[ExI] Terrorist? Who can tell?

Harvey Newstrom mail at harveynewstrom.com
Sun Aug 31 18:37:18 UTC 2008

On Saturday 30 August 2008 17:19:23 Lee Corbin wrote:
> On the literal reading of my question above, which was my intention
> and which has no necessary direct bearing on profiling, does a six
> member *group* of known members of Al-Qaeda differ significantly
> in appearance from a random sample of six age-appropriate men
> chosen at random from London? Sorry, but I still don't understand
> how you and Damien can persist in saying that the answer is "no".
> For one thing, aren't the odds of anyone who is Asian or black
> being in the UK component of Al Qaeda quite small?

Not at all.  There may be fewer asian Al Qaeda in Bagdad, but they are the 
majority of Al Qaeda in Indonesia.  (Remember the Bali bombing?)  Likewise, 
blacks would be the majority of muslims in Africa.  (A judge  ruled last year 
that the Sudanese government was liable for the U.S.S. Cole suicide bombing.)  
If you look at a map of muslim countries, it isn't just the middle-east.  
There are asian and african countries too.  There are plenty of asian and 
african muslims committing suicide bombings.  You just don't hear about them 
on the news, because the U.S. isn't occupying those countries right now.  But 
asian and black suicide bombers are the majority in many countries.

> I tried to re-explain as follows, in order to dispel confusion:
>   > > I wonder if you understood the actual experiment that I
>   > > proposed. It was *not* in any way a kind of actual test
>   > > that could be put into practice. Quite literally, it worked
>   > > as follows. We take for group A the last six convicted
>   > > terrorist bombers in London, and as a control group B
>   > > take six males of the same age randomly from the city.

I tried to perform your experiment with Google, although I admit that this is 
a very small unscientific sample.  But I Googled "terrorist conviction london 
2008" to see what the first six convicted terrorists in london looked like.  
What I found were:
   - A 16-year-old boy 
   - A woman <http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/jun/17/uksecurity.ukcrime>.
   - A Ugandan african <http://www.euro-
   - Five muslim men (declared innocent, their convictions overturned) 
   - A 50-year-old muslim man <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7256859.stm>.
   - Four younger muslim men 

So in trying your experiment, I did not get any sterotypical muslim men in the 
first six.  The only muslim men in the first eight were later declared innocent 
and had their convictions overturned.  The ninth person I found was a 50-year-
old muslim man.  I had to go to the tenth through thirteens persons to get 
what I think you are describing as the stereotypical younger muslim man.

So by way of a single example, I would submit that your experiment wouldn't 
always work as you expected.

>   > > In short, you are claiming that the relative homogeneity of my
>   > > group A (or at least I thought so), would be insufficient to allow
>   > > for a 19 in 20 test.

I don't understand what good it does to be able to distinguish a homogenous 
group from a random group.  We could do this test with any ethnic, racial, 
religious, socio-economic, gender, sexual-orientation, or other grouping with 
similar results as you predict.  All it proves is that people can distinguish 
between diverse groups and homogenous groups.  I'm not sure what the point of 
that is, or how it helps anything.

> > Especially as there are a few white converts among them also.
> Can you guess what fraction this might be? If it's at all high,
> then this is the source of my confusion.

I think this is indeed your source of confusion.  I don't have statistics on 
al qaeda converts, but here are some statistics on muslims in the united 
states from <http://pewforum.org/news/display.php?NewsID=15040>:

"Muslims are the most racially diverse group in America. Approximately one in 
three Muslims are white, roughly one in four are black, and one in five are 

I think you are mistakenly assuming that virtually all muslims are middle-
eastern, with very few white, black or asian muslims.

> But if it's on the order
> of a few percent, then your remark seems irrelevant to *my*
> question, regardless of how useful it may or may not be to
> those attempting the (evidently hopeless) task of profiling
> those who, say, board aircraft.  "A few" doesn't help me:
> a few in a group of less than 10 is a lot, but "a few" in a
> hundred is not.

According to the February 2008 Pew Poll on racial diversity across U.S. 
faiths, (assuming they are all equally likely to board U.S. aircraft):

- 33% (one in three) of muslims boarding U.S. aircraft are white
- 25% (one in four) of muslims boarding U.S. aircraft are black
- 20% (one in five) of muslims boarding U.S. aircraft are asian
- leaving 22% of muslims boarding U.S. aircraft to be middle-eastern or other 

I think you are forgetting how old the muslim religion is, and how far it has 
spread into asia, africa, and elsewhere.  Most muslims in the U.S. are NOT 
middle-eastern.  Racial profiling would not help, unless you believe that there 
is a racial component to violence and that the white, black, and asian muslims 
are less likely to be violent than arab muslims.

The other thing to remember is that most muslims are non-violent, with only a 
small percentage of them being so radical.  We also have violence from other 
religions, as history shows with the Irish Liberation Army in London, 
Christian abortion clinic bombers in the U.S., militia types in the U.S. 
(Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, etc.).  So one religion does not have more 
violence than another.  If there were a good statistical lead of one race or 
religion over another in terms of violence, I assure you that security experts 
would be all over it.  But the numbers just don't work out.  There simply is 
not statistical advantage for profiling one such group over another.  Like 
torture, it sounds like it should work in theory, but it really doesn't pan 
out in practice.

Harvey Newstrom <www.HarveyNewstrom.com>

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