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Terrorist Profiling from Various Perspectives

Identifying terrorists and thwarting their activities are some of the primary functions of anti-terrorism units. The fundamental responsibility for anti-terrorist groups is to distinguish between terrorists and non-terrorists. One of the ways that organizations identify radicals is through the use of a set of socioeconomic, psychological, racial, and physical qualities (Boer, 2015). In other words, they apply personality traits associated with terrorists and the conditions under which they operate and live to recognize them.

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Essentially, anti-terrorism groups create a terrorist profile that constitutes “certain perceptible qualities with which an observed individual can be likened to, thus determining the probability of terroristic tendencies within the subject” (Boer, 2015, p. 407). The process of profiling terrorists is not easy. In the United States, terrorist profiling has not proved to be a useful mode of combating terrorism. The country has issues in identifying socioeconomic, psychopathological, and racial-physical qualities that are attributed to terrorism. Indeed, it raises the question of whether anti-terror movements will ever manage to profile terrorists.

Racial-Physical Profiling

One of the problems that the United States encounters in the process of profiling terrorists is the use of racial features to distinguish between radicals and non-radicals. Hewitt (2014) argues, “Implicit in racial profiling is the logic that individuals of a certain race are, as a general rule, more likely to commit acts of terrorism” (p. 61). Such reasoning is erroneous and an insult to people, particularly those with the Arab background. To use racial attributes to identify terrorists is not only imprudent but also bigoted. There is a need to appreciate that religion or race has little influence on one’s inclination to joining terrorism.

Today, many non-Arab Americans have joined terror organizations (Hewitt, 2014). The use of race to identify radicals makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to spot White Americans who support terror groups. For instance, racial profiling made it hard for anti-terror units to identify Timothy McVeigh, who is regarded as one of the most deadly radicals in the United States history.

Psychological and Pathological Profiling

Anti-terrorism groups hold that there is a correlation between atypical psychopathological behaviors and radical penchant. They argue that individuals who have gone through traumatic experiences are likely to join terror groups. Analysis of Islamic child upbringing practices reveals that Middle Eastern customs are likely to result in kids developing authoritarian traits with recidivistic tendencies (Holt, Kydd, Rozzolini, & Sheremeta, 2014).

The PATRIOT Act supports the use of psychopathological parameters to profile radicals. It allows law enforcement agencies to secretly investigate individuals that they suspect to support terrorism (McCormack, 2007). The move amounts to an infringement on people’s privacy bearing in mind that the Act has not proved to be successful in protecting Americans. Despite the use of psychological and pathological characteristics, anti-terror movements have not managed to discover a distinctive “terrorist mindset”. The existing biographical accounts of renowned terrorists do not indicate that the radicals suffered from any psychological dysfunction.

The profilers overlook the fact that “the terrorist mind follows rational decision-making and attends to a coherent political philosophy that facilitates the use of violence as a tool of strategic and communicative value” (Leistedt, 2013, p. 24). In other words, terrorists commit crimes to achieve socio-political goals, and their actions have nothing to do with psychology.

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Psychological profiling fails to consider that terrorists recruit individuals with diverse personalities. Terror groups comprise people with different skills ranging from bomb making, finance, communication, smuggling, to leadership (Leistedt, 2013). Hence, it is difficult for the authorities to single out one personality trait and use it to identify a terrorist reliably.

Socioeconomic Profiling

This mode of profiling is premised on the assumption that information about an individual’s economic standard, level of education, marital status, and livelihood can help to assess his/her likelihood of joining a terror organization. There is a common belief amid global leaders such as a Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu that poverty and illiteracy contribute to terrorism (Monaghan & Molnar, 2016).

American profilers make a mistake of using these general suppositions to identify terrorists. Research shows that the majority of the individuals who join terror groups have either college or university degrees. An examination of Jemaah Islamiyah radicals who were apprehended in 2002 found that the majority of them were educated (Monaghan & Molnar, 2016). Moreover, they were financially and socially stable. The PATRIOT Act uses financial crimes like money laundering to identify terrorists and stop their funding (McCormack, 2007).

The law fails to appreciate that even drug cartels engage in money laundering, thus it is hard to distinguish them from radicals. Most terrorist groups use legal businesses to channel their finances, making it hard for anti-terror agencies to recognize them. The use of socioeconomic parameters makes it difficult for American profilers to identify homegrown terrorists. The radicals do not exhibit qualities outlined in profiling measures. Pattison and Kim (2017) claim that it is imperative to understand that terrorism is connected to the political environment. Additionally, its demographic composition evolves with changes in economic and social conditions.


The profiling of terrorists has not led to the realization of sound universal qualities that can assist in identifying radicals. The use of racial parameters to profile terrorists has resulted in the discrimination of Arab and Muslim communities that live in the United States. It is imperative to acknowledge that not all Arabs are terrorists. The application of psychopathological parameters fails to recognize that there are no distinctive terrorist personalities.

The perceptible friendliness and normalcy of most radicals stifle the success of psychological profiling. The changing terrorist-counterterrorist duality annuls the use of socioeconomic indicators to profile terrorists. Moreover, profilers require a lot of biographical data to come up with universal traits that can be used to identify terrorists. Such data is hard to find. Anti-terrorism units require using multi-dimensional measurements to profile terrorists efficiently.


Boer, M. D. (2015). Counter-terrorism, security and intelligence in the EU: Governance challenges for collection, exchange and analysis. Intelligence and National Security, 30(3), 402-419.

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Hewitt, C. (2014). Law enforcement tactics and their effectiveness in dealing with American terrorism: Organizations, autonomous cells, and lone wolves. Terrorism and Political Violence, 26(1), 58-68.

Holt, C. A., Kydd, A., Rozzolini, L., & Sheremeta, R. (2014). The paradox of misaligned profiling: Theory and experimental evidence. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 60(3), 482-500.

Leistedt, S. J. (2013). Behavioural aspects of terrorism. Forensic Science International, 228(1), 21-27.

McCormack, W. (2007). Terrorism and intelligence surveillance. In Understanding the law of terrorism (pp. 57-64). Miamisburg, OH: LexisNexis/Matthew Bender.

Monaghan, J., & Molnar, A. (2016). Radicalisation theories, policing practices, and “the future of terrorism?” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 9(3), 393-413.

Pattison, J., & Kim, H. (2017). Profiling the ‘active cadre’ of terrorist organizations compared to the ‘lone wolf terrorists’. International Information Institute, 20(9B), 6859-6866.

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