While many terrorist plots are still being developed, “the vast majority are interdicted through the diligence of western intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Mass surveillance of communication links, and the intrusion of intelligence moles, elevate[s] the likelihood of plot interdiction with plot size,” Woo said.
The reasoning is that the larger the terrorist cell, the more likely it is that information will leak out about it to the authorities. RMS estimates that a plot involving as many as 10 would-be terrorists has only a 5 percent chance of not being caught. “With the intensive global surveillance conducted today by Western intelligence agencies, a plot involving as many as 19 hijackers or bombers would have only a minimal chance of eluding their attention,” Woo testified.
But if the balance of power has shifted to counter-terrorism, the chances are good that terrorists will adjust to that, too. To model the risk under current circumstances and be able predict the likelihood of attacks, government and private-sector analysts are increasingly relying on computer simulations and games, according to Barry Ezell, an associate professor of research at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University.
To explain how such a game-theory application might work, Ezell supplies the example of running a seaport. Such an operation could have many activities running simultaneously: ships, trains and other modes of transport arriving, unloading and loading cargo, and departing.
“You can create that environment in a simulated world,” Ezell says, noting that data generated for all those different activities can be used to simulate the operations of the port. “And then you can inject the effects of different terrorism scenarios into that simulation, and look at the consequences to your port operations.”
At that point, the game player (perhaps in the guise of a “blue team” playing against a terrorist “red team”) can introduce various security measures aimed at averting terrorism. Then the player would rerun the scenarios to see how each security measure “drives down the consequences” of the terrorist plot, according to Ezell.
By playing such games, he adds, “you can discover some black swan events that you would have never learned using other approaches.”