Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How many terrorist plots are brewing right now?

In late 2012, I published a study in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism that set out to estimate how many jihadi plots are in the works and how long it takes would-be terrorists to plan them. ... On average, at any one time there are fewer than three hidden terror plots being planned across the country.

How is it possible to count hidden terror plots? First, I reviewed hundreds of pages of indictments, criminal complaints, the testimony of FBI special agents and informants, and other court documents and reports associated with terror plots since 9/11. I then analyzed them through the lens of queueing theory, which is often used to assess the efficiency of customer-service call centers. Comparing terrorism to call centers isn’t as odd as it might sound. In my research, the plots were the “customers” and the local police, FBI, or even National Security Agency (NSA) were providing the “service” of foiling them. I treated a successful plot the same way someone studying a call center would treat a customer hanging up before being helped.

For some, three terror plots will sound like a lot —any death from a terrorist attack is tragic. But I would guess that many might feel a measure of relief from the number; I know I did. ...

Recently, the former coordinator of the UN team that monitors Al Qaeda and the Taliban said that, between 2007 and 2011, your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack were about 1 in 20 million. You have about a 1-in-126,000 lifetime risk of being killed by lightning. ...

[W]e lose many more lives to heart disease and cancer, each of which ultimately has about a 1-in-7 chance of killing you, than to terrorism.

We show our national priorities by how we spend our money: The Department of Homeland Security gets about $60 billion for its annual budget; the National Institutes of Health spends some $2 billion a year on cardiovascular research and $6 billion on cancer. ...

In June, after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the NSA’s director said sweeping surveillance programs like PRISM helped disrupt more than 50 terror plots, including 10 targeting the United States. Many raised doubts about the claims — especially that the NSA played a key role in uncovering a 2009 plan to bomb the New York subway system — but the rough number of plots was comparable to what I estimated, which makes the NSA’s assertions seem credible to me.
--Yale SOM professor Edward H. Kaplan, Boston Globe Magazine, on counting the uncountable