Profiling: Sketching the Face of Jihadism


On January 4 the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) adopted new rules that would increase the screening of citizens from 14 countries – several African – who want to fly to the United States as well as travellers of all nationalities who are flying to the United States from one of the 14 countries. These countries are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Four of the countries — Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria — are on the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The other 10 have been labelled “countries of interest” by the TSA and appear to have been added in response to jihadist attacks in recent years. Nigeria was almost certainly added to the list only as a result of the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man.

As reflected by the large number of chain e-mails that swirl around after every attack or attempted attack against the United States, the type of profiling program the TSA has instituted will be very popular in certain quarters. Conventional wisdom holds that such programmes will be effective in protecting the flying public from terrorist attacks because profiling is easy to do.

However, when one steps back and carefully examines the historical face of the jihadist threat, it becomes readily apparent that it is very difficult to create a one-size-fits-all profile of a jihadist operative. When focusing on a resourceful and adaptive adversary, the use of such profiles sets a security system up for failure by causing security personnel and the general public to focus on a threat that is defined too narrowly. Sketching the face of jihadism is simply not as easy as it might seem.
The Historical Face of Terror

One popular chain e-mail that seemingly circulates after every attack or attempted attack notes that the attack was not conducted by Richard Simmons or the Tooth Fairy but by “Muslim male extremists between the ages of 17 and 40.” And when we set aside the Chechen “Black Widows”, the occasional female suicide bomber and people like Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, many terrorist attacks are indeed planned and orchestrated by male Muslim extremists between the ages of 17 and 40. The problem comes when you try to define what a male Muslim extremist between the ages of 17 and 40 looks like.

When we look back at the early jihadist attacks against the United States, we see that many perpetrators matched the stereotypical Muslim profile. In the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the thwarted 1993 New York Landmarks Plot, we saw a large contingent of Egyptians, including Omar Abdul-Rahman (aka “the Blind Sheikh”), ElSayyid Nosair, Ibrahim Elgabrowny, Mahmud Abouhalima and several others. In fact, Egyptians played a significant role in the development of the jihadist ideology and have long constituted a very substantial portion of the international jihadist movement — and even of the core al Qaeda cadre. Because of this, it is quite surprising that Egypt does not appear on the TSA’s profile list.

Indeed, in addition to the Egyptians, in the early jihadist plots against the United States we also saw operatives who were Palestinian, Pakistani, Sudanese and Iraqi. However — and this is significant — in the New York Landmarks Plot we also saw a Puerto Rican convert to Islam named Victor Alvarez and an African-American Muslim named Clement Rodney Hampton-el. Alvarez and Hampton-el clearly did not fit the typical profile.

The Kuwait-born Pakistani citizen who was the bombmaker in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is a man named Abdul Basit (widely known by his alias, Ramzi Yousef). After leaving the United States, Basit resettled in Manila and attempted to orchestrate an attack against U.S. airliners in Asia called Operation Bojinka. After an apartment fire in Manila caused Basit to flee the city, he moved to Islamabad, where he attempted to recruit new jihadist operatives to carry out the Bojinka plot. One of the men he recruited was a South African Muslim named Istaique Parker. After a few dry-run operations, Parker got cold feet, decided he did not want to embrace martyrdom and helped the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service special agents assigned to the U.S. Embassy orchestrate Basit’s arrest. A South African named Parker does not fit the typical terrorist profile.

The following individuals, among many others, were involved in jihadist activity but did not fit what most people would consider the typical jihadist profile:

  • Richard Reid, the British citizen known as the “shoe bomber.”
  • Jose Padilla, the American citizen known as the “dirty bomber.”
  • Adam Gadahn, an al Qaeda spokesman who was born Adam Pearlman in California.
  • John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.”
  • Jack Roche, the Australian known as “Jihad Jack.”
  • The Duka brothers, ethnic Albanians involved in the Fort Dix plot.
  • Daniel Boyd and his sons, American citizens plotting grassroots attacks inside the United States.
  • Germaine Maurice Lindsay, the Jamaican-born suicide bomber involved in the July 7, 2005, London attacks.
  • Nick Reilly, the British citizen who attempted to bomb a restaurant in Exeter in May 2008.
  • David Headley, the U.S. citizen who helped plan the Mumbai attacks.

As reflected by the list above, jihadists come from many ethnicities and nationalities, and they can range from Americans named Daniel, Victor and John to a Macedonian nicknamed “Elvis,” a Tanzanian called “Foopie” (who smuggled explosives by bicycle) and an Indonesian named Zulkarnaen. There simply is not one ethnic or national profile that can be used to describe them all.

An Adaptive Opponent

One of the big reasons we’ve witnessed men with names like Richard and Jose used in jihadist plots is because jihadist planners are adaptive and innovative. They will adjust the operatives they select for a mission in order to circumvent new security measures. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when security forces began to focus additional scrutiny on people with Muslim names, they dispatched Richard Reid on his shoe-bomb mission.

And it worked — Reid was able to get his device by security and onto the plane. If he hadn’t fumbled the execution of the attack, it would have destroyed the aircraft. Moreover, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed wanted to get an operative into the United States to conduct attacks following 9/11, he selected U.S. citizen Jose Padilla. Padilla successfully entered the country, and it was only Mohammed’s arrest and interrogation that alerted authorities to Padilla’s mission.

But their operational flexibility in fact predates the 9/11 attack. For example, some of the operatives initially selected for the 9/11 mission were Yemenis and could not obtain visas to the United States. Since Saudis were able to obtain visas much easier, al Qaeda simply shifted gears and decided to use Saudis instead of Yemenis.

Pakistan-based militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad e-Islami likewise sought to fool the Danish and Indian security services when they dispatched an American citizen named David Headley from Chicago to conduct pre-operational surveillance in Mumbai and Denmark. Headley, who was named Daood Gilani at his birth, legally changed his name to David Coleman Headley, anglicising his first name and taking his mother’s maiden name. The name change and his American accent were apparently enough to throw intelligence agencies off his trail — in spite of his very aggressive surveillance activity.

Most recently, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) showed its cunning when it dispatched a Nigerian, Abdulmutallab, in the Christmas Day attack. Although STRATFOR was among the first to see the threat AQAP’s innovative devices posed to aviation security, there is no way we could have forecast that the group would conduct an attack originating out of Nigeria using a Nigerian citizen. A Saudi or Yemeni, certainly; a Somali or American citizen, maybe — but a Nigerian?

AQAP’s use of such an operative was a total paradigm shift. (Perhaps this paradigm shift explains in part why U.S. officials chose not to act more aggressively on intelligence they had obtained on Abdulmutallab that could have prevented the attack.) The only reason Nigeria is on the list of 14 countries now is because of the Christmas Day incident, and there is no reason that jihadists couldn’t use a Muslim from Togo, Ghana, or Trinidad and Tobago instead of a Nigerian in their next attack.

Jihadist planners have now heard about the list of 14 countries and, demonstrating their adaptability, will undoubtedly try to use operatives who are not from one of those countries and choose flights that originate from other places as well. They may even follow the lead of Chechen militants and the Islamic State of Iraq by employing female suicide bombers. They will also likely instruct operatives to “lose” their passports so that they can obtain new documents that contain no traces of travel to one of the 14 countries on the list. Jihadists have frequently used this tactic to hide operatives’ travel to training camps in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Moreover, jihadist groups have no lack of operatives from countries that are not on that list. Jihadists from all over the world have travelled to jihadist training camps, and in addition to the large number of Egyptian, Moroccan and Tunisian jihadists (countries not on the list), there are also Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians and, of course, Americans and Europeans.

Frankly, there have been far more jihadist plots that have originated in the United Kingdom than there have been plots involving Nigerians, and yet Nigeria is on the list and the United Kingdom is not. Because of this, a British citizen (or an American, for that matter) who has been fighting with al Shabaab in Somalia could board a flight in Nairobi or Cairo and receive less scrutiny than an innocent Nigerian flying from the same airport.

In an environment where the potential threat is hard to identify, it is doubly important to profile individuals based on their behaviour rather than their ethnicity or nationality — what we refer to as focusing on the “how” rather than the “who”. Instead of relying on pat profiles, security personnel should be encouraged to exercise their intelligence, intuition and common sense. A U.S. citizen named Robert who shows up at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi or Amman claiming to have lost his passport may be far more dangerous than some random Pakistani or Yemeni citizen, even though the American does not fit the profile requiring extra security checks.

The difficulty of creating a reliable and accurate physical profile of a jihadist, and the adaptability and ingenuity of the jihadist planners, means that any attempt at profiling is doomed to fail. In fact, profiling can prove counter-productive to good security by blinding people to real threats. They will dismiss potential malefactors who do not fit the specific profile they have been provided.


Pic: A TSA checkpoint at a US airport.