Why profiles don’t work

The  other day a young Muslim in Marseilles attacked a Jewish teacher with a machete.  The victim was able to fend off some of the blows with a copy of the Torah and suffered only minor injuries.  Attacks on French Jews are of course not new: last year’s siege of a Jewish grocery in Paris and Mohammad Merah’s series of shootings in Toulouse in 2012 are prime examples.

What is new, or at least what appears to be new, is the French media and authorities’ reaction, that the assailant did not fit the “profile” of previous French attackers, thus highlighting the difficulty in preventing future attacks.  According to media reports (see story here), the attacker was a 15-year old “boy” of Kurdish origin, was a good student with good grades, had no criminal record and was not known to French security services.  He appeared to have acted alone and, contrary to initial reports, was not “mentally unbalanced”.  His family had no inkling of his radicalisation, which they believe occurred entirely online.

I find the reaction discomforting.  Why is anyone in the West, in 2015, still talking about the profile of an Islamist extremist?  There is none.  Let me repeat this: there is no profile of a person who radicalises to violence in the West so stop looking for one.  The young man in Marseilles is not unique.  He is typical of others who radicalised in France and elsewhere in that he lived in a society where radicalisation is all too possible.  His radicalisation is not the fault of his parents, or his friends, or his school, or French society in general, or France’s treatment of Muslims, or French foreign policy, or….  It just is and we really have to stop asking why because attempting to answer why does not lead to any interesting conclusions that help in any way with detecting future radicalised people or future attacks.  I know that this is frustrating because as humans we always want to know why.  But we can’t.

The young man in France is a product of France.  Some Muslims in France are marginalised and some of those will radicalise.  Some Muslims in France have criminal records and some of those will radicalise.  Some Muslims in France are unemployed and some of those will radicalise.  Some Muslims in France have good education and good jobs and some of those will radicalise.  This may sound over simplistic but the people in France who radicalise by definition come from the very society in which they live and reflect the characteristics and diversity of that society.  If all French Muslims had green hair, then the tiny subset of French Muslims that radicalise would have green hair.  Do you see what this means?  There is nothing helpful in trying to identify the idiosyncratic aspects of each radicalised person to come up with a profile.

Nor is there really anything interesting in the young man’s claim to have acted on behalf of Islamic State.  This means little and certainly does not mean he was a member of IS.  IS has usurped Al Qaeda as an inspirer of terrorism: had this attack occurred five years ago the youth would have said AQ made him do it.  IS is the soupe du jour:  a few years from now when IS is no more it will be another group.

This recent attack in France does not teach us anything new.  Attacks will continue to occur infrequently (or, rather, relatively infrequently) and more will come.  They will be perpetrated by a variety of individuals that come from across the social spectrum.  Unfortunately, we just have to get used to that.



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.

Leave a Reply