Why profiling of potential terrorists based on race is wrong: Counter-terrorism expert

Singapore's Emergency Response Team shooting a "terrorist" during a counter-terrorism exercise on May 28, 2017.
Singapore's Emergency Response Team shooting a "terrorist" during a counter-terrorism exercise on May 28, 2017. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Suicide attacks have put security agencies on alert across the world, but officers on the ground should never have a rigid profile of what a potential terrorist could be, a security expert said at the Interpol World conference and exhibition.

"When we ask (some security officers) what is a suspicious sign, they have a mindset, a permanent concept - a bomb is supposed to look like this. Or a terrorist is supposed to look like this," Mr Yaniv Peretz, the programme director of Certified Counter Terrorism Practitioner (CCTP), which trains security professionals, said on Friday (July 7).

"This is why racial profiling is so wrong. Profiling has nothing to do with race. Profiling only looks at the irregularities," he told The Straits Times on the sidelines of a conference on terrorism threat profiling in Singapore.

This means being aware of what the regular circumstances are in a certain environment, or the typical behaviour of a certain group of people, and quickly spotting something abnormal and taking decisive action.

In recent years, large coordinated attacks such as the current siege of the southern Philippine town of Marawi are being accompanied by strikes by "lone wolves", who security experts say tend to be radicalised within a short space of time from information they find online and plan their attack meticulously to exact the greatest amount of damage.

In July last year, delivery driver Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a truck into crowds gathered in Nice for a fireworks display, killing more than 80 people.

In May this year, British citizen Salman Abedi detonated a homemade bomb at a concert in Manchester that killed 22 people and injured more than 200. While investigators do not think he was part of a large network, they revealed this week their suspicions that others were involved.

On Friday, Mr Peretz urged people on the ground - anybody from receptionists to cleaners to average civilians - to "know the routine and look for irregularity".

At the same conference, an Interpol coordinator urged member police forces to submit more biometric information, such as fingerprints of known terrorists, given how increasingly vital such information was to pinpoint the movements of these terrorists across borders.

Interpol, which has its headquarters in Lyon, shares information across its 190-member police forces, out of which 52 share information via its database on foreign terrorist fighters.

Ms Shirani de Fontgalland, Interpol's Singapore-based capacity building programme coordinator for its counter-terrorism directorate, revealed to conference participants that since June 2014, an estimated 850 to 1,250 new Islamic militants have travelled every month to conflict zones overseas.

Interpol has a database of 15,000 of these foreign terrorist fighters, but has biometric information for only less than 10 per cent of them.