Rational Terrorist Strategies

The Freakanomics blog has moved over to the NYT. Levitt asks “If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack?”:

I’d start by thinking about what really inspires fear. One thing that scares people is the thought that they could be a victim of an attack. With that in mind, I’d want to do something that everybody thinks might be directed at them, even if the individual probability of harm is very low. Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk.

Also, I’d want to create the feeling that an army of terrorists exists, which I’d accomplish by pulling off multiple attacks at once, and then following them up with more shortly thereafter.

Of course, if a terrorist cell wanted to provoke a massive retaliation in a foreign land in order to win adherents rather than inspire fear, then Levitt’s approach may not be optimal.