Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Profiling Terrorists: How Effective?


Do you know that there is an increase in the rate at which young people successfully carry out targeted terrorists attacks without direct coordination from terrorists organizations?
Terrorism experts call them, the “lone wolves”.

The sequence

It is much easier to classify people under the terrorism umbrella based on certain factors such as country, religion, ethnicity, mode of dressing and tongue.

When you see a man wearing a long flowing white gown, with a long beard and a round cap on top of his head, holding a black briefcase and walking into New York's JFK airport, what comes to our mind?

 Imagine the frenzy among the security personnel. He immediately becomes a suspect! A terrorist! Why? His dressing.  You can’t tell what a terrorist looks like by his dressing alone! Marc Sageman, an expert witness on terrorism cases revealed that the problem with profiling is that many people “might fit a profile but not act” while the real terrorist themselves “don’t fit a pattern”.

People bearing names like Abdullah, Aisha or Kareem are most likely to have face stricter scrutiny and raise more suspicions than those bearing names like Murdock, Charlotte or John.  The possible reason? Kareem is most likely a Muslim. Why should the names given to us based on our beliefs and cultures be used as tool against us? Don’t we know that targeting people because of who they are is totally wrong and counterproductive?

Why should this level of suspicion hold for a person of Syrian origin and another person from Jamaica? What of between a South African and a Somalian? A Rwandan and an Algerian?

Changing techniques

Terrorists’ organizations have effected changes into their modus operandi to avoid detection and effectively hit their targets. They must avoid raising suspicion at all cost. Unlike before, their members are now difficult to identify. You can hardly declare that “this” or “that” man is a terrorist.

Then, it was possible to easily identify suicide bombers because the suicide vests they wear made them look odd in their dressing. Some were made to wear suits on top of these vests. They looked uneasy and sometimes sweating. Always looking intense and when they smile at you…even a two year old will scream at seeing the mischievous smile of the devil himself! That was characteristic of them.

 But now, they dress I suits with lighter vests that we may not notice anything odd. They are now reaching out to the rich-young people with adequate literacy. The wiser, the better.

Though the traditional means of brainwashing new members such as community or group hangouts and worship centers are still being used, terrorist organizations have gone “cloud”. The mode of attracting and recruiting young people into their ranks is now online. They have set up websites with sufficient resources to make one ‘want to become a member’. And they succeed in it.

Sites like  Youtube and Twitter have become free, easily accessible and handy tools for indoctrination and propagation of extremist ideologies. So, technology has now become a useful tool for planting and breeding the seeds of terror! Most disturbing is the fact that terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have proven very proficient in using the social media for their propaganda.

Now, since keeping long beards instantly makes one an eligible suspect, becoming clean shaven is not a problem. (“If that’s what you want…okay!”).

A scholar in security studies once warned his son who was studying in another country that now profiles young college students who keep to themselves and don’t make friends to “start making friends now or be marked a terrorist”. Imagine that!

Evaluating Effectiveness

How effective have these profiling been in really identifying the members of terrorist groups? In spite of the efforts employed by security agents to identify these agents of terror, how has the practice of using traits such as dress mode that is particular to certain cultures, religion, race or language really helped in reducing global terrorism?

 Is it not possible that the world’s failure to address the root causes of al-Qaida led to the creation of ISIS? Don’t we think that the usage of these techniques no matter how discreet or tactical, has instead, led to increased apathy for governments fighting terrorism and sympathy for the terrorist groups?

Shouldn’t we be proactive by attacking the root causes of terrorism? It is clear that fighting terror groups by arresting suspect members and bombing their bases is NOT the solution if terrorism and other forms of extreme violence are to be reduced and hopefully, exterminated. Terrorism profiling has not worked. The wrong persons are caught because of their looks and while the real culprits escape. Remember the Farouk  Abdulmutallab's case in the failed Detroit bombing? How come was he able to breeze through airport security unhindered? He did not look like "one of them", did he?... even after being on a US watch-list for a period.


The focus of finding solutions and policy makers should be in asking:

Why are terrorists groups like Al Shabab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon doing what they are doing? What are the motivations behind those who engage in extreme violence or terrorism? What did they lack in living simple civilian lives that they gain in joining groups that inflict pain and fear on the vulnerable and innocent?

 Terrorism is a response to an action…It’s a response to problems. Terrorists are responding to those problems. So much investment has been made in fighting against those responding to those problems. We have to face those problems and solve them now!