminars. The seminars featured several of the world’s leading experts on counterterrorism, modeling, and terrorism risk management and highlighted the fluid threat environment, its insurance implications, and the impact of technology on terrorism risk. Continue reading
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.
It is likely that very few of the 60 million U.S. citizens who voted for Donald Trump would have done so because of his stance on terrorism insurance. Only because terrorism insurance is too arcane an issue to have come up in the presidential debates. However, many of the nation’s wavering voters may have been swayed by his pledge to make America safer from the scourge of terrorism. Under his presidency, border security will surely be tightened – even if no frontier wall is ever built and changes made to entry decisions for Syrian Muslim refugees into the United States.
Reauthorization of TRIA – Talks Start in 2018
On January 12, 2015, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2015 was signed into law by President Obama. This third extension of the original 2002 Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) will sunset at the end of 2020, coinciding with the end of the first term of the Trump presidency. In the drafting of the 2015 reauthorization bill, detailed consideration was given by the House Financial Services Committee to alternative wordings that would have reduced the coverage provided by the U.S. government insurance backstop. One such alternative would have focused U.S. government involvement in the terrorism insurance market on covering terrorism losses from extreme attacks using weapons of mass destruction. When the future of terrorism risk insurance is raised once more on Capitol Hill in 2018, the Republican White House and Congress are likely to seek to further extend the private terrorism insurance market. Though I consider this to be contingent on President Trump keeping his pledge to keep America safe until then.
Balancing Civil Liberties in the Face of Reducing Terrorism Risk
In the democracies of the western alliance, the balance of keeping people safe from terrorism and preserving civil liberty is much debated issue. After the July 2005 London Transport bombings, the head of the British security service, MI5, warned that ‘there needs to be a debate on whether some erosion of civil liberties may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives’. On a national scale across America, a similar debate was prevalent during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It may seem that in this instance, the champion of civil liberties, minority rights, and political correctness lost to the conservative advocate of oppressive counter-terrorism action and profiling of terrorist suspects.
Regardless of who occupies the White House, however, terrorist plots against the U.S. will persist and terrorists must be stopped before they move to their attack targets. Success in interdicting these plots depends crucially on intelligence gathered from electronic surveillance. It is well-documented that more intrusive surveillance can successfully increase the chances of lone wolf plots being stopped. And President-elect Trump has already affirmed his readiness to authorize more surveillance. He can claim a public mandate for this: for America to be great again, it has to be safe again – even from lone wolf terrorist plots. After the Orlando nightclub attack on June 12, 2016, perpetrated by the radicalized son of an Afghan immigrant, Donald Trump said that ‘we cannot afford to be politically correct anymore’. And in fighting global Islamist extremism vigorously, he may be able to count on President Putin’s support. While the two world leaders differ on geopolitics, their mutual respect as a President may be maintained through abrasive counter-terrorism action.
When Michael Chertoff was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security, President George W. Bush told him not to let 9/11 happen again – and he didn’t. President-elect Trump will expect a similarly impressive clean sheet. On a more personal level he also has a special interest in increased security against terrorist attacks. His own real estate empire includes some notable potential terrorist targets, including high-profile landmark buildings bearing his name. While the New York Stock Exchange has too tight security to be attacked, in contrast, the Trump Building on Wall Street has easy public access. There are numerous opportunities for terrorist target substitution.
In the 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, partnerships between the public sector and private industries have yielded more effective security and better public awareness about the threat of terrorism. We may never come to terms with the sheer volume of human loss from that day and among the hundreds of attacks that continue every year. But we have achieved greater resilience in the face of the ongoing realities of terrorism – except for when it comes to looking ahead at recovering from the catastrophic costs for rebuilding in its aftermath.
Terrorism insurance is facing a structural crisis: hundreds of terrorist attacks occur annually, but actual insurance payouts have been negligible. The economic costs of terrorism have skyrocketed, but demand for terrorism coverage has remained relatively flat. And despite a proliferation of catastrophe bonds and other forms of alternative capital flooding into the property insurance market, relatively little terrorism risk has been transferred to the capital markets. If terrorism insurance – and the insurers who provide it – are to remain relevant, they must embrace the new tools and data available to them to create more relevant products, more innovative coverages, and new risk transfer mechanisms that address today’s threat landscape.
The September 11th, 2001 attacks rank among the largest insurance losses in history at $44 billion, putting it among catastrophes with severe losses such as Hurricane Katrina ($70 billion), the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami ($38 billion), and Hurricane Andrew ($25 billion).
But unlike natural catastrophes, whose damages span hundreds of kilometers, most of the 9/11 damages in New York were concentrated in an area of just 16 acres. Such extreme concentration of loss caused a crisis in the insurance marketplace and highlighted the difficulty of insuring against such a peril.
Following the events of the September 11 attacks, most insurers subsequently excluded terrorism from their policies, forcing the U.S. government to step in and provide a backstop through the Terrorism Risk and Insurance Act (2002). Terrorism insurance has become cost effective as insurer capacity for terrorism risk increased. Today there are an estimated 40 insurers providing it on a stand-alone basis, and it is bundled with standard property insurance contracts by many others.
But despite better data on threat groups, more sophisticated terrorism modeling tools, and increased transparency into the counter-terrorism environment, terrorism insurance hasn’t changed all that much in the past 15 years. The contractual coverage is the same – usually distinguishing between conventional and CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) attacks. And terrorism insurance take-up remains minimal where attacks occur most frequently, in the middle east and Africa, highlighting what policymakers refer to as an increasing “protection gap.”
Closing this gap – through new products, coverages, and risk transfer schemes – will enable greater resilience following an attack and promote a more comprehensive understanding of the global terrorism risk landscape.
Natural hazard science is commonly studied at college, and to some level in the insurance industry’s further education and training courses. But this is not the case with terrorism risk. Even if insurance professionals learn about terrorism in the course of their daily business, as they move into other positions, their successors may begin with hardly any technical familiarity with terrorism risk. It is not surprising therefore that, even fifteen years after 9/11, knowledge and understanding of terrorism insurance risk modeling across the industry is still relatively low.
There is no shortage of literature on terrorism, but much has a qualitative geopolitical and international relations focus, and little is directly relevant to terrorism insurance underwriting or risk management.
As a step towards redressing the imbalance in available terrorism literature, a new online journal, The Journal of Terrorism and Cyber Insurance, has been established; its launch is to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. The journal has been welcomed and supported by global terrorism insurance pools, and its launch will be publicized at the annual terrorism pools congress in Canberra, Australia, on October 7, 2016.
Originally conceived as a journal of terrorism insurance, coverage has been extended to include cyber risk, recognizing the increasing insurance industry concerns over cyber terrorism and the burgeoning insurance market in cyber risk. The aim of the open access journal is to raise the industry’s level of knowledge and understanding of terrorism risk. By increasing information transparency for this subject the editorial board hopes to facilitate the growth of the terrorism insurance market, which serves the risk management requirements of the wider international community. The first issue is a solid step in this direction, and will include articles on the ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015; terrorism insurance in France and Australia; parametric terrorism insurance triggers; non-conventional threats; the clean-up costs of anthrax, and the terrorist use of drones.
The four founding editors of the journal have extensive knowledge of the field. The managing editor is Rachel Anne Carter, who has terrorism insurance administrative experience with both OECD and U.K. Pool Re. Dr. Raveem Ismail, specialty terrorism underwriter at Ariel Re, brings to the editorial board detailed direct terrorism and political risk underwriting knowledge. Padraig Belton is a writer with extensive political risk expertise, having served as a correspondent in the Middle East and Pakistan. As chief architect of the RMS terrorism model, I will bring terrorism risk modeling expertise to the team and have the responsibility and pleasure to review all article submissions. I look forward to sharing insights from the journal with subscribers to this blog.
This month saw what the President of the United States described as “the most deadly shooting in American history” with the killing of 49 innocent people at an Orlando nightclub, carried out by a man suspected of having leanings towards radical Islamist ideology.
Although information is still emerging, there are some clear threads and patterns, which link this attack to the increasing activity surrounding so-called Islamic State (IS).
1. Assaults Using an Automatic Rifle Becoming More Common
For somebody committed to terrorizing the population, there appears to be a growing tendency to use automatic weapons. Off-the-shelf military weapons are inherently more reliable than improvised explosive devices. In contrast to the atrocity in Orlando, a 2007 plot against the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London failed because the IED (improvised explosive device) failed to detonate.
2. The Increase in “Lone Wolf” Attacks as a Response to Surveillance
A “lone wolf” attack has been defined as a single individual or a group of two to three people driven to hateful actions based on a particular set of beliefs without a larger group’s knowledge or support. The FBI believes that most U.S. domestic attacks are carried out by lone actors to promote their own grievances and agendas.
Militants involved in such attacks are home-grown “self-starters” that are inspired by the jihadi movement, but may have little or no actual connection to these groups. Instead, many use the internet and social networking tools to find propaganda and research attack methods.
Mass interception of communications (as revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks of National Security Agency files), particularly in North America, has raised the chances of terrorist conspiracies being detected. This has led to a move away from plots involving multiple attackers. There has been a corresponding rise in the United States in the risk of lone-actor attacks, which have a comparatively small chance of being found out and stopped.
3. Attacks Inspired by Islamic State
The Orlando terrorist contacted police via cellphone around the time of the attack to announce his allegiance to IS. There are strong indications that he has been deeply influenced by the group even if he had no contact with it. As IS concedes territory it controls in Iraq and Syria it is looking to organize or inspire atrocities overseas. There are two likely reasons for this. Firstly, striking on foreign soil helps to divert attention from its losses in the Middle East in order to retain credibility and an aura of potency. Second, the jihadi operations overseas are designed to deter further attacks by Western forces in IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
4. Targeting of Venues Which Extremists Claim Symbolize Values They Decry
Bars and nightclubs may feature in the attack plans of terrorist organizations because there are high concentrations of people in a public, accessible venue. Such locations are also targets for such extremists who may view them as representing Western lifestyles of which they disapprove.
5. Increased Attacks over Ramadan
The murders in Orlando happened a week after the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Radical Islamic militants tend to increase their operations during this period. A recording released online from IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani has claimed any martyrdom operation during the festival of Ramadan will bring more “rewards.” An increase in the tempo of Islamist terrorist activity would thus not be unexpected.
The increasing proliferation of extremism and global attacks is concerning. Our modeling team closely monitors the evolving risk landscape. By examining all attacks to capture greater insight into the workings and thinking of the terrorist groups, including targeting preferences and weapon selection, we can continue to offer terrorism models that enable our clients to deepen their understanding of terrorism risk and strengthen their terrorism risk management.
This post was co-authored by Weimeng Yeo and Gordon Woo.
If you were allowing yourself to feel a little optimism that the world might be becoming a more peaceful place, with the ceasefire in Syria seeming to hold longer than most analysts ever expected, this week’s harrowing events in Belgium may have dimmed those hopeful glimmers.
The bombings in Brussels underlined once again that the jihadist violence that emanates from this war-torn region is as menacing as ever.
Three bombs went off in the Belgian capital on Tuesday. Two were set off by suicide bombers at the international airport and one explosion ripped through a subway train downtown, close to the heart of the European Union’s headquarters. At the time of writing more than 30 people are dead and more than 300 are injured.
The extremist group which calls itself Islamic State (IS) claims that its followers were behind the attacks. It is waging war in Iraq and Syria and holds significant amounts of territory. It has attracted some Muslims born in the West to join the fight there. It’s when they return home to the West, battle-hardened and with military know-how, that counter-terrorist agencies start to worry. And as events in Brussels this week and Paris in November have shown—with good reason.
The attacks were extremely simple but highly effective. The bombs were detonated in small confined areas, a perfect place for a mass-casualty event when leveraging a small improvised explosive device (IED). The bombs were also reinforced with pellets and nails to further inflict human injury.
Since declaring a Caliphate in June 2014 (a religious term which harks back to the era of the Prophet Mohammed and expresses a desire to unify the global Muslim community under a central leadership), IS has already conducted or inspired nearly 70 terrorist attacks in 20 countries other than Iraq and Syria. This is a harrowing trend that is unlikely to reverse in the short term. Belgium, with the largest number of foreign jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria in absolute and relative terms, is therefore at considerable risk when these fighters return home.
The bombs blasts in Brussels are a sombre reminder of the difficulty of preventing attacks against transportation infrastructure such as airports and metro or bus stations. As security at military bases, embassies, and other government facilities increases there has been a trend among terrorists to attack softer targets. These locations are vulnerable as by their very nature they must remain open—and with so many such transport hubs it is not easy to detect and exclude those with hostile intentions.
Terrorism inspired by a narrow, extremist interpretation of Islam (particularly the Salafi-jihadi type) continues to pose a major security threat to Western European countries. IS and other such groups view these nations as attractive targets: in particular Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. This may be because of their foreign policies, especially those involved in Muslim countries, or because specific events that have caused a strong visceral response among more hard-line elements of the Muslim community.
While it is still early to speculate about the motives behind these attacks, the bombings were likely in response to the capture of Salah Abdeslam in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, who’s being held on suspicion of involvement in the November 2015 Paris attacks. There have been several news reports that Abdeslam was plotting additional terrorism attacks in Europe and Belgian authorities were seeking two of his associates. It’s unclear whether those associates were involved in these attacks or if the bombings in Brussels were committed by other extremists. So further attacks in Belgium or regional European countries cannot be ruled out.
The last six months have witnessed significant developments within the global terrorism landscape. This includes the persistent threat of the Islamic State (IS, sometimes also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), the decline in influence of the al Qaida core, the strengthening of affiliated jihadi groups across the globe, and the risk of lone wolf terrorism attacks in the West. What do these developments portend as we approach the second half of the year?
(Source: The U.S. Army Flickr)
The Persistent Threat Of The Islamic State
The Islamic State has emerged as the main vanguard of radical militant Islam due to its significant military successes in Iraq and Syria. Despite suffering several military setbacks earlier this year, the Islamic State still controls territory that covers a third of Iraq and Syria respectively. Moreover, with recent military successes in taking over the Iraqi city of Ramadi and Palmyra, Syria, they are clearly not in a consolidation mode. In order to attract more recruits, the Islamic State will have to show further military successes. Thus, the risk of a terrorist attack to a Sunni dominated state in the Middle East by the Islamic State is likely to increase. The Islamic State has already expanded its geographical footprint by setting up new military fronts in countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Muslim countries that have a security partnership with the United States will be the most vulnerable. The Islamic State will rebuke these nations to demonstrate that an alliance with the United States does not offer peace and security.
Continued Decline of al Qaida Core
The constant pressure by the U.S. on the al Qaida core has weakened its military while its ideological influence has dwindled substantially with the rise of the Islamic State. The very fact that the leaders of the Islamic State had the temerity to defy the orders of al Qaida leader, Ayman Zawahiri, and break away from the group is a strong indication of the organization’s impotency. However, the al Qaida core’s current weakness is not necessarily permanent. In the past, we have witnessed terrorist groups rebound and regain their strength after experiencing substantial losses. For example, terrorist groups such as the FARC in Colombia, ETA in Spain, and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines were able to resurrect their military operations once they had the time and space to operate. Thus, it is possible that if the al Qaida core leadership were able to find some “operational space,” the group could begin to regain its strength. However, such a revival could be hindered by Zawahiri. As many counter terrorism experts will attest, Zawahiri appears to lack the charisma and larger-than-life presence of his predecessor Osama bin Laden to inspire his followers. In time, a more effective and charismatic leader could emerge in place of Zawahiri. However, this has yet to transpire; with the increasing momentum of Islamic State, it appears that the al Qaida core will continue to flounder.
Affiliated Salafi Jihadi Groups Vying For Recognition
As the al Qaida core contracts, its affiliates have expanded significantly. More than 30 terrorist and extremist groups have expressed support to the al Qaida cause. The most active of the affiliates are Jabhat Nusra (JN), al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and al Shabab. These groups have contributed to a much higher tempo of terrorist activity, alleviating the level of risk. As these groups vie for more recognition to get more recruits, they are likely to orchestrate larger scale attacks as a way of raising their own terrorism profile. Attacks at the Westgate shopping center in Kenya in 2013 as well as the more recent Garissa University College attack that killed 147 people by al Shabab are two examples of headline-grabbing attacks meant to rally their followers and garner more recruits.
Lone Wolf Terrorism Attacks In The West
The West will continue to face intermittent small-scale terrorism attacks. The series of armed attacks in Paris, France, Ottawa, Canada, and Sydney, Australia in the last year by local jihadists are clear illustration of this. Neither the Islamic State, the al Qaida core, nor their respective affiliates have demonstrated that they can conduct a major terrorist attack outside their sphere of influence. This lack of ability to extend their reach is evident by the salafi-jihadist movement clamoring for their followers to conduct lone wolf attacks, particularly if they are residing in the West. Lone wolf terrorism operations consist of individuals who work on their own or in very small group thus making it difficult for the authorities to thwart any potential attack. While these plots are much harder to stop, their attacks tend to be much smaller in scope.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I attended a commemorative meeting at the British Academy in London. A professor of international relations recounted how he watched the horrific scenes of destruction of the World Trade Center in the company of his five year-old daughter. She posed this intriguing question: why didn’t this happen before?
Just a few years before she was born, in December 1994, Algerian terrorists attempted to fly a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, French commandos terminated the hijacking when the plane stopped for refueling. This was a near-miss. The American writer of counterfactual fiction, Philip Roth, observed in his book The Plot Against America that: “the terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.” The destruction of the Eiffel Tower is not an event in terrorism history—just one of numerous ambitious plots that were foiled.
With the current state of historical and scientific knowledge, there are very few unknown hazard events that should take catastrophe risk analysts by surprise. Almost all either did happen before in some guise, or, taking a counterfactual view, might well have happened before. Take for example the great Japanese tsunami and magnitude 9 earthquake of four years ago. It is doubtful that this was the strongest historical earthquake to have struck Japan. The Sanriku Earthquake of 869 may merit this status, based on archaeological evidence of widespread tsunami deposits.
Disasters are rare, and preparedness depends crucially on knowledge of the past. Aviation is the safest mode of travel; there are very few crashes. However there are numerous near-misses, where one or more of the key flight parameters is dangerously close to the disaster threshold. There is a valuable learning curve associated with the lessons gained from such operational experience.
The direct action of the co-pilot in the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 on March 24, 2015 raises again the question: why didn’t this happen before? As recently as November 29, 2013, it did. A Mozambique Airlines plane flying from the Mozambican capital Maputo to Luanda in Angola crashed, killing 27 passengers and its six crew. The pilot locked himself in the cockpit keeping out the co-pilot. He ignored alarm signals and manually changed altitude levels.
Quite apart from this and other historical precedents for fatal crashes caused by direct pilot action, there must be many more near-misses, where timely intervention has inhibited direct action by pilots suffering from some psychological disorder. The reporting of incidents is a crucial part of aviation safety culture, so is advancing the learning curve. Analysis of such data would contribute to accident risk assessment and subsequent risk mitigation measures.