Targeting Terrorists and Near Certainty

The American Civil Liberties Union had a successful FOIA request that yielded a document explaining how the Obama Administration approves actions to kill suspected terrorists.  I learned about the release from this good article.

What follows are just my personal angles, not a comprehensive treatment of the document.

First, I don’t know why these policies haven’t been in the public domain from the get go.  And given that they were kept secret in the first place I don’t know why the Administration fought this in court rather than just coughing up the document when the FOIA arrived.  There is some blacked out material in the document but nothing in the actual release needs to be secret.

Second, this document is commonly described as the “drone playbook” and this is probably a reasonable way to think of it but, so far as I can tell, the policies apply generally to anti-terrorist actions, not only to drone strikes.

Third, I’m really struck by the constant use of the term “near certainty” which appears eight times in eighteen pages.  For example, two prerequisites for green-lighting an attack are near certainty that the target is there and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”

Despite the legalistic nature of the document I don’t see a definition of “near certainty.”  To me it would imply that air attacks should rarely fail to hit their intended targets and civilian casualties should also be rare – maybe in one strike out of a hundred there could be civilian casualties or the target could turn out to be somewhere else.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even describe ninety-nine in a hundred as “near certainty”.  Before crossing the street I expect near certainty that I won’t get struck by a car. If I had only 99% certainty of crossing safely then I’d get hurt within a matter of weeks.

I am skeptical that there are many, if any, air strikes that are conducted under conditions of near certainty.  I can seriously entertain the possibility that US planners of air attacks are surprised in cases when the target is not there or when civilians are harmed.  But are these planners dumbfounded every time a drone strike goes awry as would be implied by the “near certainty” standard?  I doubt it.


Indeed, Chris Woods of Airwars just wrote this in the New York Times:

Official White House data on counterterrorism actions in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere show civilians dying on average once every seven airstrikes.

I believe that Chris’ claim comes from here.  This official document says there have been 473 air strikes against terrorists and between 64 and 116 civilian deaths in these strikes. This averages out at one death per 7 airstrikes or one death per 4 airstrikes depending on whether you take the minimum or the maximum number of officially acknowledged civilian deaths (and Chris says there have been many unacknowledged civilian deaths as well).  Plus there must have been many civilian injuries.

This really doesn’t sound to me like near certainty that there will be no civilian casualties in antiterrorist air strikes.

Fourth, the document giving the official numbers on antiterrorist air strikes seems to have another inconsistency with the document spelling out the policies governing these strikes.  The policy document brings to mind a room filled with lawyers and policy experts deliberating on the individuals “nominated” to be targeted.  (Are they really terrorists?  Is it possible to capture them rather than killing them?  Is waiting a viable option?). But the numbers documents says that 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed in the 473 strikes.  Did the experts really know who all these people were and deliberate carefully on each one of them?  I doubt it.

I could only speculate on who is fooling whom here so I won’t do it.  But I don’t feel like the Obama Administration has really been following its stated guidelines on actions against terrorist targets.

Does the Overreaction to Terrorism Justify the Overreaction to Terrorism?

Vox has yet another great article, this one giving good insights into how the Obama Administration thinks about foreign policy.

I won’t rehash it here.  Instead, I just want to zero in on one point that I found particularly interesting.

Zack Beauchamp interviews Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Adviser. He notes, correctly, that the US is spending many 10’s of billions of dollars per year fighting terrorism despite the fact that hardly any Americans get killed by terrorists.  (This recent article  lays out the facts about spending and the threat very clearly.)  Beauchamp continues:

I asked Rice how she could justify this given that roughly as many Americans are killed per year by their own furniture as they are by terrorists. (This is true; it falls on them by accident.)

Rice responds:

“You are correct that the threat to Americans from terrorism is less than the threat to die in car accidents, to die of the flu, or any number of things we could list.”

Hmmm….I find myself unable to pass on the total ineptness of Rice’s reply to Beauchamp’s nice comparison.  It is as if you remark that the US Women’s Basketball team is totally dominant in the world, blowing away the Olympic-level competition by 35 points on average.  I reply “Yes you’re right.  In fact, if they played the St. Mary’s seventh grade team they would win by a lot.”

More than 30,000 people die per year in car accidents and the US is averaging around seven terrorist deaths per year.

Anyway, Rice rambles on about a few things that don’t really address the question and then lands, interestingly, on this:

“The threat, I would argue, has got to be measured not only in the number of lives but in the risk that it poses to our economy, our social cohesion, our international presence, and our leadership,” she says. “It’s more than a question of how many lives are taken.”

Beauchamp then writes:

What Rice didn’t say is that these consequences are all the result of irrational overreaction to terrorism — which is the conclusion implied by her own analysis.

If, objectively speaking, terrorism doesn’t kill very many Americans, attacks really shouldn’t have a major effect on the US economy or people’s attitudes toward their fellow Muslim citizens. And yet people panic out of proportion to the body count, prompting market losses, expensive security policies, and a surge in Islamophobia.

The is interesting.  The idea is that maybe massive spending to prevent terrorism is justified because even small terrorist incidents cause people to go bonkers and engage in all sorts of destructive behaviours.  It is best to pay through the nose to prevent this self-immolation.

I should hasten to add that Rice doesn’t actually say this and Beauchamp doesn’t endorse this position either.  He just says that Rice’s statement seems to imply it.  I’m not endorsing this idea either although I don’t think it can be summarily dismissed.

My Economics of Warfare course outline contains a paper by Bruno Frey that makes a related point.  Frey argues that the overreaction to terrorism strengthens the incentives for terrorists to make attacks in the first place.

Think about it.  If I respond to insults from my enemies by shooting myself in the foot then I will probably be fielding a lot of insults from my enemies.

The next stage in this chain is to say that as long as I expect to keep behaving in this self-destructive way then I had better do what I can to prevent the insults from coming my way in the first place.

Of course, the analogy breaks down because Rice isn’t saying that the Obama Administration plans to overreact to terrorist incidents.  Rather, she says that the broader society does this – which is true.  As long as overreactions continues to be the rule then it’s at least plausible that the overreaction to terrorism justifies the overreaction to terrorism.


Predicting Armed Conflict Events

Zee Media is launching a news channel and web cite and, somehow or other, I wound up as featured in their web site launch.

Here is the link.

Although I find it a bit harrowing to watch myself so much on camera I would say that Zee came up with an interesting and original way to present the material.

The basic idea for the piece came from this blog post from a few months back.  This research programme has been more about armed conflict than about terrorism whereas the Zee piece has pretty much the opposite priority.  Still, I think their angle works pretty well.

Like many media outlets Zee was very interested in the possibility of prediction.  Hopefully, viewers will come away from the piece with realistic expectations about the potential for prediction.  I doubt we will every be in a position to mine past patterns and then make a useful prediction saying that there will be an attack at a particular time and place.  But I do think that it is possible to make useful predictions about broad patterns in violent events, such as the relative numbers of attacks of different sizes.

I would add that we should put a lot of effort into making predictions because this is the best way for us to learn when our theories are working and when they need to be modified.  It is very easy to cling endlessly to faulty theories when you never test them with predictions.

PS – There were a couple of minor errors in the piece that I’m trying to get corrected, mainly identifying me as a mathematician rather than as an economist.

PSS – All the work that I describe in the Zee piece is joint with Neil Johnson and Stijn Van Weezel.  I mentioned this on camera but this information didn’t make it into the final version.

Threats, Real and Imagined (mostly Imagined)

Two interesting and related articles crossed my screen almost simultaneously – this one by Nils Petter Gleditsch and Ida Rudolfsen and this one by John Mueller.

Gleditsch and Rudolfsen crunch the numbers and reach a conclusion that is simple, interesting and novel.  I love it!

Civil wars in Muslim countries have not increased dramatically in absolute terms, but they make up a larger share of all civil wars.

Have a look: Untitled The number of civil wars in Muslim countries has increased in recent years but the present level is not historically unprecedented.  Simultaneously, there has been quite a drop in the number of civil wars outside the Muslim world.

Imagine you’re a long-time listener to, say,  the BBC World Service.  Suppose that the BBC holds roughly constant over time the percentage of airtime they devote to war stories.  I know that’s a pretty bold assumption but something along these lines could be true.

If so, then the amount of airtime devoted to civil wars in Muslim countries would have risen over the last decade out of proportion to the real increase in civil wars in these countries. Thus, long-time listeners could easily develop an exaggerated sense that collapse of the Muslim world is a central feature of the decade.

News consumers would then be ripe targets for fear mongering  over the threat of Islamic terrorists.

A cartoon man cowers under the covers in bed at night.

Mueller does a pretty good job of explaining why ISIS, which is absolutely vicious in its area of operation, does not look like a serious threat outside this area.  For example, ISIS seems to regard foreign volunteers as readily expendable and even likes to post videos of foreigners burning their passports, rendering surviving foreigners unlikely candidates to return home and wreak havoc.

Barack Obama recently made a pertinent comment, bemoaning America’s tolerance for widespread gun violence mixed with a disproportionate fear of terrorism:

If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands

(But while searching for this quote I stumbled onto this insanity.   Sheeeshhh)

I’m sure some American readers out there smugly assume they’ve cornered the market on overreaction to terrorism.  Think again.  University lecturers in the UK now have legal duties to combat extremism.

At this moment it is unclear how universities will comply with this legislation.  Many hope it will be sufficient just to force everyone to do an online training course.

So I close with a solemn promise to my readers.  If it’s online training then I will share with all of you the content of the training in a future post.