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Twenty-five years ago, on Wednesday, April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh sought revenge on the American government against their actions in the Waco siege in 1993, and attempts to introduce gun control, together with other grievances. Terrorism is the language of being noticed. McVeigh exploded a truck bomb at the start of a workday at 9:02 a.m. outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City: 168 died and nearly seven hundred were injured. This right-wing extremist attack still stands as the most destructive and lethal terrorist vehicle bomb attack in the United States. 

Oklahoma City National Memorial.
Oklahoma City National Memorial. Image credit: David Mark from Pixabay

Ever since the start of my terrorism modeling work at RMS in the aftermath of 9/11, I have sought to understand how terrorists rationalize their acts of violence. Terrorism modeling only began in 2001, and never existed at the time of the Oklahoma bombing. Any man-made hazard poses major modeling challenges, because of the human dimension. A common cause of scepticism over terrorism modeling is the belief that terrorists are irrational; however, insights into the rationale for acts of terrorism may be found in extremist literature, which is an important resource for terrorism analysts. 

For Islamist extremists, a seminal book which had a greater impact than any other, not least on the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, was Milestones by Sayyid Qutb.  When the Arabic edition first appeared in Cairo in 1964, the ideas were considered so dangerous to the regime in Egypt that Sayyid Qutb was arrested, and later hanged.  

For far-right extremists, the most widely read book is The Turner Diaries by William L. Pierce. The title belies the subversive storyline: how a white supremacist army seeks to overthrow the American government.  In McVeigh’s car on the day of attack, the FBI found a copy of a passage from this apocalyptic novel, which includes the following message: “The real value of our attacks today lies in the psychological impact, not in the immediate casualties.” 

McVeigh was executed by lethal injection just three months before 9/11, which has eclipsed the Oklahoma bombing as a terrorism catastrophe.  But a quarter century after the Oklahoma bombing, the psychological impact of this brazen attack remains in the persistent fear that a similar domestic terrorist atrocity might be committed by resurgent right-wing extremists. The number of U.S. deaths from right-wing extremism in 2019 was higher than in any year since 1995.  Overshadowing the spate of gun attacks is the threat of a massive vehicle bomb. Only cognitive dissonance could blind risk stakeholders to believe it could not happen again. 

Fear over right-wing extremism spreads with its global outreach.  For the right-wing Australian white supremacist, Brenton Tarrant, who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019, his lone shooting spree provided mass publicity for his racist manifesto “The Great Replacement,” which repeated the narrative that those of European descent are being replaced by an ethnically diverse horde of non-whites. 

On August 3, 2019, a lone gunman, Patrick Crusius, opened fire in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. Just before the attack, Crusius had posted a four-page anti-immigrant manifesto entitled “The Inconvenient Truth.” The manifesto expressed solidarity with the Christchurch shooter, and cited Tarrant's own online manifesto as an inspiration for his tirade against the perceived Hispanic invasion of Texas. 

Within the community of right-wing extremists, the status of those who have taken up arms is measured by the tally of people they killed.  Crusius killed 22; Tarrant killed 51. Twenty-five years after the Oklahoma bombing, the death toll of 168 still stands as a high target for other right-wing extremists to outdo McVeigh.  The fact that this record remains intact after a quarter of a century will come as a relief for the general public, as well as insurers covering attacks from terrorists and active shooters.  It shows how far terrorism risk modeling has come that this longstanding 25-year record comes as no surprise to RMS risk analysts.  Counterterrorism pressure is far higher now that it was in 1995.  Not only is it much harder to procure large quantities of explosives, but communications between terrorists are liable to be intercepted. Too many terrorists spoil the plot. 

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Gordan Woo pic
Gordon Woo
Catastrophist, Moody's 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 Moody's 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 a Master of Science in computer science from Cambridge University.

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