Profiling questionable tool to ID terrorists

European officials say that the background of those arrested as terrorists in recent months is so diverse that they have stopped trying to figure out who is most likely to become a terrorist.

The Washington Post reports that age, sex, education, ethnicity, and economic status have become increasingly irrelevant in profiling terrorists.

European authorities said the trait patterns of those arrested on terrorism charges are constantly shifting. In the Netherlands, officials said they are seeing an increase in the number of young teenagers and people of Turkish descent, two groups that used to be low on their radar. Among the key players in the Hofstad group, a cell of Islamic radicals that targeted Dutch politicians and cultural figures, was Jason Walters, the teenage son of a US soldier.

In neighboring Belgium, people are still perplexed over what drove Muriel Degauque, 38, a blond, white Catholic, to convert to Islam and travel to Iraq to blow herself up in November 2005. Nizar Trabelsi, convicted two years earlier of plotting to bomb a NATO base in Belgium, had been a European soccer star before going to Afghanistan to attend al-Qaeda training camps.

The Post also reports that Edwin Baker, who conducted a study on over 200 Islamic radicals arrested on terrorism charges in Europe between 2001 and 2006, says that while many countries have been slow to give up profiling, "it is an unreliable tool for spotting potential terrorists."

"How can you single them out? You can't," he said. "For the secret services, it doesn't give them a clue. We should focus more on suspicious behavior and not profiling."

The issue of who becomes a terrorist has been looked at by other experts in the past.

In a January 2007 article in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Peter Bergen, author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader," and Michael Lind, author of "The American Way of Strategy," argue that poverty is not the main cause of terrorism. Instead, they say humiliation on a communal level plays a key role.

The central role of communal humiliation in inspiring terrorism is the key finding of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape's study of suicide bombers, Dying to Win. According to Pape, two factors have linked Tamil, Palestinian, Chechen, and al Qaeda suicide bombers. First, they are members of communities that feel humiliated by genuine or perceived occupation (like the perceived occupation of the sacred territory of Saudi Arabia by virtue of the presence of U.S. bases, in the eyes of bin Laden and his allies). Second, suicide bombers seek to change the policies of democratic occupying powers like Israel and the United States by influencing their public opinion – in a sense making the occupying power suffer the same level of humiliation they have felt.

The "humiliation theory" of radical violence helps explain why so many terrorists come from middle-class or wealthy backgrounds. Unlike economic deprivation, national or religious humiliation can be painful to all members of a community. In fact, communal humiliation is likely to aggrieve the affluent members the most, precisely because their freedom from a day-to-day struggle to survive liberates them to brood over slights to the community in which they are natural leaders. It may also explain why so many are willing to sacrifice innocent bystanders for their cause. They are fighting for an abstract idea of national, ethnic, or religious pride, not the masses.

In "Dying to Win," Mr. Pape concluded that "there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions... . Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland."

In a September 2004 article in the Journal of Young Investigators about the motivations of terrorists, Melanie Killen, professor of Human Development at the University of Maryland, says "If you ask a terrorist, they will probably say murder is wrong. But they see their actions as more complex."

She argues it unlikely that terrorists have immature or black-and-white reasoning regarding their actions. On the contrary, their reasoning is so complex it may become convoluted to them. Factors such as poverty, frustration, religion, lack of freedoms, boredom, envy, and unequal rights lead to these complexities.

As far back as 1999, the Federal Research Division (FRD) of the Library of Congress prepared a report that challenged the notion of being able to profile terrorists. In the past, experts had tended to think of terrorists as "paranoids, paranoid schizophrenics, borderline mental defectives, schizophrenic types." But FRD researchers found that modern terrorists tended to be intellectual and highly educated.

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