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Recent Attacks Spike Interest In Terrorism Insurance


Today, 6 in 10 major businesses in the U.S. are insured against terrorism damage. That's according to the Insurance Information Institute. When horrible things happen like the massacres in San Bernardino or Paris, the desire for this kind of insurance grows. As NPR's John Burnett reports, because terrorists are now hitting more soft targets than buildings, physical damages are not what the industry expected.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If you own a commercial building in America, chances are, you're going to take out terrorism insurance. It's moved into the mainstream with the depressing frequency of international incidents. As it happens, the Inland Regional Center, where a terrorist couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, is covered by terrorism insurance. Bill Lemon (ph) is a lawyer who represents the property owner.

BILL LEMON: These things happen. They happen fairly routinely around the country. And so I suppose it's not unlike buying extra life insurance for your family, you know? How are you going to sustain them if the unthinkable happens?

BURNETT: When the unthinkable happens and an act of terrorism gets wide media coverage, the phones at the Marsh company start to ring. Marsh is one of the world's largest insurance brokers. Tarique Nageer, head of the terrorism unit at Marsh USA in New York, says his company sees a 10 percent jump in activity after a terror attack.

TARIQUE NAGEER: Since the Boston Marathon a couple of years ago, we've had an uptick in clients who are very cognizant of soft targets being potentially hit by a terrorism event. And obviously, San Bernardino, Paris, as well, have raised the knowledge factor amongst clients, and they've been asking questions as to, you know, do we have the cover?

BURNETT: England has had terrorism insurance for years because of IRA bombings, but it's a relatively new type of risk coverage for this country. President George W. Bush signed into law the Terror Risk Insurance Act in 2002, the year after September 11. It created a public private loss program for panicky businesses fearing more terror strikes. Total insured property losses from the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exceeded $24 billion.

In the ensuing 14 years, though, there's not been another major attack, as many had feared. And because there haven't been any big claims, terrorism insurance rates remained fairly low and fairly profitable for big companies like Lloyd's of London. Marsh's Tarique Nageer says risk is calculated based on a structure's perceived target value.

NAGEER: And obviously if you're next to what's called a trophy property - so some sort of high-profile building, that'll raise your cost of insurance.

BURNETT: The federal terrorism insurance program has been around for 13 years, but it's never been used. Under terms of the program, damages from an attack must reach $5 million. Once adjusters have determined the destruction hit the 5-million threshold, no less than the U.S. Treasury secretary must then certify that it's eligible for federal risk coverage. Bob Hartwig is president of the Insurance Information Institute.

BOB HARTWIG: Doesn't matter if the president says it's a terrorist attack. It has to be certified by the U.S. Treasury.

BURNETT: As it turned out, insured damages after the Boston Marathon bombing, as defined under the program, did not surpass $5 million though three people died and 264 were injured. Standard insurance policies covered all property, casualty, health and worker's comp claims in Boston.

When adjusters enter the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, though the human toll was appalling, they may also find that damages amount to less than $5 million. What this means in cold arithmetic is that if terrorists continue to hit soft targets, the federal terrorism insurance program may have few takers. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.