By Gordon Woo, catastrophe risk expert
My neighbor on the RER B train in Paris pressed the emergency button in the carriage. He spoke some words of alarm to me in French, pointing to a motionless passenger in the carriage. I left the train when the railway police came. A squad of heavily armed gendarmes marched along the platform and within minutes the Châtelet-les Halles station, the largest underground station in the world, was evacuated out of precaution due to the motionless passenger.
This was no ordinary event on the Paris subway, but then this was no ordinary day. “Je Suis Charlie” signs were everywhere. This was Saturday, January 10, the evening after two suspects were gunned down after the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 7, the most serious terrorist attack on French soil in more than forty years and the reason for my visit to Paris.
By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fortunately, as a catastrophist, I knew my terrorism history when the emergency arose in my carriage. I always tell my audiences that understanding terrorism—and particularly frequency—is important for personal security, in addition to providing the basis for terrorism insurance risk modeling.
There is a common misconception that terrorism frequency is fundamentally unknowable. This would be true if terrorists could attack at will, which is the situation in countries where the security and intelligence services are ineffective or corrupt. However, this is not the case for many countries, including those in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. As revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, counter-terrorism surveillance is massive and indiscriminate; petabytes of internet traffic are swept up in search for the vaguest clues of terrorist conspiracy.
RMS has developed an innovative empirical method for calculating the frequency of significant (“macro-terror”) attacks, rather than relying solely on the subjective views of terrorism experts. This method is based on the fact that the great majority of significant terrorist plots are interdicted by western counter-terrorism forces. Of those that slip through the surveillance net, a proportion will fail through technical malfunction. This leaves just a few major plots where the terrorists can move towards their targets unhindered, and attack successfully.
Judicial courtroom data is available in the public domain for this frequency analysis. Genuine plots result in the arrest of terrorist suspects, indictment, and court conviction. If the evidence is insufficient to arrest, indict, and convict, then the suspects cannot be termed terrorists. Intelligence agencies may hear confidential chatter about possible conspiracies, or receive information via interrogation or from an informant, but this may be no more indicative of a terrorist plot than an Atlantic depression is of a European windstorm. As substantiation of this, there are no plots unknown to RMS in the book of Al Qaeda plots authored by Mitch Silber, director of intelligence analysis at the NYPD.
Since 9/11, there have been only four successful macro-terror plots against western nations: Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Boston in 2013, and now Paris in 2015. Terrorism insurance is essentially insurance against failure of counter-terrorism. With just four failures in North America and Western Europe in the thirteen years since 9/11, the volatility in the frequency of terrorism attacks is lower than for natural hazards. Like earthquakes and windstorms, terrorism frequency can be understood and modeled. Unlike earthquakes and windstorms, terrorism frequency can be controlled.
My new report, “Understanding the Principles of Terrorism Risk Modeling from the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks in Paris,” uses the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks as a case study to explain principles of terrorism modeling. And, I will speaking in a webinar hosted by RMS on Wednesday, January 28 at 8am ET on “Terrorism Threats and Risk in 2015 and Beyond.”