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Australia Correspondent

Racial Profiling and Terrorism

Oct 01, 20063 mins
Investigation and ForensicsIT LeadershipPhysical Security

In London arrests, critics challenge racial profiling

The arrests in August of 25 young men, mostly British Muslims, for allegedly planning to detonate liquid-based explosives on planes flying to the United States have ignited a debate over passenger profiling and whether race should be considered.

Shortly after the arrests, which followed a months-long investigation, a top Muslim London police official said the United Kingdom’s newest crime could be “traveling while Asian.” That comment from Ali Dizaei, a metropolitan police chief superintendent, was widely reported in the British media and struck a nerve, underscoring the concern over how British authorities pursue terrorists.

So far, no one in the British government has proposed bringing race-based profiling to the forefront of an antiterrorism strategy. But former London Metropolitan Police Department Commissioner John Stevens has argued publicly that airport security checks focus on the wrong targets, charging that “young Muslim men” are responsible for Islamic terrorism in the West.

The U.K. Department for Transport, which controls air travel regulations, won’t release its passenger screening guidelines for airport operators, a spokesman says. The authority has maintained a cabin ban on certain items, including liquids and cosmetics.

Even before the September 11 attacks in the United States and the subway bombings in London in July 2005, the British government had beefed up the search-and-arrest powers of police and investigators

involved in terrorism-related investigations. Since 2000, Parliament has passed four antiterrorism acts, including legislation earlier this year that allows authorities to detain a terrorist suspect for up to 28 days without formal charges. By contrast, a murder suspect must be charged within four days of arrest.

But there’s concern over the aggressiveness of the new laws, says Jen Corlew of Liberty, a London-based civil liberties group.

How the men in the August roundups became terrorist suspects is what is driving the debate about racial profiling. The suspects arrested so far in the latest plot were mostly young British Muslims of Pakistani descent, press reports indicated. Critics say racial profiling is a haphazard way to approach threats, and one that wastes valuable time on holding up people with no malicious intent. Racial profiling has a huge margin of error. Liberty instead advocates an intelligence-based policing approach, using behavior-based techniques, Corlew says.

Experts such as Rafi Ron, a consultant who led security teams in Israeli airports, and George Nacarra, security chief at Logan Airport in Boston, both cite the benefits of training frontline workers to recognize suspicious and dangerous behavior as a more effective means of screening would-be terrorists.

History shows that terrorists have defied racial classification, says Bruce Schneier, a security expert. Schneier cites a 1986 incident in which a pregnant Irish woman was caught carrying a bomb that was placed in her luggage without her knowledge by her Jordanian boyfriend, aboard an Israel-bound flight.

If screeners stop one ethnic group, terrorists could use someone who doesn’t match the profile, he says. There is also concern that racial profiling alienates people who could be sources in investigations, Schneier says. Noted: Arrests in this case resulted from a tip from the Muslim community.