Finding and stopping terrorists before they strike is often compared to looking for a needle in a haystack, a cliché that speaks to the difficulty of preventing a crime that, while deadly, is uncommon. Counterterrorism officials still suggest that the task would become easier if they could use profiling to target Muslim communities. In other words, if they could shrink the size of the haystack.
But a new book by Dr. Marc Sageman, a veteran counterterrorism researcher and former CIA operations officer, argues that this approach, even if carried to its fullest extension in a nightmare scenario for civil liberties, would still be ineffective, because jihadist terrorism is such a statistically rare phenomenon.
In his book Misunderstanding Terrorism, Sageman counts 66 Islamic jihadist terrorist plots in Western countries between 2002 and 2012, involving a total of 220 perpetrators. This figure works out to an average of 22 terrorists per year, across a population of roughly 700 million people. Even narrowed to just the Muslim population in Western countries, estimated at roughly 25 million people, that’s less than one in 1 million Muslims a year who could be considered terrorists.
Describing a hypothetical dragnet conducted by Western countries that correctly identified terrorists 99 percent of the time, but accused innocent people 1 percent of the time, Sageman asks us to imagine the following:
If all the various police departments operating in the West collaborate and carry out a gigantic sweep by applying this profile to their respective Muslim populations in order to catch terrorists hiding in their respective societies, they would arrest all 22 terrorists that emerge in a given year. However, they would make a mistake 1 percent of the time for 25 million people, which comes to 250,000 people. Therefore, in order to catch all 22 global neo-jihadi terrorists, they would put 250,000 Muslims in jail by mistake.
Because terrorism is so uncommon, he writes, any strategy for combating it that involves policing entire communities is likely to end up harming huge numbers of innocent people — thus feeding the same climate of alienation and hostility that fosters political violence in the first place.