Does terror profiling work?

We’ve all heard the phrase “flying while Muslim”,  a reality that underscores the sorry state of affairs in Western societies in the post 9/11 period.  Muslims are disproportionately singled out for special attention at airports and elsewhere.  The genuine concern over terrorism, which is real and not some state-driven campaign to garner support, has given rise to fear and irrational decision- and policy-making.  Increased calls for profiling are only one manifestation of this anxiety.

I recently read where the increase in passengers and the shortage of TSA officials in the US is resulting in wait times of up to four hours and that things will only get worse in the months of July and August when air travel spikes. Belgium is still recovering from the terrorist attacks on March 22 this year and is considering checking people selectively at airport security.  And the Israelis have been practicing profiling at Ben Gurion Airport for decades.

There is no question that everyone is getting fed up at waiting in line at security checkpoints before being allowed to board their flights. We have read where 92-year old grandmothers are asked to take off their shoes and young children are patted down for weapons all the while screaming in terror at a process they cannot understand.  Surely we can eliminate the very young and the very old from scrutiny.  There must be a better way, and for some that may be to focus on the most likely candidates for terrorism, i.e. young Muslims (or young darker skinned people – take your pick).  This may satisfy collective wisdom that we can tell terrorists by their features (beards, clothing, ethnicity…) except that it is largely wrong and hugely wasteful, not to mention unnecessarily discriminatory and does little to keep us safe.  It does not help our confidence level that the TSA failed to detect concealed weapons or prohibited materials in 95 percent of undercover tests.

If we stick to Canada and look at all the terrorists we have arrested or who have evaded detection over the past decade or so and gone off to fight in places like Syria and Somalia, what do we find?  Yes, they are all Muslim since to be an AQ- or IS-inspired terrorist Islam is a precursor by definition.  So, to help with screening, what does a Muslim look like?  Momin Khawaja (Pakistani Canadian, convicted in 2008 of contributing to a plot in the UK)?  Steven Chand (Toronto 18, born in Toronto to a family that emigrated from Fiji)?  John Nuttall and Amanda Korody (converts convicted in the 2013 Victoria Legislature plot)?  Damian Clairmont (born in Halifax, converted to Islam, died in Syria)?  Andre Poulin (Timmins, Ontario born, convert, died fighting with IS)?  Do you need more examples?

The problem is that anyone, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, can radicalise, adopt a violent ideology. and plan to carry out an act of terrorism.  Anyone.  Young, old, black, white, brown…all the above.  And since the radicalisation process is both idiosyncratic and unpredictable it is impossible to narrow the pool of potential extremists based on outward appearance or background.  And yet we still do it.

What, then, is the alternative?  I think we all agree that we need to do something.  There are two approaches that I can think of.  The first is to detect observable behaviour, something the Israelis claim to be particularly good at.  I don’t know all the things they look for, but they believe they have identified certain behaviours that are consistent with possible terrorist intent.  I think that one of them is “looking nervous” or “undue sweating” but it is far from clear, at least to me, that these would pick out only the real terrorists and not lead to hundreds of false positives (then again, when you are charged with stopping violent extremism, what are a few hundred false positives some would say?).  There are other behaviours and attitudes that do point to violent extremism, and I discuss a number in my book The Threat from Within.  These are reliable, but will pull in false positives as well.

But even with supposedly reliable indicators you also need good intelligence.  Security and law enforcement agencies are pretty good at figuring out who the bad guys are and the information they gather can provide an enormous lift to the efforts by airport security staff and others to limit intrusive searches as much as possible to the tiny few that pose a real threat.  I know that organisations such as CSIS work with airport authorities on a regular basis to exchange intelligence and that is a good thing.

Our security partners will not get everyone however.  Some will sneak through and it is inevitable that more attacks like the ones in Paris and Brussels will occur. Nothing, and that includes massive profiling and screening, will prevent this. We need to accept that we will identify and neutralise the vast majority of terrorists but not all.  We also need to stop useless procedures that are not helpful and are actually counter-productive since they not only feed the myth that all Muslims are potential suicide bombers, leading to discord and discrimination in our societies,  but they also create a sense of rejection within the very communities we need to help reduce terrorism.

I am not pretending that any of this is easy and I have a great deal of respect for those on the frontlines.  It is just that we really have to think of more innovative ways to do this.



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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