Reducing lone wolf terrorist attacks

In the wake of today’s terrorist attacks, it may be instructive to consider the societal problem of minimizing “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. In doing so, we suggest new avenues to combat diffuse, ideologically-inspired terrorist actors.

The problem can be formulated as

where \(X\) is a vector of all factors that determine lone wolf terrorist attacks, written as \(W\), the cost of defending against them \(C\), and random effects \(\omega\). We can reasonably assume that \(\nabla C \geq 0\) for all \(X\geq X_0\); that is, that the marginal cost of reducing terror does not decrease with the magnitude of the resources deployed.

Almost all members of society have identical preferences regarding terror—less is better—so we don’t argue about whether or not we want to minimize lone wolf attacks. Rather, we discuss the methods by which we want to eliminate them—that is, we discuss the level of the variables \(X\) in the cost constraint. A typical political argument about this issue largely considers only three variables: surveillance, gun control, and the impact of United States foreign policy. This is not, of course, to say that other variables are not sometimes considered. But, to a large extent, these are the dominant factors that one hears discussed on cable news, on the radio, and in the halls of Congress. The exclusion of so many other variables in the discussion is likely detrimental to the objective of reducing terrorism. If we are seeking the minimum to the cost function but only minimize with respect to three of its variables, we’ll find an optimal solution in those variables that is almost certainly non-optimal in others.

Because terrorism is a rational course of action for actors with little power in the dominant political system, efforts should be concentrated on modifying the utility functions of those agents who perpetrate acts of terror. Lowering the utility that agents gain from committing these acts will both lower the maximum of \(W\) and reduce the cost of minimizing it. In the case of ideologically-motivated lone wolf terrorism, the message should be conveyed that:

  1. Terrorist acts are unlikely to forward the agents’ motivating interests
  2. The acts themselves are likely to indirectly injure the families and loved ones of the agents
  3. If the ideology is religious in nature, that the religion itself forbids the terrorist acts

These messages should be spread indirectly; research suggests that agents react far more positively when individuals with whom they are close share a message with them, rather than receiving the message from some central authority.

Written on June 12, 2016