Is There a Better Way to Fight Terrorism? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: ZaldyImg)

(Photo: ZaldyImg)

Next week, the White House is hosting a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (known to most laypeople as “terrorism”). It was originally scheduled for last year but got delayed – and then put back on the calendar after the Paris attacks in January. What should we expect from a summit like this? “Alas, I’m expecting very little of a positive nature,” Col. (Ret.) Jack Jacobs tells us. “I view this principally as a media event. I hope I’m wrong.”

Just in case the summit does turn out to be primarily a media event, we thought we’d take our podcast – which technically, is a media event – and turn it into a terrorism summit. This week’s episode is called “Is There a Better Way to Fight Terrorism?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

We talk about what’s known and what’s not known about terrorism; we talk about what’s working and what’s not to prevent it; we talk about whether we overvalue the threat of tactical terrorism and undervalue the threat of strategic terrorism, including cyber- and bioterrorism.

Here’s who you’ll hear from on our terrorism UnSummit:

+ Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security & Terrorism; Pape has written widely on the “strategic logic” of suicide terrorism and how to best fight it.

+ Mia Bloom, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. Bloom — who was invited to attend the White House summit after we interviewed her — thinks a lot about terrorism before it happens:

BLOOM: So one of my main approaches … is to look at how terrorist groups change and innovate, how they learn from each other. And looking at, for example, changing operatives from males who were suicide bombers to looking at women terrorists and to increasingly moving to the future, looking at children who engage in political violence. For example, we see children in Boko Haram and ISIS Cubs and we’re seeing more and more children who are militarized across the world.

+ Nathan Myhrvold, the CEO of Intellectual Ventures (and a familiar name in these parts), who in 2013 published a monograph called “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action.” While Myhrvold is way outside the typical national-security circles, his essay caught a lot of eyes and ears in those circles. He argues that the U.S. is fighting the last war on terror at the expense of preparing for a much more dangerous possibility:

MYHRVOLD: A bioterror attack on the United States could easily kill, in all simulations in the studies done so far, it could kill 100,000 to a million Americans.

+ Jack Jacobs, who received a Medal of Honor for his heroism in the Vietnam War, went into business after the Army, wrote a book about his amazing life, and is now a national-security analyst for NBC and MSNBC. Like Myrhvold, Jacobs thinks that too much focus is put on terrorist acts that aren’t that costly; but he’s not optimistic about a change:

JACOBS: We really don’t have any national strategy — but to be fair, trying to develop a national strategy in this kind of national-security environment, where we’re just getting started, is probably too much to ask.

You’ll also hear Steve Levitt‘s contribution to the terrorism debate, which might surprise you a bit — unless you know how Levitt thinks.


AJ Liberphile

Robert Pape says that the overwhelming reason for 'suicide' (homicide) bombers is occupation by a foreign power or desire for local autonomy against a larger state, rather than religion.

That's all very well; the problem is that Islam divides the world into two: Dar al islam (the house of Islam) and Dar al harb (the house of war). Jihad will continue until the Dar al Harb (the non-Moslem world) is conquered, because, as islamic doctrine states, the whole world rightly belongs to Islam. Therefore all non-sharia states are occupiers.


Hi AJ! Could you please specify what exactly is this Islamic doctrine that states that the entire world rightly belongs to Islam and your sources supporting said doctrine? Thank you!

Anthony N

I'm a little skeptical of Myhrvold's alarm-sounding over a bioterror attack. In addition to the self-evident hurdles like the need for domain expertise, costs for proper lab facilities, and the scarcity of such bioweapons (as compared with conventional weapons), I think the very same thing that makes bioterror so terrifying prevents it from being a pragmatic weapon of terror for traditional terror groups.

Aside from the kind of movie-villain whose goal is actually world destruction for the sake of destruction, terror groups presumably have some sort of survival self-interest (if not at the individual level, at least at the institutional level). One of the major problems with highly contagious bioweapons is that there is no way to limit the collateral damage. Of the million victims Myhrvold suggests are possible, there is no way to guarantee that some of those won't be terror group members. Or that sure, a terror bomb maker runs the risk of blowing himself up in an accident; with bioweapons, they run the risk of devastating the entire city they live in (terror group included).

Finally, to people in general--bioweapons and highly communicable disease trigger irrational fear from their invisible and not-fully-knowable nature. We got a taste of that with the recent Ebola mess. We had people, including otherwise very well educated, rational people (like doctors, nurses and other medical professionals) reacting in irrational fear when Ebola arrived in the US--despite that its vectors for infections were fairly well understood. It would be a tall order for a terror organization to attempt to harvest and spread something like Ebola, even as it is readily available during an outbreak.



That's true; that said the risk of strategic terrorism isn't limited to bioweapons. We rely on many systems every day that are more fragile than we realize. These weak spots include things such as power lines, oil pipelines, undersea cables, and power plants.

Strategic terrorism is already a big problem in a few places in the world. In the Sinai, a series of attacks on a natural gas pipeline to Israel forced it to be shut down, cutting Israel off from its long term source of natural gas. Luckily, Israel was already developing its own fields and was able to switch over, but it could have been very bad news. In Pakistan, a recent attack on a couple of power pylons shorted out the power supply of more than 100 million people for several days. Yes, you read that number correctly.

Jihadists don't usually think this way, but when faced with easy targets of opportunity they do have the ability to capitalize on them. I think the threat is overestimated because these attacks aren't usually scary, even though they're destructive- jihadists tend to follow the rule of cool and aim for flashy rather than what's necessarily the most effective. Terrorism is an enormously counter productive tactic to begin with, and many of their attacks, such as the recent school attack in Pakistan, are so poorly thought out that they border on insanity.

If you think about it, parking a couple of cars on the Brooklyn Bridge and walking away could do millions of dollars of damage to the economy for the cost of a parking ticket. But terrorists wouldn't think of that as a good tactic.


Sean Everton

I enjoyed the podcast, but Levitt is incorrect that economists don't have a lot to offer on the topic of terrorism. The economist, Eli Berman, wrote an excellent book on terrorism, "Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism." Here's a link:

One of the boys

How about Non-State Vs. Non-State. If Countries that support terrorism are uselessly sanctioned which rarely disable active/passive support to the non-state, wouldn't it seem logical then to support a non-state to fight it? I have 4 deployments to combat zones, of which I was directly engaged with non-state actors. How does a unit/country/idea defeat an enemy when it is bound to the constructs of Jurisdiction, Conventions, and Political Rules of Engagement? An interesting debate is whether Terrorism should be prosecuted by Law Enforcement or Military. Since terrorist groups have matured, grown and mutated into larger more dangerous groups, shouldn't we? I can't tell a single strategy that has proven effective. I believe that it is because we think within the confines of an existing construct. Time to re-evaluate and change the storyline. I suggest a Black water type mercenary. Pay non-state actors to hunt these 'criminals/terrorists' while providing a SOFA like legal framework for them to operate.



No need, there are plenty of people on the ground that we can support. Blackwater costs money, the Kurds will do it for free.

The current strategy of air support for local ground forces was enormously effective in Libya and more recently in Kobane, and is slowly reversing the tide of the war against ISIL. The Kurds have come back from being on the brink of encirclement and destruction, and actually reached the outskirts of Raqqa today. The best part about this strategy is that it's really cheap compared to an occupation and doesn't have the same radicalizing effect- in fact, people seem to actually appreciate our help.

Since Libya I've been convinced that this is the magic bullet for fighting jihadist groups, and so far it seems to be working. Fingers crossed.

One of the boys

You make points but I will offer this. That we will only support the Kurds as much as the don't

Jeffrey Rothman

Robert Pape conveniently edited out some salient facts that did not fit with his thesis that negotiation and compromise are more effective in dealing with terrorism than force. He manages to cite the prolific use of suicide terrorism by the Tamil Tigers as evidence that such terror is not religious in it's basis. He then conveniently omits the fact that there is no more terrorism in Sri Lanka because the Tamil Tigers have been completely defeated by the Sri Lanka military (very brutally in fact). This omission removes all of his credibility as a unbiased scholar in my eyes.

Luis Beltran

So, what if Steve chairs a commission dedicated first to discuss the ways to terrorize, as an economist. Then work backwards in ways to prevent it (and identify the symptoms as they are happening)?

Brett Shears

How do you all think Robert Pape reconciles his research, which shows lack of money and a background of struggling/hardship are *not* found consistently across suicide bombers, with the supposedly successful policy of paying people not to attack US forces? Wouldn't the payments be at least some kind of indication that financial hardship plays some role in the decision of whether or not to attack? (whether by suicide bombing or some other means)

Fred Gunther

Pape claims that most people are incorrect in their assumption that most suicide attacks are motivated by 'religion' (like most left-wing professors, he's afraid to say the "I" word). He cites as an example of this the suicide attacks carried out in Sri Lanka.

Good news is, anyone can query the suicide database he has complied. You owe it to yourself to run your own query. As expected you'll confirm your suspicions that the vast majority of suicide attacks are carried out by Islamic terrorists.

The host of the show either didn't bother to fact check Pape himself or was complicit in providing disingenuous facts to its listeners concerning suicide bombers. This show could have been so much more. You really failed us on this one.


Having read the comments and listened to the show, I'm very skeptical of the conclusion that the "root" cause of suicide terrorism is occupation. Moreover, suicide attacks are only a small portion of all terrorist attacks. Does Pape think that all terrorist attacks have a similar "root' cause? Does he think if Israel left the West Bank, and the US removed any troops from the Middle East, terrorist attacks would end (or even lessen)? I believe there are many other deep pathologies that motivate these terrorists. And how does a country right a wrong committed 50 or 500 years ago?

sara was really a good one.


Quote from The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani....
"Together, reformism and culturalism set the terms of a narrow debate on the Muslim problem. Reformists criticize the crude generalizations of the culturalists-their assumption that Islam can only be interpreted as a doctrine of fanaticism and their counterproductive alienating of Islam from the West. Culturalists respond by charging reformists with naiveté for thinking governments can bring about cultural change in Muslim communities, with wishful thinking in attempting to find a moderate Islam, and with overlooking the danger that partnering with Muslims facilitates infiltration. Culturalists argue that the war on terror is a battle between Judeo-Christian civilization and Islam's premodern values; reformists reply that it is better conceived as a battle between liberal values and an antimodern political ideology called Islamism. The reformists are optimistic that their assimilatory strategy can transform Islamic culture and draw Muslims into a pro-Western stance, while the culturalists, believing Islamic culture unreformable, pessimistically peddle fear, suspicion, and distancing. Both reify Muslim culture, the former to manipulate it, the latter to vilify it. To the culturalists, Western Muslims can never be equal citizens. To the reformists, the equal citizenship of Muslims is, in practice, precariously dependent on their being able to prove their allegiance to ill-defined Western values"


Kuchanna Srinivasan

The threats of bio-terrorism or cyber terrorism are old hat. Not that they are not relevant but already known & generally recognized but 'Demystifying Koran' is an original idea, I liked it.
Occupation triggering it is also common sense but rarely accepted by the powers, or rather, those who are already 'high' on power.
lastly, my bit of wisdom; in the near future, will it be the turn of trained animals, instead of humans, to blow up things for the terrorists?


I found the phrase "like school shootings, terrorism can never be stopped 100%" a bit odd as many countries that aren't the US have managed to achieve 0% school schootings