Is There a Better Way to Fight Terrorism? (Ep. 196)

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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.



Enjoyed the podcast and the perspective.

I was wondering why Mia Bloom choose in her statement, "Perhaps children in the middle of America, in the middle of Nebraska, should know what the Koran is about....just to educate, you know, the country in general." How does she see middle America?

I'm a Nebraskan. I really don't think introducing the Quran to children would be tolerated in Nebraska, but I do think there would be adults who would be open to learning more on the Quran. I would sign up. Distant learning classes are great.

I cannot defend an over zealous Quran burning Christian with radical beliefs and I am a Christian; I cannot imagine there is a way in the Quran to defend terrorism. I don't think the majority of Muslim's condone terrorism or believe in this radical form of Islam.

Evil is evil no matter what country, race, or religion the source professes to be. It only spreads if not dealt with.


Nate Allen

Free Palestina & legalize drugs.

2 quick & potent counter-measures.

A free Palestina will cut Muslim hatred towards the west in half, making it harder to brainwash youth from the authentic apartheid that is actually taking place.

Legalizing drugs will cut the funds for criminal orgs in Latin America as well as Middle East.

Simple solutions @ end of the day.


I typically enjoy Freakononics, but this episode was woefully one-sided and incomplete. A summit usually has all sides, but this one was just left-wing. It is what I expected from Obama, not from objective economists.


So you would like to hear from some terrorists? What is the right-wing side, to spend more money and have more wars? I think we have been doing that for the last 20 years and it hasn't been very successful!


When Bush said about launching a 'war on terror', the thing it rreminded me most was of an interview with Gorbachev back in the '80s. He wanted to increase capitalism and free markets in the USSR, and was going to achieve this by more planning. A man in charge of everything, facing up to a problem, and with one short sentence proving that they have no concept of the actual problem, and a zero chance of success. In Britain, we don't get jingoistic about terrorism. Nothing is easy, and you just need to knuckle down for the long haul, and get used to being consistently reasonable in the face of a hell of a lot of provocation. Freakonomics is always great, but this one is particularly great. Keep up the good work, guys. AA, London

Andy Kaufman

So, the Paris terrorists targeted Charlie Hebdo because of a reason related to occupation? I can buy the argument that history is filled with occupation-related catalysts, and I don't doubt that Iraq made things worse. And I even agree we have the potential to make things even worse.

But how can you explain the Paris shooting without acknowledging the primary motivation being religious revenge for the cartoons?

And the "we will conquer Rome" statement from this week ( Is this revenge for Italy occupying their territory?

Beheadings of Christians is not a religious motivator?

It seems to me this Big Data conclusion is substantially out-of-date with today's reality.....


Seems like oversimplification is a risk on both sides of your point. Let's acknowledge that parsing the reasons from the excuses, much less ordering the magnitude of the reasons (causes), is obviously tricky. Anger and even death sentences over insulting the Prophet are nothing new. Any number, much less large numbers, of people willing to act out in these ways is new. So something else - or rather something additional - is at work.


Couldn't get past the first 15 minutes. You can question the Iraq War from a strategic and tactical perspective, and evaluate what was and was not accomplished or worsened. However, if you claim with a straight face that the root cause of the Paris attacks was the US occupation of Iraq... that because of abuse conducted at Abu Ghraib by US soldiers in Iraq in 2003, terrorists from France massacred French cartoonists in Paris in 2015, while yelling, "The Prophet is avenged" ... then you are willfully blind.

Will Howard

Robert Pape states that the Tamir Tiger's started the suicide bombing tactics being used by ISIS today. He also did not mention how the Tamil's were stopped. As an economics podcast, I thought you might go into how this problem was solved. Hint: it wasn't by trying to persuade combatants that the government wasn't "occupying" them.

chris rice

i think best way to some this up is some thing bush said

we fight then over their so we don,t have to fight then here.

and what guys over their are saying

where fighting you here because you are here.

and to think islam want whole to be islamic might be ture. but

is any worse then english emipre????????

chris rice

and another thing one man terroist is another man freedom fighter

isis capture city of mosqual with 800 troop

pop of mosqual is 1,8 million


I was struck by the French government's announcement following the CH attacks that it would dramatically increase security spending - tens or hundreds of millions of dollars "overnight."

Imagine if we apply remotely similar proportionality to larger problems or opportunities, be they criminal, medical, energy, education-related or any other.

I also note that the discussion here did not allow for full enumeration or even estimation of the costs of our response to 9/11 and follow-on concerns. Virtually every federal agency (not just military, intelligence and law enforcement) along with virtually every law enforcement entity, down to your local police department and even private security firms, are spending vast sums of time, money and other resources as a result. In some cases taxes are raised to support this but for the most part not, resulting in resources moving away from activities that likely represent bigger threats and offer higher ROI.



Dear Freakonomics,

Steven D, specifically. I have been listening since the beginning of your podcasts.

I know you are in a field with many other interesting podcasts, and you are trying to stand out, we all get that. To that I say, do what you are good at, and tread carefully elsewhere.

I listen to dozens of podcasts weekly, everyone has a slightly different approach. I would say I have listened to several thousand at this point. Yours is usually a stand out, usually.

I also appricate yours style because I like your ability to ask direct questions, YES? (Verbal tic, but I like it)

A few months ago, I was listening to Dr. Levitt, you were discussing something to do with bacon.
I don’t claim to be an expert on bacon, or the meat industry, and I don’t recall the exact question(s) or answers. I do recall Dr. Levitt, whose answer was completely wrong on the the “facts” he gave. This caused me to stop listening and recommending you for months.

I just started listening again, the second show I heard was on terrorism (02/13/2015).

It was informative and interesting, I do have some expertise in this area.

Steven, people take your show as presenting facts or “expert opinions”, it is this aspect you must be very careful with, it is your currency. You have become a trusted source of things, a title not easily bestowed.

Mr. Nathan Myhrvold’s presentation is misleading, factually incorrect and in contradiction to the other presenters who have at least some “pedigree” to support their claims. His statements should be presented as his unverified, non vetted personal opinion or view.

Now, on to Dr. Levitt.
I know people with Ph.D’s feel that they should be able to answer every question asked, but the reality is, when you are asked a specific question about a specific subject, if your are not qualified to answer, you should decline.

Dr. Levitt has done this again with his comments about terrorism. I find his answers not in line with our current threat profile, I am not alone in this view.

Mr. Myhrvold has left the impression that a bio attack is possible and would be devastating. He is at least partially correct. The likelihood however, is minuscule. Bio attacks are very complex and represent .03% of attacks since 1970 worldwide. The agents involved would be genotyped very quickly, and their origin quickly determined. The state actors who posses these weapons are all known, and they also know the United States long standing policy of chemical or biologic attacks perpetrated on the U.S. will be responded to with a nuclear return.

Mr. Myhrvold states that a bio attack (small pox) could inflict 1 million casualties. He’s both right and wrong. More importantly, he leaves the wrong impression, and damages our efforts at training at the CDP (Center for Domestic Preparedness). We do have methods to detect this that I will not put into print for obvious reasons. Mr. Myhrvold would obviously not be privy to these methods, which have obviously not restrained him one bit.

He opines that we don’t have protective “gear” he is flatly wrong, period, misleading and unprofessional, if I can even make that statement.
In his defense, I would say her is correct about leadership.

These agents are now held only by the Russia and the United States, in the US at the CDC in Atlanta Georgia. The genome of each bug is well known. Any release of this agent would be rapidly identified. It is possible that some “rogue” samples might be located somewhere in the world, but their

Dr. Levitt states that terrorism is nothing to worry about in America. Steven, this is flat wrong.
It might and probably does make sense from a statistical sense, from a practical one, prefer parent standpoint, that position is damaging.

PLEASE, find a way to carefully vet and screen those presenting “facts” on your show.
Mr. Myhrvold provided his opinion, many will take them as facts. It’s these kinds of “facts” people take to meetings convened by the White House.

Jeff Rusteen
Instructor, Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP.DHS.GOV)
Department of Homeland Security
Retired, San Francisco Fire Department
Below is the abstract to an article to be published by FDIC International in a publication(s) of their choice.

I would be happy to sent you a prepublication copy.



Despite what some “pundits” may pronounce in print, video or on talk shows, jihadists tend to do what they know best. Looking at the full spectrum of attacks, both domestic and foreign, the pattern is very clear. We can prepare for a full spectrum CBERN attack, or we can prepare for what is most likely.
The follow on is, our training profile across the U.S. and the skills and knowledge learned in the various programs available is “perishable”. One exposure to any element of a CBERN based attack does not confirm immunity to the agency or individual who has received the training. The second follow on, every local in the U.S. does not share the same risk profile. People in Wyoming don’t need preparations for a hurricane, people in Hawaii do not need training for blizzards.


Phil Persinger

Mr. Rusteen--

The comments section of this web-site is often more informative than the comments of those being interviewed for the podcast. I agree with you that this is in part a matter of deliberate provocation of the audience-- which is not necessarily a bad thing.

But when the interviews are conducted in areas in which I actually know something, the questions and/or the editing do not always elicit the most nuanced account of the subject at hand. Again, it falls to the comments section to hash things out-- but the damage to the discussion has been done already...

Oliver H

No, the basic problem is that too much emphasis is being put on doctoring on symptoms instead of tackling causes. And in doing so, the situation is made worse and worse by providing precisely the socioeconomic conditions in which extremists thrive.