A number of unique characteristics of the January 7 terrorist attack against satirical French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” allowed terrorists to succeed despite counter-terrorism efforts, according to a new report by Dr. Gordon Woo, catastrophist and terrorism risk expert at RMS, the world’s leading catastrophe risk management firm.
“The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attack is the only successful macro-terror attack in France since RMS started modeling terrorism risk in 2001,” said Woo, the chief architect of the RMS terrorism risk model. “In the game theory of modeling terrorism risk, the outcome is impacted as much by the counter-terrorism tactics employed to stop terrorism as it is by the actions of the terrorist.”
The report, “Understanding the Principles of Terrorism Risk Modeling from the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks in Paris,” developed after conducting on-the-ground reconnaissance, explains some of the key factors that made “Charlie Hebdo” an attractive target and led to an attack that succeeded despite counter-terrorism efforts:
- Secrecy and avoiding surveillance are paramount to thwarting counter-terrorism efforts. The more operatives involved in a plot, the greater the chance it will be interdicted. According to RMS’ analysis, a plot with two operatives has a 46 percent chance of being interdicted, compared to a 95 percent chance of interdiction for a plot involving 10 operatives. The chance of interdiction can be further reduced if the operatives are closely interconnected. Keeping a plot within the family – as in the case of the two brothers who carried out the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks – further limits the chances of interdiction.
Although the plot was sufficiently compact to have a reasonable chance of avoiding French security, the three key operatives had known terrorism ties. However, counter-terrorism efforts were focused mainly on new Jihadis returning from Syria and they were not thought to pose enough of a danger to be kept under surveillance.
- Macro-terror attacks leverage maximum impact. The attack against the Paris offices of “Charlie Hebdo” was impactful because of the ideological symbolism of the target, on par with the assassination of a senior political official in terms of societal impact.
- Publicity impact is key to targeting. Major cities are at higher risk of attack because of the publicity platform they present. Paris is the latest among internationally recognized cities to have experienced macro-terror, joining Madrid, London and Boston.
- Target substitution displaces terrorist threat. Terrorist targeting is relative; terrorists will attack the softer of two similarly attractive targets. The editorial committee of “Charlie Hebdo” had low security compared to other targets of similar value – President Hollande and other political leaders, for example.
- Terrorists follow the path of least resistance in choice of weaponry. Porous European borders allow light military weapons such as those used in the “Charlie Hedbo” attack to be shipped across the continent by road, and many Jihadis returning from the Middle East have professional training and battle experience in their use.
Implications on French Terrorism Risk
“The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attack marks a turning point in the episodic historical western alliance confrontation with Islamist extremism. Blasphemy is an affront to the faithful of any religion. For a few in the extreme tail of the distribution of deeply offended Muslims, the personal insult to their faith in the form of blasphemy may be felt so gravely as to be worth avenging with their lives,” said Woo. “Not only is France a prime terrorist target for French Jihadis, but foreign extremists may travel to France inspired, and even funded, by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to uphold the honor of the Prophet.”
Woo has 30 years of experience in all branches of catastrophe science, covering both natural and man-made hazards. He is the author of two books: “The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes” (1999) and “Calculating Catastrophe” (2011).
A PDF of the report, “Understanding the Principles of Terrorism Risk Modeling from the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks in Paris,” has been made available by RMS.
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