Another nail in the coffin of terrorist profiling

Anyone who has taken a serious look at individuals who radicalise to violence, or at least those who do so in accordance with the Al Qaeda or Islamic State narrative, know that trying to nail down a profile is pointless, for the simple reason that there is none.  Regardless of the factor or data point you look at – age, gender, education, employment, family background, etc. – there is far too much noise to come up with a reliable predictive model.

In spite of this well-established fact, there are those that continue to put forward theories about, for example, alienation or mental illness as THE driver to violent extremism.  I suppose there is little chance that these false ideas will ever disappear for good.  After all, many people believe that crime in increasing when every study produced in North America over the past two decades shows quite the opposite. For that matter, a majority of Republicans still believe that President Obama was born in Kenya (or Indonesia or wherever, just not the US).  Go figure.

The “profile of a terrorist” model has perhaps been strongest in the case of Palestinian violent extremists.  The consensus has always been that young males with little education, poor employment, anger at Israel and, more often than not, direct experience of humiliation or discrimination at the hands of the Israeli state turn to violence because they have no alternative.  If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense, just as does the belief in a stationary Earth and a sun that revolves around us.

But, once again, intuition is wrong.

A recent study by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on recent attacks and assailants produced some fascinating data (see an article on the study here). Among the findings were that of the 220 or so perpetrators, half were under 20 years of age and 11% were women.  The age finding is remarkable in that historically we saw terrorists – or at least in Canada at any rate – in their mid- to late 20s, as is the number of the fairer sex as normally there are far lower percentages of females.  The study goes on to suggest reasons why these youth are turning to violence:

  • a lack of optimism on the political horizon
  • a belief that the era of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is coming to an end
  • a sense of disconnect between the Palestinian Authority and ordinary Palestinians
  • an adherence to human rights

(NB it is unclear how these are direct drivers since they would likely apply to most Palestinians and yet a tiny number commit acts of violence)

The study also highlights that these recent extremists have no knowledge of the first Intifada and little of the second, seem less likely to listen to authority and appear immune to IDF reprisals.  Interestingly, the women come from stable families, are not marginalised and are highly educated.

What does this data mean?  Several things.  It confirms that profiles are ineffective.  It shows that terrorists evolve over time.  It demonstrates that as local conditions change so will the drivers behind political violence.  It also underscores that terrorists are the product of their society and that they will reflect the diversity of that society.

I have always admired the IDF (even if I don’t agree with its actions as dictated by politicians) and even moreso the Shin Bet – Israel’s domestic intelligence agency (their CSIS  in effect) – which contributed to the research.  They produce accurate and objective research on terrorism and their voice needs to be heard more often.   This study is a case in point.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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