Tackling terror: profile the ideology, not the extremist
Undeniably, the significant impact of terror and extremist strategies in recent years has instilled significant levels of fear and phobia in societies worldwide.
Governments, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, multinational corporations, non-governmental organisations, interest groups, and even ordinary people are all attempting to acquire information on the profile of a terrorist. Many ask what does a terrorist look like, what personality traits do they possess, in what conditions do they live, are they employed or unemployed, are they religious fanatics? We desperately want answers so that we can identify these criminals and put a stop to their horrific and inhumane acts of terror and violence.
Some scholars argue that with the acquisition of additional primary data, psychological profiling will be substantiated as a successful measure. However, based on analysis of official data by researchers, there is no grounded evidence to conclude that there is causal progression from mental illness to terroristic intentions. Psychological profiling is further limited by the apparent normalcy and sociability of many captured terrorists. Thus, in the context of terrorism, the argument that a terrorist personality or personalities exist for psychological profiling is scientifically non-conclusive as well.
Sociodemographic profiles as illustrated in some research do display some credibility. Religiosity, social class, employment status, place of residence, type of neighbourhood, politics, level of corruption in the local community, business opportunities, poverty, accessibility to schools and hospitals, public health, type of housing and other quality of life related variables can be useful in sociodemographic profiling. This type of profiling requires a considerable amount of biographical data and without the data it has limited practical use in addressing emerging terrorist threats. Sociodemographic profiles only succeed in demonstrating the multiplicity and complexity of the phenomenon of terrorism and extremism.
Thus, will it ever be possible to profile the terrorist? Sadly the answer is no and to profile the terrorist is a futile endeavour and most of all it contributes negatively to both stereotyping ethnocentrism and will eventually lead to feelings and acts of prejudice and discrimination.
As an alternative to profiling the terrorist, a more practical and effective methodology would be profiling the ideology of terrorism as a process within a complex system. This increasingly globalised phenomenon is here to stay and we need to engage with all segments to understand the root causes of extremism and terrorism.
P.Sundramoorthy, associate professor, school of social sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia