Thursday, July 05, 2007

To Find Terrorists, You First Have to Ask the Right Questions

In the wake of a terrorist event, news outlets always produce some breathless stories that examine the terror suspects' past - all in the name of answering the question:

"What kind of person would do such a thing"?

The New York Times offers up such a story today. The lede gives it away:

In some ways, he was the unexceptional product of a privileged upbringing in an educated Baghdad family: an intelligent, pious young man who enjoyed swimming, hiking and socializing at the Iraqi capital’s exclusive Hunting Club. But associates of Bilal Abdulla, a doctor who is accused of riding a flaming Jeep into Glasgow’s international airport on Saturday, say he was a religious zealot and a lone wolf whose anger about political developments in Iraq may have driven him to an act of terrorism.
The problem is, there is no terrorist profile. Terrorists are not all "lone wolves." They're not all "angry." As a group, terrorists have an incredibly diverse profile. They're rich, they're poor, they're uneducated, they're educated, they're married, they're single. They're everything.

So the salient question is not, "What kind of person would do this?" Rather, the question is, "Is there anyone in my community who is exhibiting behavior that indicates terrorist intent (e.g., sympathy with terrorist causes, commission of precursor crimes, etc.)?"

In telling Abdulla's story, the Times provides only one genuine indicator of potential terrorist intent:
Shiraz Maher, a former member of the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir who knew Dr. Abdulla in Cambridge, ... said that Dr. Abdulla at one point shared an apartment in Britain with a less devout Muslim. "This other Muslim didn’t pray five times a day and played the guitar. Bilal said, 'Look, you’d better start praying and stop playing.' He was adamant about it and put on this DVD of al-Zarqawi beheading a hostage," he said, referring to the slain insurgent leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "He said, 'If you don’t change, this is what we do. We slaughter.'"
If you're looking for terrorists, you're not going to find them if you go around looking for loners, unhappy people, etc. You'll find them - in this instance - by talking to people who have seen them exhibit behaviors like this.

This is why trust is so important. It can be risky for someone to turn in their roommate for making a threat. What if the police do nothing, and then the roommate retaliates?

The trust between local authorities and the public is a vital element in preventing terrorism.

But first, it's crucial to focus on the right questions.

Updated 2007-07-06: In the UK, The Independent runs a similar story about another terrorist suspect. These tales of "good boys gone bad" make for interesting reading, but they aren't helpful in developing a strategy for rooting out the problem.

No comments: