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World: Predicting Terrorist Attacks

  • Roman Kupchinsky

What are the chances that attacks on the United States similar to those of 11 September 2001 will take place within the next year? Will terrorists strike the New York subway in the next six to 12 months? Can such events be predicted? What are the odds of being killed by terrorists?

Some observers have proposed that "chaos theory" could hold the answers, others seek clues in the behavior of gamblers, and still others look to medieval French astrologer Nostradamus for signs of when and where terrorist attacks might take place.

Given the inability of intelligence communities and think tanks to predict terrorist attacks, it is unsurprising that a number of U.S.-based companies or communities began researching possible ways to predict terrorist acts.

One such approach was described in the "New Scientist" of 2 October 2001. A company based in Roswell, Georgia, known as Applied Systems Intelligence began developing software called Knowledge Aided Retrieval in Activity Context (KARNAC) to predict terrorist attacks.

"When complete, they (Applied Systems) say it will be capable of sifting through and analyzing existing databases of information, both public and private, and spotting suspicious patterns of activity," "New Scientist" reported.

The information for KARNAC would come from "both structured and unstructured databases." These would include gun registrations, the issuance of driver's licenses, and criminal records in the first instance; the latter would include "the internet and newspapers, journals and county records," according to "New Scientist."

The creators of KARNAC hoped to create a system that could alert officials if someone tried to buy materials that could be used in bomb making "and booked a large truck and a hotel room near a government office."

Pentagon Efforts

The "Los Angeles Times" reported on 29 July 2003 that the Pentagon had created a program known as the Policy Analysis Market to study the ways that investors knowledgeable in Middle Eastern affairs might be used to predict terrorist attacks, among other events.

The newspaper wrote: "The Policy Analysis Market initiative is described by the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, as 'initially a small research program' to use economic market forces to help predict future events in the Middle East.

"It would be overseen by DARPA's Information Awareness Office, whose director is retired Adm. John M. Poindexter, the former Iran- Contra figure, according to DARPA's Web site.

"The technology was developed by San Diego-based Net Exchange, in conjunction with DARPA and the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research arm of the publishers of the Economist magazine, DARPA said. Using a market-style trading system, up to 10,000 investors would buy futures contracts if they believe an event will occur, and try to sell a contract if they believe it won't. They would be motivated by the 'prospect of profit and at pain of loss' to make accurate predictions."

The program was stopped after two U.S. senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, revealed its existence.

"Spending taxpayer dollars to create terrorism betting parlors is as wasteful as it is repugnant," the "Los Angeles Times" quoted Senators Wyden and Dorgan as saying in a letter to the Pentagon. "The American people want the federal government to use its resources enhancing our security, not gambling on it."

The Rand Corporation, in a 2004 study titled "Out of the Ordinary -- Finding Hidden Threats by Analyzing Unusual Behavior," outlined a system it called Atypical Signal Analysis and Processing Architecture (ASAP), which might conceivably be used to identify emerging threats by observing behavioral patterns within "the population of interest."

The authors of the Rand study wrote: "The enemy is out there -- leaving information traces that describe his behavior. In general, people need shelter, sustenance, transportation, communication, material items, and currency. When viewed in context, these behaviors can yield critical information.... [P]erceived and potential enemies are already being monitored and watched. Further, enemies who are not being watched frequently engage in highly atypical behavior as part of their attack preparations; these behaviors stand out from the status-quo noise, leading to those enemies being watched as well. This is the population of interest."

What Are The Odds...?

What are the chances that ASAP, DARPA, KARNAC, or other projects could reliably predict a terrorist attack? That is a difficult question and is related to other, nearly unanswerable, questions concerning the odds of a terrorist attack on any given location -- whether it is the London Underground, a hotel in Egypt, or a police recruiting center in Baghdad -- or even one's chances of being killed in a terrorist attack.

Writing in "The Washington Post" on 25 November 2001, Michael L. Rothschild, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin's business school, provided some related statistics:

"There are more than 40,000 malls in this country, and each is open about 75 hours per week. If a person shopped for two hours each week and terrorists were able to destroy one mall per week, the odds of being at the wrong place at the wrong time would be approximately 1.5 million to 1. If terrorists destroyed one mall each month, the odds would climb to one in 6 million. This assumes the total destruction of the entire mall; if that unlikely event didn't occur, the odds would become even more favorable."

The odds of a typical American falling victim to other life-threatening incidents are, according to travel-insurance website travelfinders.com:

*Being killed by a dog: 1:700,000

*Killed by debris from space: 1:5 billion

*Freezing to death: 1: 3 million

*Killed in a car accident: 1:5,000

*Killed in a plane crash: 1:25 million

By contrast, one's chances of winning first prize in the New York lottery by picking correctly those six numbers are one in more than 45 million.

During a discussion on the perception of the risk of terrorism broadcast by PBS on 26 December 2001, Nick Epley, a psychologist, said people assess such dangers by thinking about how easy it would be for something to happen. So the more vivid and specific a recent event, the easier it is to imagine it taking place.

The random nature of terrorist attacks and the likelihood of being killed in one appear to be very low in the United States and Great Britain. The security barriers erected to prevent terrorists from launching successful attacks have reduced personal vulnerability and thus removed many less rational reasons for fear -- leaving only the knowledge that terrorism is a danger that needs to be eradicated. In short, if people are not "terrorized" -- i.e., they are not living in fear for their lives -- the aims of the terrorists remain unfulfilled.
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