On 18 March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivered his pre-election budget. Billions of further public spending cuts are needed. Several weeks earlier, Pool Re, the U.K. terrorism insurance pool, announced its first ever purchase of reinsurance in the commercial market.
These two announcements are not unconnected.
Pool Re was set up in 1993, after the IRA bombing of the Baltic Exchange in 1992. Since the pool was established, it has built up quite a substantial surplus; claims have been low thanks to the vigilance of the security and intelligence services. Almost all the major plots since the September 11, 2001 attack have been foiled.
Terrorism insurance is effectively insurance against counter-terrorism failure, and the huge sums spent on blanket indiscriminate surveillance have helped to minimize terrorism insurance losses. The low level of losses is not coincidental, or due to some unpredictable whim of terrorist behavior but readily explainable; too many terrorists spoil the plot. The type of plots capable of causing terrorism insurance losses of a billion pounds or more would involve a sizeable number of operatives.
As the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed, the level of surveillance of electronic communications is so intensive that sizeable terrorist social networks end up being tracked by NSA and GCHQ. Lesser plots involving lone wolves or several operatives are most likely to be successful. A string of these have struck the western alliance over the past months in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen. Besides causing terror, these have attracted global media publicity, inspiring Jihadi recruitment. But terrorism insurance covers property loss, not the spread of fear or growth in the ranks of Islamic State.
Having developed a tough security environment, it is unsurprising that the U.K. Government should be questioning its continuing exposure to terrorism insurance risk. This is an age of austerity. Pool Re’s three year program provides £1.8bn of reinsurance cover, so diminishing this exposure. More cover might have been purchased, but this was the market limit, given that Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) risks were included.
The idea of separating out extreme CBRN terrorism risks was considered in Washington by the House Financial Services Committee in the discussions last year over the renewal of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. The objective was to provide a federal safety net for such extreme risks, whilst encouraging further private sector solutions for conventional terrorist attacks. This idea was considered at some length, but was a step too far for this TRIA renewal. It might be a step for Pool Re.
The modus operandi of the IRA was to avoid killing civilians. This would alienate their Catholic community support. Bomb warnings, genuine and hoax, were often given. Thus the metric of IRA attacks was typically physical destruction and economic loss. Islamist militants of all persuasions have no such qualms about killing civilians. Indeed, gruesome killings are celebrated. Terrorists follow the path of least resistance in their actions. For Islamic State, this is the path of brutal murder rather than property damage.