Since the attempted bomb attack on an airliner bound for Detroit, there have been calls to profile passengers according to age, ethnicity, gender or geography as part of British airport security policy. This coincides with the US announcement that passengers from or travelling through 14 countries will face increased security checks. Such profiling is ineffective and may actually make terrorist attacks easier.
Islam is not ethnically or geographically centred – nor is terrorism. This, coupled with the fact that a large number of converts have been involved in terrorist plots, makes profiling according to religion impossible. Previous terrorism cases have shown why profiling on the basis of race, gender, age or location can often be ineffective:
1. Geography: Terrorists who have attacked US airliners, including Richard Reid and the 9/11 hijackers, have been from or based in European countries. Recent arrests in the US and Canada have shown that the US faces a very real threat from radicalisation at home and in its nearest neighbour. None of these countries is on the US list.
2. Race: Muriel Degauque, a Belgian citizen of European origin, was the first female European suicide bomber in Iraq in 2005. Profiling would have failed to identify Andrew Ibrahim and Nicky Reilly, both of whom converted to Islam before going on to plot terrorist attacks.
3. Gender: Female suicide bombers have been behind many of the most lethal attacks in Iraq and Israel.
4. Age: Fifty-year-old Samira Ahmed Jassim, who was arrested in Iraq in 2009, has admitted to running a network which recruited and trained female suicide bombers. Also in 2009, the Pakistani army announced that it had discovered a Taliban-run school in which boys as young as nine were being trained to carry out suicide bombings.
Profiling also risks alienating Muslims who are visibly devout but who reject the ideologies that lie behind terrorism. Distrust between visibly devout Muslims and the government risks endangering cooperative efforts to combat Islamist extremism and root out violent extremists.
Security measures must be proactive, not reactive. If security measures are to remain one step ahead of terrorists then profiling should be avoided.
Talal Rajab is a trainer at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think tank