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.

Terrorism in El Paso

Terrorism is a global menace that spreads like a virus along social networks. On March 15, 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Terrorism is the language of being noticed. Shortly before his rampage, he emailed his white supremacist manifesto, The Great Replacement, to the New Zealand Prime Minister’s office and media outlets, and shared a link with 8chan, a counter-culture website associated with political extremism.

Ever since the Christchurch mass shooting, 8chan users have commented regularly on their desire to beat Tarrant’s high score of victims. On Saturday, August 3, 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius posted a four-page document, The Inconvenient Truth, on 8chan, which has since gone offline.  

This expressed support for the Christchurch shootings, and blamed immigrants and first-generation Americans for taking away jobs. He also called for the deportation of immigrants. Such a white supremacist tirade is not unusual on 8chan. However, shortly after this posting, he headed for the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, El Paso, Texas, and opened fire in the parking lot and store with an assault rifle. Mid-morning on Saturday, Walmart was busy with shoppers. His twenty-minute shooting spree left 20 dead with 26 people hospitalized. He then surrendered to police officers. 

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Ebola in Goma

Assessing the risks faced by the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would go well beyond the norms of the insurance industry. On January 17, 2002, a large part of the city center was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the north. Volcano hazard is not a significant risk factor for many towns and cities – and nor is Ebola. Goma is exceptional in being at risk from both.

Outbreaks of Ebola have occurred in the DRC sporadically in 1976, 1994, 2003, 2007 and 2012. The most recent outbreak started on August 1, 2018, and even with the infection of 2,500 and the deaths of more than 1,700, the Ebola virus is still not contained. Endemic hostilities in the DRC make it hard for health organizations to track contacts of those infected, and to operate treatment centers without fear of military attack. Health workers expose themselves daily to lethal infection – and should not be exposed also to armed assault. But they are – two health workers were killed in mid-July.

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London Bridge Terrorism Inquests: A Counterfactual Risk Perspective

The inquests into the deaths of eight individuals killed in a terrorist attack on London Bridge and in Borough Market on June 3, 2017, were held at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, two years later – from May 7 to June 28, 2019. Judge Mark Lucraft, the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, concluded that the eight victims were unlawfully killed, but he was not convinced that MI5 and the police missed any opportunities that would have prevented the attack.

Three Islamist terrorists, Khuram Butt, Rachid Redouane, and Youssef Zaghba, rammed pedestrians on London Bridge, before launching a frenzied knife rampage around nearby Borough Market, a lively food market and tourist hotspot that attracts 4.5 million visitors per year. The three attackers were shot dead by police at 10.17 p.m., less than 10 minutes after the rampage began.

Although the Chief Coroner did not criticize MI5 and the police in his conclusions, he did criticize the lack of security barriers on the bridge, and concluded that this showed weaknesses in systems for assessing the need for such measures, and implementing them promptly. The attack happened only two-and-a-half months after the Westminster Bridge vehicle ramming attack on March 22, 2017.

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Understanding the Terror Attacks in Sri Lanka

A decade ago, an RMS colleague traveling to Bali for a climate change conference sought my advice on where to stay to minimize the risk of falling victim to terrorism. In 2002, some 204 people had been killed in a bomb attack by Islamist militants in Kuta Beach, a busy tourist area in Bali. My advice then, as it is now, was to stay away from luxury hotels. Not just for tourists, but for insurers also, the risk to luxury hotels is far higher than for lesser accommodation.

The basic principles of terrorism risk modeling explain the terrorist preference for luxury hotels and places of worship, both of which were targeted in a coordinated terrorist attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday (April 21), which with a current death toll of 290, has nearly killed half as many more people than the Bali bombing.

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Terrorism in Christchurch

Since 9/11, there have been sporadic attacks on Muslims in Western countries, perpetrated by right-wing terrorists, but none has been more horrific and shocking than the coordinated assault on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, after Friday prayers on March 15, 2019.

Anniversaries have a special significance in the terrorist calendar. This act of wanton religious violence took place several weeks after the 25th anniversary of the most infamous mosque shooting, in Hebron, Israel, on the morning of February 25, 1994. Baruch Goldstein, a doctor raised in U.S., entered the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, pulled out an assault rifle, fired 111 shots, killing 29 Muslims, injuring 125 others. It looks as if this carnage was surpassed in Christchurch.

Terrorist lone-wolves, like Baruch Goldstein, are hard to track because they leave only a small plot planning footprint. The Christchurch attack appears well coordinated and executed, and would have left a sizeable plot planning footprint, that security officials might potentially have detected.

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NHS Funding and the Hope of Living Longer

On March 13, 2019, the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, warned in the House of Commons during his Spring Statement, that a “… cloud of uncertainty was hanging over the U.K. economy.” Reminiscing of a sunnier time for the U.K. economy, in the Budget speech in March 2000, Gordon Brown announced a substantial increase in government spending on healthcare. The Chancellor’s ambitious plan was that health spending would rise by more than a third in real terms over a five-year period, by 6.1 percent per year over and above inflation.

To inform and support this program, he commissioned a review of the long-term trends affecting the U.K. National Health Service (NHS). Based on wide-ranging academic research, this review, which was published in April 2002, had a long-term time horizon of twenty years, extending to 2022. The author of this review was Sir Derek Wanless, a professional banker, who was also a highly gifted mathematician – an important attribute for reaching robust quantitative conclusions on long-term NHS funding.

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Brain Fitness as a Driver of Longevity

Around 100 million people watched this year’s Super Bowl on February 3, which was a low-scoring game where the much faster play of the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, compared with his opposite number LA Rams’ Jared Goff, was a decisive factor. Few in the television audience would have known that the veteran quarterback had special cognitive training to enable him to perform so well according to the mantra: think slow, play slow.

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On Writing a Book on Cyber Risk

Accessing information on the Internet was once likened to searching for information in a library, where the pages of all the books had been ripped out and strewn on the floor. Everyone knows that there is a colossal amount of online information about cyber security issues. How can this seemingly boundless ocean of information be processed for the practical benefit of cyber risk professionals?

This is a daunting multi-disciplinary challenge because cyber risk management spans the broad domains of information technology, risk regulation, law and criminology, security economics, insurance, as well as risk analysis.

This challenge can’t be met by one person – but it can with three. Early in 2017, Andrew Coburn conceived of the idea of a book on cyber risk, with Éireann Leverett and myself as the two other co-authors. Eireann is an ethical hacker, with specialist capabilities and technical insight into the shadowy world of cyber attack and defense. I knew he had special expertise when he showed he could hack my (Samsung) phone in five minutes.

After a brainstorming session in the RMS London office, Andrew came up with the title, Solving Cyber Risk, and after a year and a half of gestation, this book has just been published by Wiley.

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Insuring Against Failure: The Terrorist Threat to Australia

This is a reprint of an article originally published in Insurance News. For the original article, click here.

Australia, along with New Zealand, is part of the formidable Five Eyes Alliance with the intelligence forces of the U.K., U.S. and Canada.

With a massive annual budget of US$100 billion (AUD$138 billion), this is the most effective and intrusive intelligence cooperative in the world, capable of smashing terrorist cells and interdicting complex terrorist plots.

The price of security is not just financial; there is also a cost in loss of privacy. At a recent Five Eyes ministerial meeting on Australia’s Gold Coast, a statement was issued warning that privacy is not absolute, and tech companies must give law enforcement access to encrypted data.

Credible intelligence assessed by Australian security agencies indicates individuals or groups continue to possess the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia. On a five-grade scale, the current threat level is three: probable. The higher grades are “expected” and “certain”. By comparison, the U.K. threat level is one notch higher at grade four.

Everyone has their own social network. For terrorists, interaction with their social network is needed for motivation and gaining the tradecraft for terrorist operations. However, the more communication there is between cell members, the greater the chance that counter-terrorism surveillance will close in. Too many terrorists spoil the plot.

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Civil War Drives the Spread of Ebola

The worst outbreak of Ebola in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Africa’s second largest country by area, with a population of over 77 million, has already claimed several hundred lives, and there have been more than three hundred and fifty cases.

Many of the Ebola cases have been in Beni (pop. ~230,000), a major city in North Kivu province, close to the Ugandan border. DRC is a failing state, where the government regime is weak, and cannot prevent militias from pillaging DRC’s abundant mineral resources. One such militia is the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces), which was formed in neighboring Uganda in the 1990s, and operates in the mineral-rich border area in North Kivu province.

The geography of the disease spread is intriguing for epidemiologists. Officially declared on August 1, 2018, this is the tenth outbreak of Ebola in DRC since 1976, but this is the first time that Ebola has affected the far northeast of this vast Central African nation. A crucial risk factor hampering the control of Ebola in this region is the conflict over mineral resources. This has limited the number of inhabitants who can be vaccinated, and restricted the access of health response teams, who are exposed to personal danger such as physical assault and kidnapping. Indeed, insecurity was a factor delaying the alert to the actual start of the outbreak, which was several months before the official declaration.

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