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Authors Examine Terrorist Trends

Authors Examine Terrorist Trends
A USC expert co-writes a book that combines economic methods with political analysis and reality to study the likelihood of domestic and transnational terrorism.

By Elaine Lapriore

Can acts of terrorism be predicted?

Yes, according to a new book by USC professor Todd Sandler and Walter Enders of the University of Alabama.

“The Political Economy of Terrorism” (Cambridge University Press, 2006) uses a lot of game theory, a mathematical method that predicts someone’s optimal course of action by considering benefits, costs and the interaction among participants.

“It’s not possible to know where terrorists are going to strike, but it is possible to forecast trends,” said Sandler, holder of the Robert R. and Katheryn A. Dockson Chair in Economics and International Relations in USC College.

“You can never forecast a particular event,” he said, “but you can forecast, ‘We’re going to have three or four hijackings,’ and you can forecast within a three- or four-month range when that’s going to happen, because the data is extremely consistent” – daily data which dates back to 1968.

Sandler, who has studied terrorism for 23 years and has written or edited 19 books, co-wrote the book expressly as a teaching tool.

“We need that ability to forecast now because homeland security has created all these centers,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are charged with using these kinds of techniques, and there’s nothing available to teach them.” Available books usually look solely at history or institutions, he said.

The U.S. government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on forecasting because they think it’s useful, Sandler said. “If you know that terrorism is down now, that we should expect a peak in a couple of years, and you can be within months of that, at least you know when you should increase your sky marshals or your forces. It gives you some real legs up on allocation of resources.”

The basic message of the book, Sandler said, is that terrorists act more rationally than governments do, which plays into the terrorists’ hands. “They exploit it with every possible advantage, so it’s important for policymakers to understand what’s going on,” he said.

What sometimes appears to be in a government’s short-term advantage is in its long-term disadvantage, Sandler said.

“The main example of this: when governments continue to insist on acting independently against the threat of transnational terrorism because they want to keep autonomy over the security,” he said. “When you’re facing a threat from a global network, like Jamaa Islamiah or al-Qaeda, that’s not necessarily going to work.”

Governments generally try to force the terrorists to go elsewhere, only to find that their citizens are then targeted in other countries, ones that can’t afford the same level of security.

“Whenever a defense is made, they’re going to slide and move around those defenses,” Sandler said. “If they can’t get Americans or American allies on American soil, they’ll get them in Bali. Or they’ll get them in Saudi Arabia. They’ll get them wherever they feel they have an opening.”