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White, Hispanic, Nigerian, American: the identity of terrorists exposes the crude, counterproductive nature of this security tool
On 6 May, five days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, two imams were prevented from taking a US flight from Memphis, Tennessee, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend a religious conference. Despite having their bags checked twice before boarding, the imams were told to get off the plane. "The conference is about Islamophobia, so it's ironic that these guys were stopped on their way here," Jibril Hough, of the Islamic Centre of Charlotte, told reporters. "These guys definitely have something to talk about."
The incident in Memphis reminded me of a line from the stand-up routine of the Arab-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed: "All you white people have it easy. You guys get to the airport like an hour, two hours before your flight. It takes me a month and a half "¦ Security has gotten so bad, I just turn up to the airport in a G-string."
Since 2001 it has seemed as if "flying while Muslim" has joined the long list of offences in the US criminal code. Anyone who has spent any time going through security at US airports will be familiar with the ugliness and contempt with which Muslims are treated by officials from the Orwellian-named department of homeland security. I once spent three hours sitting in the holding room at George Bush international airport in Houston, Texas "“ filled exclusively with black, Hispanic and Asian passengers. Asked why I had been detained, I was told that my surname matched that of a wanted terrorist inside Iraq. Yes, "Hasan" "“ the Islamic equivalent of "Smith" or "Jones".
On Tuesday this newspaper revealed how, even at British ports and airports, people from ethnic minorities are up to 42 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, and held for up to nine hours without the need for reasonable suspicion, under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Despite denials from the police, these figures suggest that ethnic profiling "“ the use of racial or ethnic characteristics to determine which people to subject to extra scrutiny "“ is alive and well in the UK.
We can't say we weren't warned. In 2005 Ian Johnson, the British Transport police chief constable, said: "We should not waste time searching old white ladies. It is going to be disproportionate. It is going to be young men, not exclusively, but it may be disproportionate when it comes to ethnic groups."
Everyone knows, say advocates of ethnic profiling, that the terrorists trying to kill us are young Muslim men from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. So why not focus our energies on these ethnic groups? It is a superficially compelling argument. Consider, however, this scenario: two men are boarding a flight from Heathrow to New York: one a swarthy, bearded man from Pakistan with a Muslim name; the other a fair-haired white man from the United States with a Christian name. Which would you stop and search? The bearded Asian? Be honest, it's a no-brainer. But what if I were to tell you that the white man happens to be Adam Gadahn (nee Pearlman), one of al-Qaida's most senior operatives and a member of the FBI's most-wanted list?
Without random checks, men like Gadahn would slip through the net. I travelled to New York for a television documentary in August 2002. One of my colleagues "“ posh, white, female "“ was stopped at security at Heathrow Airport and had her bag opened and checked. "What about him?" she shrieked, pointing at me. In her mind, I matched the terrorist profile; she didn't.
Three years later, in November 2005, Muriel Degauque, a blonde 38-year-old from Charleroi, Belgium, blew herself up in a roadside attack on an Iraqi police patrol in Baquba, north of Baghdad. Last February Colleen LaRose, aka Jihad Jane "“ a 47-year-old blue-eyed blonde from the Pennsylvanian town of Pennsburg "“ pleaded guilty to conspiring to murder a Swedish cartoonist who had offended Muslims by drawing the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.
Individuals like Degauque and LaRose make a mockery of ethnic (and, for that matter, gender) profiling. They remind us how easy it would be for the ruthless plotters of al-Qaida to give their dark-skinned, bearded members desk jobs and send out teams of lighter-skinned females to hijack airliners.
Al-Qaida has long been a model of multiculturalism, with a diversity policy that would make Harriet Harman proud. Consider John Walker Lindh, the American Talib, who is white; JosÃ© Padilla, the alleged dirty bomber, is Hispanic; Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is African-Caribbean; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, is Nigerian.
What racial or cultural characteristics do they share? It's a point that hasn't been lost on our security services. In 2008 a leaked report from MI5's behavioural science unit, based on studies of "several hundred individuals known to be involved in "¦ violent extremist activity", concluded that those who become terrorists "are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism".
To use racial appearance as a proxy for religious belief is absurd: 4% of British Muslims are believed to be white, and 6% black; we do not all look the same. Second, those assumed to be Muslim because of ethnicity turn out not to be, the classic and tragic example being the Brazilian Catholic Jean Charles de Menezes "“ shot dead in July 2005 after an officer confused him with the Ethiopian-born terror suspect Hussain Osman.
Ethnic profiles, to borrow the language of the experts, are "over-inclusive" and "underinclusive": over-inclusive because the vast majority of people caught by the profiles are wholly innocent of any crime, and under-inclusive because they allow individuals who don't fit the profile "“ like Gadahn or Degauque "“ to escape police attention. Profiling also alienates and stigmatises minority communities: innocent Muslims, in particular, feel deeply aggrieved at being singled out.
Politicians, police chiefs and counterterrorism experts agree that the so-called war on terror can't be won without support from inside Muslim communities "“ a third of al-Qaida-related homegrown terror plots in the US since September 2001 have been foiled with the aid of co-operation or tip-offs from local Muslims. Ethnic profiling undermines this support: it is a crude, counterproductive and unnecessary tool. As a method of thwarting terror, it is part of the problem, not the solution.
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3 Aug 2004
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26 May 2011 9:36AM
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