Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/24/dam_of_doom_risk_analysis/

The terror dam of doom that looms over Boise, Idaho

America's terror vulnerability capital - no, really

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Law, 24th April 2008 11:55 GMT

It shouldn't come as a surprise that some American scientists think terrorism can be defined by equations and a priori vulnerability factors. Close study of terrorist action and behavior is too dull for many in the US counter-terror business, so it's better to have numbers; insurance men, newspaper reporters and government officials like them, and Benchmark Analysis for Quantifying Urban Vulnerability to Terrorist Incidents delivers plenty.

Written by University of Arizona math professor Walter W. Piegorsch and two others colleagues and published in a recent edition of the journal Risk Analysis, the study came with a ready-made hook. Boise, Idaho, it is claimed, is among the ten cities in the US most vulnerable to terror. This guaranteed some terror beat coverage in the US newsmedia and, as is usual when some study claims to spot deficiencies in terror defense, thrilled local government officials interested in dunning more taxpayer money from the Feds.

Funded by grants from the Department of Homeland Security, the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency, Piegorsch and his cohorts worked out what they dub a "place-based vulnerability index," or PVI, which is said to be a measure of the fragility of a city to terror attack. The most vulnerable city in the US, according to the study, is New Orleans with a PVI of 3.119. At number ten, Boise sports and index of 1.696.

Vulnerabilities were come to by contributions from other indices, one of which is called the social vulnerability index, or SoVI, previously employed to quantify a location's vulnerability to environmental hazards by evaluating its socioeconomic and demographic profile. To the SoVI, the boffins add a natural hazards vulnerability index (the HazVI) - "a surrogate for community experience in responding to extreme events... an important factor in preparedness levels" - and the BEVI or "built-environment vulnerability index" which takes into account the decrepitude of man-made infrastructure as measured by age plus housing and property values. That New Orleans comes out top of the list is not unexpected considering its poverty and the general national response to Katrina. But who would have picked lily-white Boise as an urban center where a terror plot could easily succeed?

The dam of doom

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times thought to ask why, and was told Boise is menaced by Lucky Peak Dam, seventeen miles northeast, holding back 300,000 acre-feet of water. "That dam could be a very likely target, or possible target," claimed Piegorsch. Add the assessment that the government in Boise was lame at historical local disaster response and it spelled terror trouble.

And this is where the scientists jump the tracks. They have no way of knowing a dam in Idaho is in the dreams of terrorists, but there's quite a bit of evidence, if they have taken the time to read materials from various terror trials, that it probably is not. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that many jihadi terrorists, even if told about Lucky Peak Dam and the pitiful local emergency response, wouldn't know how to destroy such a considerable public work without extensive planning and access to demolition expertise and materials. They've shown no sign of such a capability since 9/11. Perhaps one could employ acetone peroxide bombs or drive one's jeep into the entrance of the dam powerhouse, then set oneself afire?

No such story on terror research is complete without someone asking if publicizing such a research paper as Piegorsch's is a good idea. "Some critics have questioned whether statistical research about America's more vulnerable places should be so easily accessible..." reported the Times.

"The bad guys have figured this out already," claimed the head boffin, again showing that while he may know a lot about statistics, one could make the counter argument that the man greatly overestimates what "the bad guys" have figured out or can figure out. Since 9/11, this has been a common trope peddled by a broad variety of anti-terror experts. The terrorists always have stuff figured out and when coupled with another canard, the one that states that it's easy to carry out any kind of mayhem, one can begin to go about the job of assigning global fragilities and vulnerabilities without interference.

Terrorists? We got 'em

The Risk Analysis vulnerability study comes up with its selection of cities by relying on a terrorism database of incidents from 1970-2004, created by the scientists from information on US terror compiled at two sources: the Terrorism Knowledge Base and the US Department of Justice. A quick gander at the Terrorism Knowledge Base shows the US awash in terror incidents, almost all of them carried out by American crazies. The great majority of these events are less terrifying than local gang crime in inner city USA. In fact, in the last two years, arsonists motivated by the fire season in southern California have probably caused more property damage and suburban displacement than all of the terrorists in the US section of the TKB combined.

But disasters like wildfires and terror incidents are apples and oranges, eh? Indeed they are and a risk analysis can also evaluate which of the two a nation or society is more vulnerable to by employing common sense or the studious lack of it. The latter has been shown to be something of the preferred analytical tool in the US during the last five years.

"To put this [report] into practical perspective, suppose city officials in... Charleston, SC, or Norfolk, VA, were considering new forms of coastal antiterrorist protection," the authors write. (One of their conclusions is that coastal cities in the eastern USA and on the Great Lakes trend higher in terror vulnerability.) "This could motivate increased funding allocation(s)..." So an alternative interpretation is that it's good business to have a bad score.

The paper also includes a map of US vulnerability to terror nicely color-coded in red (bad), yellow (caution) and green (OK). Of course, since this is all now available on-line the terrorists have already downloaded it and someone in Karachi or Lahore must be making plans for where we least expect it, not Boise, but the previously thought to be terror-safe border between eastern California and western Nevada. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.