A March 12 article about the profiling of terrorists misidentified the school attended by a Canadian witness in a terrorism trial. The witness, Zenab Armend Pisheh, was a student at Carleton University of Ottawa, not Carleton College of Northfield, Minn.
Terrorists Proving Harder to Profile
Monday, March 12, 2007
ZUTPHEN, Netherlands -- On the surface, the young Dutch Moroccan mother looked like an immigrant success story: She studied business in college, hung out at the pub with her friends and was known for her fashionable taste in clothes.
So residents of this 900-year-old river town were thrown for a loop last year when Bouchra El-Hor, now 24, appeared in a British courtroom wearing handcuffs under an all-encompassing black veil. Prosecutors said she had covered up plans for a terrorist attack and wrote a letter offering to sacrifice herself and her infant son as martyrs.
"We were flabbergasted to learn that she had become a fanatic," said Renee Haantjes, a college instructor who recalled her as "a normal Dutch girl."
People in Zutphen may have been surprised, but terrorism suspects from atypical backgrounds are becoming increasingly common in Western Europe. With new plots surfacing every month, police across Europe are arresting significant numbers of women, teenagers, white-skinned suspects and people baptized as Christians -- groups that in the past were considered among the least likely to embrace Islamic radicalism.
The demographics of those being arrested are so diverse that many European counterterrorism officials and analysts say they have given up trying to predict what sorts of people are most likely to become terrorists. Age, sex, ethnicity, education and economic status have become more and more irrelevant.
"It's very difficult to make a profile of terrorists," Tjibbe Joustra, the Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism, said in an interview. "To have a profile that you can recognize, so that you can predict, 'This guy is going to be radical, perhaps he will cross the line into terrorism' -- that, I think, is impossible."
European authorities said the trait patterns of those arrested on terrorism charges are constantly shifting. In the Netherlands, officials said they are seeing an increase in the number of young teenagers and people of Turkish descent, two groups that used to be low on their radar. Among the key players in the Hofstad group, a cell of Islamic radicals that targeted Dutch politicians and cultural figures, was Jason Walters, the teenage son of a U.S. soldier.
In neighboring Belgium, people are still perplexed over what drove Muriel Degauque, 38, a blond, white Catholic, to convert to Islam and travel to Iraq to blow herself up in November 2005. Nizar Trabelsi, convicted two years earlier of plotting to bomb a NATO base in Belgium, had been a European soccer star before going to Afghanistan to attend al-Qaeda training camps.
In Britain, three of the suspects arrested in last summer's alleged transatlantic airline hijacking plot were religious converts who grew up in north London's affluent suburbs. One was the well-to-do English son of a Conservative Party activist; he worked in a bar and loved the movie "Team America."
A recently completed Dutch study of 242 Islamic radicals convicted or accused of planning terrorist attacks in Europe from 2001 to 2006 found that most were men of Arab descent who had been born and raised in Europe and came from lower or middle-class backgrounds. They ranged in age from 16 to 59 at the time of their arrests; the average was 27. About one in four had a criminal record.
The author of the study, Edwin Bakker, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, tried to examine almost 20 variables concerning the suspects' social and economic backgrounds. In general, he determined that no reliable profile existed -- their traits were merely an accurate reflection of the overall Muslim immigrant population in Europe. "There is no standard jihadi terrorist in Europe," the study concluded.
In an interview, Bakker said that many local police agencies have been slow to abandon profiling, but that most European intelligence agencies have concluded it is an unreliable tool for spotting potential terrorists. "How can you single them out? You can't," he said. "For the secret services, it doesn't give them a clue. We should focus more on suspicious behavior and not profiling."