Ethnic profiling as a policy of counter-terrorism is not working

07/29/2011
Photography: Charbel Akhras

We all want to prevent another terrorist attack, especially after the shocking attacks in Norway once again brought home the gravity of the situation. Yet questions must be asked about the measures taken to achieve this aim. It was revealed in March that the UK already has one CCTV camera for every 32 people, something we should be worried about. What is done with the recordings? Where are the cameras aimed?

The Washington-EU pact – announced in May this year – adds another aspect to this problem with the EU allowing the US to acquire and store personal information of those who fly between the EU and the US for up to 15 years. This includes details about your credit cards, phone numbers and even extends to your ethnic origin. What, we may ask, does the ethnic origin of a person have to do with their relationship with terrorism? If an automated system is being used to sift through terrorist and immigration watchlists, as is the case with EU‘s passenger name records, the ethnic origin of a person is clearly irrelevant.

However, let’s forget about this agreement and think about racial profiling, a tactic that has been a common – and widely accepted – feature of counter-terrorism for some time. When a retired member of the US Air Force Lieutenant General declared last February that all 18-28 year old Muslim men should be strip-searched upon entering the USA, it was barely mentioned in the mainstream media. So extreme were the ideas being put forward that even the television anchor seemed taken aback – all the more of a shock because the interview was conducted on FOX News.

These latest attacks in Norway initially sparked claims that they were undertaken by ‘Islamist’ militants, only for these accusations to be quickly dispelled when the identity of the terrorist was revealed to be Anders Behring Breivik – a man who held a hatred of the Islamic religion. The UK government and intelligence services also appear more than complicit in racial profiling and when we consider this last attack, it is clear that we need a shift in our current policy.

After a Freedom of Information request from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, it was revealed that under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 Asians are 42 times more likely than white men to be stopped and searched at ports and airports. This is hardly the first time that racial profiling has become evident and indeed, another part of the Terrorism Act, Section 44, was repealed after it was deemed illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

Under Section 44, which gave police officers the power to publicly stop and search individuals without any grounds for suspicion, Asians and black people were between five and seven times more likely to be stopped than someone who was white. We may condemn ethnic profiling but Britain is just as guilty as any other country.

Another example of this, only recently emerged, is that during interrogation sessions at the airport, MI5 officers have been asking British Muslims “to keep an eye on the Muslim community”. Being part of the intelligence service is an honourable service; striving to foil potential threats is of great importance to the British community. Yet when one is forced to spy on your own society – your family and friends – without having put yourself forward is a distressing, and perverse, affair.

Being asked to monitor your associates and being forced to do so, with failure to comply allegedly leading to threats, can only lead us to question our own values. Denouncing your neighbour brings a stark resemblance to the Vichy state during the Second World War, with the latter receiving – in Paris alone – up to 2000 denunciation letters each day. Giving the details of someone you believe is a terrorist should be thought of as standard procedure but the level of intensity that is focussed on the Muslim community cannot continue.

Yet Professor Anthony Glees, counter-terrorism expert and Director of Buckingham University Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies (BUCSIS), explained his concern with the MI5’s practices during an interview I conducted with him in February. “It is not because they intervene too much but because they intervene too little.” Considering recent events and that Glees is a government advisor, I worry about the future plight of our society.

It is time that we revamp our counter-terrorism methods. Ethnic profiling will not achieve its aim and will only go to strengthen the resolve of those few extremists who already feel singled out. The EU’s 2009 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report states that out of 294 planned attacks, one solitary attack was planned by Islamists.

It is long overdue that we focus on the other 293 and end the obsessive-compulsive-disorder that we have developed with relation to Islamist terrorism. If we do, we might just realise that our single-mindedness has lead to our overlooking of other, very real, threats. It seems that Breivik managed to commit the atrocities in Norway as a lone individual but his alleged links to the EDL should force us to rethink our counter-terrorism strategy. Let’s stop a catastrophe, yes, but let’s look into stopping every catastrophe.


Published in The Student Journals