Mar 22, 2012 | 02:43 GMT

5 mins read

Soft Attacks Highlight Security Dilemmas

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Stratfor wrote Monday that the suspect in the French killings would turn out to be radical Islamist, a neo-Nazi or a lunatic. As we learned Wednesday, the suspect is a radical Islamist, trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan and sympathetic to al Qaeda. We had discussed over recent weeks a new model of terrorism emerging in Europe, in which operatives acting alone would attack “soft” targets, meaning targets without defenses. The move in this direction was necessitated by breakdowns in al Qaeda’s networks and increased security that would detect larger groups. 

The recent French killings will inevitably initiate a renewed discussion of how to cope with this type of threat, focusing on the reality that these attacks originated in the Islamic community. Overall, few Muslims are jihadists. However all jihadists are Muslims. These two facts create a significant challenge in democratic societies.  First, there is a threat from some in the Muslim community.  While there are certainly others who carry out massacres — we consider the attack on a Norwegian camp for children as just one example — systematic and ongoing attacks do emanate from one group. It would seem reasonable for the police to focus disproportionate attention on that group.

On the other hand, a democracy assumes two things. First, it assumes equality before the law, which can be reasonably interpreted to mean that no one would be placed under greater police scrutiny simply because of membership in an ethnic group or religion. Second, it assumes that police attention will originate from a crime and not on the statistical probability that a given individual is a greater threat than another individual. Being placed under increased police observation is in itself a form of punishment causing real potential costs; it should not be borne by the innocent.

The idea of profiling is repugnant to democratic values. Pretending that certain groups don’t contain a higher concentration of members with a propensity toward terrorist acts is willful ignorance. Organized crime in New York in the 1950s was heavily Italian, even though a tiny fraction of Italian-Americans were part of organized crime. However, pretending that you were as likely to find Mafia members among Swedish-Americans was absurd. It was both logical and efficient to place disproportionate focus on the Italian-American community. Police resources are limited and focusing on likely segments of the population — profiling — increases efficiency. It also violates democratic principles.

The impact of profiling should not be trivialized. It not only psychologically impacts those within the profile who are innocent of any criminal intent but also practically impacts the innocent, who experience impediments to travel, visible police intrusion and threats to potential employability. The stigma of being part of a suspect class is not trivial. And yet, the consequences of not identifying terrorists before they kill children are horrific.

The problem of focusing on a suspect group is obvious, as is the problem of not focusing on it. One of the issues, however, is the motivation of police and security personnel. They are generally not tasked with finding people who are innocent and certifying them as such. Their mission is to find threats. Therefore, the tendency is to define a threat broadly. Because there is no system for certifying that a certain member of a group is not a threat, the security system processes a larger number of threats than might otherwise be warranted, with no efficient mechanism for clearing them. No police or security officer ever got a promotion for clearing the most people. Some have lost their jobs for missing a threatening suspect who carries out a terrorist act.

In this sense, singling out Muslims for special scrutiny clearly increases the likelihood for injustice toward those who have never committed a crime nor intend to do so. On the other hand, failing to be aggressive is an injustice to the victims of terrorism. The logic of aggressive policing to prevent terrorist attacks and the logic of lives blighted by unwarranted suspicion are both real.

The problem is that there are too few police. The work to certify that someone is not a threat is difficult and painstaking and it is not what police do. They search for threats with limited resources. Spreading those resources among groups with no clustering of threats is irrational, even if those groups include members who present a threat. Police do not keep themselves busy by working to remove people from lists. It would seem to us that not profiling in the face of terrorist threats violates the rights of victims. But profiling carelessly violates the rights of victims as well. Since profiling is a necessary strategy, and one that can violate rights, the obligations of the police must expand to clearing the innocent.

This is obviously not going to happen. What will happen is a series of complex pretenses and compromises that simultaneously decrease the effectiveness of terrorists while increasing the damage to the innocent in target groups — the worst of both worlds. This is a classic case in which the problem is evident, yet no solution is practically available.

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