Concentrating solely on race or ethnicity in counterterrorism efforts is a flawed approach that creates an opportunity for the terrorists.
A notable aspect of the arrests on Tuesday of three alleged jihadists poised to attack American interests in Germany was their appearance: two of them were native German converts to Islam.
One terrorist, which The New York Times devotes an article to today , was even named Fritz—that's as German as Knockwurst.
As Blake Hounshell writes over at Foreign Policy's Passport:
This is a very worrisome development. If the use of non-Arab converts is an emerging trend rather than an outlier in the data, identifying would-be terrorists just got a whole lot harder. Asked about the foiled attack at Tuesday's event to discuss the 2007 Terrorism Index , former CIA Director R. James Woolsey warned, "There's going to be a lot of effort by the terrorist groups to recruit people who don't look as if they're Arabs or from the Middle East. We're going to see more and more of this."
And this goes to the heart of why counterterrorism policing is so fraught with peril. While there statistically is a better chance that a jihadist willbe from the Middle East or Asia or have those backgrounds, an overemphasis on these qualities could help those jihadists that look like "us"—whether that be white, clean-shaven, dressed in Western attire, or even female —to slip past police and intelligence agencies undetected.
After 9-11, Washingtonpost.com hosted an online conversation on racial profiling with Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza. Here is a prescient exchange from that conversation which underscores why racial or ethnic profiling can lead to a failure of the imagination and hurt counterterrorism efforts. The first comment, from an unidentified participant who uses an outlandish example--that a German would be a terrorist--to make the point that profiling is the best approach:
Silver Spring, Md.: As much as we Americans would like to pretend that the next terrorist attack will be from a Swede or German, isn't it time that the authorities start looking at the statistics of who the perpetrators of most terrorist attacks are and find out what they most have in common? Profiling could be a very helpful tool in saving lives.
Raul Yzaguirre: There is a difference between profiling and racial profiling. Profiling in terms of behavior, in terms of dress, in terms of whether or not you check in your suitcase, acting nervously, buying a one way ticket -- these are all acceptable profiles of potential terrorists. If ethnicity is one of many elements of a profile, then it makes some sense. But if ethnicity or race is the only criteria for differential treatment, that is not acceptable and more importantly it is not useful and in fact, [is] counter-productive.
Six years ago, it might have been unthinkable that a native German would hoist the jihadist flag and attempt to attack America. Jihadism is evolving; Counterterrorism efforts need to too.