Mass detentions by law enforcement authorities have often snared too many innocent people, Woo said.
Britain has arrested more than 600 people on suspicion of terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and convicted only 15 of them. By some counts, the United States has detained more than 5,000 foreign nationals under provisions of the Patriot Act, alienating them and their families.
"Part of the war on terrorism is winning hearts and minds," said Woo, an analyst in the London office of Risk Management Solutions.
The Newark, Calif.-based consulting firm assesses catastrophe risks for the banking and insurance industries.
Minds are the specialty of Vladimir Lefebvre, a cognitive scientist at UC Irvine. The Russian-born researcher has spent his career developing ways of reducing human decision-making to mathematical equations. The work stems from a top-secret Soviet research project that Lefebvre worked on during the 1970s.
"I can compute feelings," he said with a grin.
Lefebvre's ideas are so obvious that you wonder if he might be kidding. Every person, he argues, has a view of the self that he or she uses as a tool for making decisions. That view can be influenced by the outside environment.
So, in principle, there ought to be things we can do to make terrorists feel less sure about themselves or less ardent in their beliefs. The right strategy might even make them think of themselves as something other than terrorists.
Lefebvre believes that human decision-making is so straightforward that simple equations can describe how an individual's behavior arises from his or her self-image as it is shaped by other people and the environment.
Stefan Schmidt, a New Mexico State University researcher who has worked with Lefebvre, offered a hypothetical example: Suppose terrorists were considering three points of entry into the United States -- the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Northeast. Looking at the level of security on the various borders and considering other factors such as remoteness, terrorists might decide on the Southwest as the best place to cross.
Assume that border agents, on the other hand, are heavily guarding the Northeast border. They would benefit by making the Southwest seem more heavily patrolled than it really is and the Northeast appear relatively unprotected. If they did a credible job, the terrorists would incorrectly choose the most secure border as their best bet and run a much higher chance of being caught.
Conceptually, this kind of reasoning is no different from military strategy. If you can plant an inaccurate idea in your opponent's head, you will have an advantage on the battlefield.
But actually doing that -- at least for the time being -- requires a combination of brilliance, instinct and luck that few people possess. Lefebvre would reduce the process of outwitting your opponent to a computer program.
In some ways, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have done just that. Computer scientist Kathleen M. Carley heads a lab that tries to simulate all kinds of social groups, including terrorist organizations.
The lab has built simulations of Hamas and Al Qaeda by dumping newspaper articles and other publicly available information about the organizations into a computer database. A program then takes that information and looks for patterns and relationships between individuals. It finds weak and strong figures, power brokers, hidden relationships and people with crucial skills.
Then another program can predict what would happen if a specific individual were removed from the organization. After Israel's assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March, the program correctly predicted that he would be succeeded by hard-liner Abdulaziz Rantisi.
A month later, Israel assassinated Rantisi. Carley's lab predicted that Hamas political director Khaled Meshaal would succeed him and posted its pick on the Internet.
This time, Hamas declined to reveal who had taken power for fear that he too would be assassinated. But eventually it became known that Meshaal was indeed the one.
At that point, Carley said, "we were told to quit putting such predictions on the Web" by federal officials.