Profiling - What Works and What Doesn't
Posted June 27, 2012

An Executive Protection Perspective

By: David L. Johnson, DABCHS, CHS-V (President of ITG Consultants, Inc.)

Published with the permission of Inside Homeland Security Magazine.

Profiling – there is an on-going national debate about this subject, but it is not a new issue. The current argument often centers on a racial profiling issue, but the efforts behind profiling from the law enforcement/security perspective goes farback in history, and arises from an admirable motivation. When looking out over a crowd while working some kind of protection detail, you cannot tell the players without a program. Where might potential attacks come from, and who in this crowd will be actors in the event?  The trouble is, while you bear some kind of responsibility for someone else’s safety and security, you cannot predict future trouble. Profiling efforts arose to assist with such problems.

Occasionally something bad does happen and professionals of different disciplines review and evaluate the case study of the adverse incident. Sometimes it is psychologists and psychiatrists that try to help, and sometimes it is law enforcement or security professionals. They all hope that something will emerge from their efforts that will help law enforcement and security professionals move from a reactive state of mind to a proactive state, and perhaps enable us all to get in front of problems. The desire and goal is to help prevent crisis or to assist with early detection of potentially hazardous incidents rather than just responding to them after they manifest themselves. To me that is an admirable motivation and an end state of affairs that we should all aspire to. 

The trouble is that, thus far, attempts to profile individual characteristics usually fail us. We develop empirical experience with the profile not working, and it causes a collective disappointment and disdain for the process or effort. To support that hypothesis, let me cite some of my empirical experience. Joining the fray of anti and counter-terrorism efforts in the early 1980s I became very interested in learning about my opposition. It is something that all military schools of thought have taught from the days of Sun Tzu’s Art of War: know your enemy. Serving in Germany and conducting protective operations for a U.S. Army General Officer who had already been a victim of a Red Army Faction assassination attempt, I was eager to learn about this thing that we call terrorism. Who were its adherents and practitioners, and how can we tell them apart from the average citizen when we see them on the street? 

In my discussions and research efforts, someone pointed me to a “profile” of a typical terrorist that was developed during that timeframe, and I obtained it. If memory serves me well, that profile said that a typical terrorist was a white male, between 25 and 35, was college-educated, and could speak more than one language. Wow, my potential adversaries already outclassed me. My high school diploma and inability to learn high school Spanish did not stack up well against these guys!

However, the trouble was already brewing within me over this profiling thing. Our liaison activities with the German Police resulted in their sharing a book with us that they produced. In the Military Police community, we used to call these things a BOLO book. BOLO stood for Be On the Look Out for. Now this publication was really useful because it contained photographs, depictions and physical descriptive information of known, wanted Red Army Faction members. The trouble was that out of 14 wanted terrorists, ten of them were women! So much for the value of that profile…

Later in life, I heard that a similar profile had been developed here in the United States pertaining to potential presidential assassins. Again, there were no women described to me as being on that list, and low and behold both Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore subsequently tried to shoot former President Ford. It was now obvious that neither of these “early” efforts worked, and it was back to the drawing board.

Today, as components of our national dialogue on profiling, I hear that being Middle Eastern, Arabic, or Muslim is a critical part of the terrorist profile. After all, what else did the nineteen 9/11 perpetrators, the shoe bomber, and the underwear bomber all have in common? Well, I cannot argue that being able to identify common characteristics from a selected pool of perpetrators we have already identified is not possible. Nor will I argue that members of groups that possess one or more of those characteristics direct terrorism and terrorist acts at the United States and American interests, businesses and citizens. However, this is after the fact analysis and is of little value in assisting with predicting the potential for future violent events.

What I will argue is that if this is all one bases evaluation on, then there is failure in your future. The problem is that this kind of profiling simply does not work. It also leaves out whole categories of classes and characteristics of people who use violence in a manner that it fits within the definition of terrorism. Every member of the Red Army Faction in that book we were given was white. Many people who use terrorism in a group known as Harakat al-Shabaab al-Muhahideen that operates out of Somalia are black. Some of the narco-terrorists who have operated out of multiple South and Central American countries are Hispanic. Some classify the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa as a Christian Fundamentalist militant group, but it seems to me they use the tactics of terror in their actions. The advent of the “homegrown” terrorist phenomenon indicates that this problem, if I may term it that, is becoming more difficult.

Therefore, I would submit that profiling by appearance, race, religion, or any other individual characteristic is of severely limited value. Unless you are fighting a war, then sometimes the uniform the other combatant is wearing helps you to identify them as potentially hazardous to your health…

Now, on the other side of this coin, I would submit that criminals and terrorists often profile in this manner. Three examples:

  1. If you look like you are a westerner in some countries, you are at risk.
  2. If you drive something made in Detroit or an SUV in Iraq or Afghanistan, you fit the profile of desired victims and you are likely going to have to fight at some point in time.
  3. If you go into a bank with empty hands and come out carrying a fat envelope, then you fit the profile of what a robber is looking for when desiring to supplement his or her income by taking what you are carrying in that envelope.

Unlike looking for something pertaining to race, nationality, or function such as in my first two examples in this paragraph, the criminal in the third example is profiling other characteristics. That criminal is profiling behavior and/or activities. It works for them and I think this approach that can work for us as well.

Conducting case study on all the same incidents as indicated before, when one takes account of how the incidents shape up, identifies the modus operandi used to conduct these attacks, then one begins to understand what aspects of the environment you are operating in what might be consistent with such modus operandi and how these things begin to shape up. You get a concept that certain behavioral aspects are consistent with the developing stages of an attack scenario. Among others, I call this kind of concept and training Attack Recognition. The focus and desire is to make protective agents familiar with what happens in the set up for and the lead-in to such attacks on their principals or motorcades. The intent is to give them the ability to recognize factors in their day-to-day environment that may develop, which would be consistent with such modus operandi so that they may focus attention on those things and catch a developing attack as early in its life cycle as possible.

Among the things that we are doing with this approach is profiling the behavioral and environmental characteristics. Some old examples: In the 1977 kidnapping of Hans Martin Schleyer in Germany, the Red Army Faction used a woman dressed as a nanny pushing a baby carriage to assist them with getting his motorcade stopped. In the subsequent 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro in Italy, the gunmen disguised themselves as Al-Italia airline pilots. In both cases, and in multitudes of subsequent cases the world over, the terrorist actors used the elements of surprise and diversion in the attack plan. In both cases, the terrorists had to transition from being what they appeared to be, whether nanny or airline pilots, to what they really were: terrorists planning to kill people and kidnap their specifically targeted victim. The nanny transitioned when she reached into her baby carriage and pulled out her weapon. The airline pilots did the same thing. Using this approach, profiling of activity and behavior, it matters not what race, religion, country of origin, age, education level, or any other category the assailant fits into. However, it gives the law enforcement or security officer the ability to detect potential attacks as early in the development of their life cycle as possible. It also has the side benefit of assisting with their mental preparation when facing a potentially lethal situation.

Though both the world and terrorism has evolved, the various modus operandi, the ability to profile attack recognition factors through behavioral and environmental characteristics, continues to pay dividends in the field. This approach to “profiling” and the associated knowledge directly leads to the potential to catch both criminals and terrorists in the transition stage of their attack. This approach is saving lives and works here in the United States, Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other place where protection professionals are practicing without having to rely on profiling characteristics that have empirically proven unreliable in the past and controversial today.

Tags: inside homeland security, profiling, david l johnson