Category Archives: Terrorism

Watch out – that engineer could be a terrorist!

WHO becomes a terrorist? An MI5 report leaked to London newspaper The Guardian in August 2008 concluded that there is no easy way to identify those who become involved in terrorism in the UK because there is “no single pathway to violent extremism” and that “it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the ‘British terrorist’ as most are ‘demographically unremarkable'”.

The extraordinary lengths the German authorities went to after 9/11 to track down potential terrorists are a stark example of how useless profiling can be. They collected and analysed data on over 8 million individuals living in Germany. These people were categorised by demographic characteristics: male, aged 18 to 40; current or former student; Muslim; legally resident in Germany; and originating from one of 26 Islamic countries. Then they were sorted into three further categories: potential to carry out a terrorist attack (such as a pilot’s licence); familiarity with locations that could be targets (such as working in airports, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the rail service, labs and other research institutes); and studying the German language at the Goethe Institute.

With the help of these categories authorities whittled the 8 million down to just 1689 individuals, who were then investigated, one by one. Giovanni Capoccia, an Oxford-based political scientist who analysed this case, reported that not one of them turned out to be a threat. All the real Islamic terrorists arrested in Germany through other investigations were not on the official “shortlist” and did not fit the profile.

Does it follow, as some scholars now think, that anyone, given the right conditions and the wrong friendships, can end up joining a terrorist group? Not entirely. We found that engineers are three to four times as likely as other graduates to be present among the members of violent Islamic groups in the Muslim world since the 1970s. Using a sample of 404 Islamic militants worldwide (with a median birth date in 1966), we tracked down the education of 284. Of these, 26 had less than secondary education, 62 completed secondary education (including madrasas), and 196 had higher education, whether completed or not. Even if none of the cases where we lack data had higher education, the share of those with higher education would be a hefty 48.5 per cent.

The next move was to find out what they had studied – and we tracked down 178 of our 196 cases. The largest single group were engineers, with 78 out of 178, followed by 34 taking Islamic studies, 14 studying medicine, 12 economics and business studies, and 7 natural sciences. The over-representation of engineers applies to all 13 militant groups in the sample and to all 17 nationalities, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.

Our finding holds up quite well in another sample of 259 Islamic extremists who are citizens or residents of 14 western, mostly European, countries, and who have recently come to the attention of the authorities for carrying out or plotting a terrorist attack in the west. Although this sample contains far fewer people with higher education than the older members of the first group, nearly 6 out of 10 of those with higher education are engineers.

We also collected data on non-Muslim extremists. We found that engineers are almost completely absent from violent left-wing groups, while they are present among violent right-wing groups in different countries. Out of seven right-wing leaders in the US whose degrees we were able to establish, four were engineers: for example, Richard Butler, the founder of the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations, was an aeronautical engineer, and Wilhelm Schmitt, leader of the right-wing, extreme anti-government, pro-localism group known as the Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus, was an engineer with Lockheed Martin. Among the total membership of the Islamic groups, however, the over-representation is still much higher.

This could be a coincidence: if the group founders are engineers they would also be more likely to recruit other engineers via their educational or professional networks. This explanation only works up to a point. It does not explain why engineers are over-represented in groups in which the founders were not engineers, or why the founders of groups that were not in contact with each other were often engineers.

Why engineers? Everybody’s first reaction is that they are recruited for their technical proficiency in bomb-making and communications technology, but there is no evidence for this. A tiny elite tends to do the technical work in these groups, and jihadist recruitment manuals focus on a personality profile rather than technical skills.

So we are left with two hypotheses: either certain social conditions impinge more on engineers than on other graduates, or engineers are more likely to have certain personality traits that make radical Islamism more attractive to them. Our best guess is that the phenomenon derives from a combination of these two factors.

With engineers in the Middle East we have very intelligent, ambitious students who have found it difficult to find professional satisfaction, both individually and collectively in their desire to help their countries develop. Graduates of very selective degree programmes, they may have endured relatively greater frustration in a stagnant and authoritarian environment.

The fact that engineers are not over-represented in Saudi Arabia offers some support for this, for, alone among the countries of origin of terrorists, Saudi Arabia has had a shortage of engineers and has thus offered better employment opportunities. However, even in western countries and south-east Asia, where labour market opportunities are better for all graduates, engineers appear relatively more attracted to violent Islamist groups than other graduates. Why is this?

We reckon that something else is going on, something at the individual level, that is, relating to cognitive traits. According to polling data, engineering professors in the US are seven times as likely to be right-wing and religious as other academics, and similar biases apply to students. In 16 other countries we investigated, engineers seem to be no more right-wing or religious than the rest of the population, but the number of engineers combining both traits is unusually high. A lot of piecemeal evidence suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers.
US engineering professors are seven times as likely to be right-wing and religious

So the bottom line is that while the probability of a Muslim engineer becoming a violent Islamist is minuscule, it is still be between three and four times that for other graduates.


Man and children held under terror law

Two police officers are under investigation after using anti-terror stop-and-search powers against a man and two young children in a south London street.

The 43-year-old man had his mobile phones, USB sticks and a CD seized by the officers, who were in plain clothes, and was asked to stand in front of a CCTV camera in order to have his photograph taken. The undercover Metropolitan police officers also took the man’s photograph with their own camera and searched the two children he was walking with – his 11-year-old daughter and his neighbour’s daughter, aged six.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said today it would “manage” the investigation into the incident in July, meaning that an independent investigator will control the inquiry conducted by the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards.

It is unusual for the IPCC to manage an investigation into an incident of this kind, and the decision comes amid mounting concern over police use of stop-and-search and surveillance powers. The commission has received dozens of complaints relating to the use of stop-and-search powers, but the nature of this complaint is understood to have concerned investigators.

In a statement today, the IPCC said: “The complainant states that, when he asked under what legislation his property was being seized, he was told it was under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He also complained that he was given no information as to when he could retrieve his goods or who to contact in order to do so, and that there was no communication from police despite assurances that he would be told when he could collect his things.”

The Met’s complaints bureau is known to have received a number of complaints relating to alleged misuse of anti-terror powers. Two months ago, Gemma Atkinson, 27, a film-maker from London, said she would challenge the Met at the high court after she claimed she was handcuffed, detained and threatened with arrest for filming officers on her mobile phone.

Lawyers for Atkinson said the Met’s complaints bureau has been slow to respond to their complaints. Atkinson was detained at Aldgate underground station one month after Section 58(a) – a controversial amendment to the Terrorism Act – came into force, making it illegal to photograph a police officer if the images are considered “likely to be useful” to a terrorist.

Speaking about the case of the 43-year-old man, the IPCC commissioner, Mike Franklin, who leads on the issue of stop and search, said: “The use of section 44 stop-and-search powers is a very sensitive issue and it is right that complaints of this nature are taken very seriously. It is particularly worrying that two young children were allegedly searched in this way. This investigation will look at whether the use of these powers in this case was lawful, reasonable and correctly carried out.”


I am a photographer, not a terrorist!

I have heard the stories of photographers being challenged by security guards and the police for simple shots of shopping centres or landscapes, but you never think it will every be you. . .

photo-not-terror-header

“Photography is under attack. Across the country it that seems anyone with a camera is being targeted as a potential terrorist, whether amateur or professional, whether landscape, architectural or street photographer.Not only is it corrosive of press freedom but creation of the collective visual history of our country is extinguished by anti-terrorist legislation designed to protect the heritage it prevents us recording.This campaign is for everyone who values visual imagery, not just photographers.

We must work together now to stop this before photography becomes a part of history rather than a way of recording it.” –   photographernotaterrorist.org

I work on a normal business site but that has the likes of QinetiQ and BAE Systems. I leave one evening and start the drive home. A police car is suddenly behind me with lights on so I move over to let them past and am surprised when they remain behind me, so a quick check of car tax and insurance dates flash through my mind. I also put aside the desire to floor it and appear on ‘Cops with cameras’ and use the excuse “I was only trying to get to a good spot to stop as quickly as possible”. I stop and am out of the car quicker than pc1 and pc2 who quickly start questioning my business with at XXXXXX and the business park. As my first brush with the law on the ‘wrong’ side, I am surprised that what should be a simple question is layered with the tone that removes the presumption of innocence.

Despite explaining, answering questions and showing ID and an access card, I am told I have to return to my work to answer more questions. A short ride in the back of the police car and I’m at reception and let out after a pc1 has had a brief  chat with site security. I get out to a torrent of questions from the head of site ‘security’ about taking photos of the building and cctv cameras. Then follows a big to and through where I have no idea what they’re talking about until they inform me they spotted me taking pictures from last month. It all falls into place that I had brought in my good camera to take some good pics of my work and in the car park had taken some quick test shots and the cctv cameras (if they capture me, why can’t I capture them?). All the businesses in the area had been placed on alert and to look out for me driving around ‘surveying’ their security. It turns out that they are all expecting an eco-protest soon as another building had been subject to a roof sit in protest for a few weeks at the begining of the year.

I have a strange feeling this wasn’t a one off incidence and as a photographer I can look forward to more questions and police contact for ‘terrorist actions’


DNA fingerprinting 25 years old (but DNA databases are wrong)

The scientist behind DNA fingerprinting has called for a change to the law governing DNA databases on the 25th anniversary of his discovery.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys uncovered the process by chance in his laboratory at Leicester University. The technique has since been used to solve crimes and identity cases. But it has also led to controversy over profiles kept on the national DNA database. “Innocent people do not belong on that database,” he said. The scientist stumbled across the groundbreaking development on 10 September, 1984. He realised that variable patterns in the structure of DNA could be used to distinguish one person from another.

‘Blue skies research’ It led to the development of DNA fingerprinting, which has been used to solve a range of crimes. Last year, 17,614 offences were solved using a DNA match, including 83 killings and 184 rapes. It has also been developed to help solve unanswered questions and disputes over personal identity, paternity, immigration, conservation and cloning.

In an interview to mark the anniversary of his discovery, Professor Jeffreys spoke of the importance of allowing academics freedom to research. Professor Jeffreys He said academics should be able to pursue “unfettered, fundamental, curiosity-driven” research. “Blue skies” research, which led to discoveries such as his own, was “the ultimate engine of all scientific and technological evolution,” he said, warning: “You lose that at your peril.”

He renewed his calls for the government to change the law governing the UK’s DNA databases – particularly the practice in England and Wales of keeping the DNA profiles of thousands of people who have neither been charged nor convicted. There are now more than five million profiles on the national DNA database, a rise of 40% in two years. He told the BBC: “My view is very, very simple, has been right from the outset. “Innocent people do not belong on that database. Branding them as future criminals is not proportionate response in the fight against crime. “And I’ve met a fair number of these people and some of these people are very, very upset and are distressed by the fact that their DNA is on that database. They cannot get it off and they feel as if they’re branded as criminals.


Terror law used to stop thousands ‘just to balance racial statistics’

Thousands of people are being stopped and searched by the police under counter-terrorism powers simply to provide a racial balance in official statistics, the government’s official anti-terror law watchdog has revealed.

Lord Carlile said in his annual report that he has got “ample anecdotal evidence”, adding that it was “totally wrong” and an invasion of civil liberties to stop and search people simply to racially balance the statistics.

“I can well understand the concerns of the police that they should be free from allegations of prejudice,” he said. “But it is not a good use of precious resources if they waste them on self-evidently unmerited searches.”

The official reviewer of counter-terrorist legislation said there was little or no evidence that the use of section 44 stop-and-search powers by the police can prevent an act of terrorism.

“Whilst arrests for other crime have followed searches under the section, none of the many thousands of searches has ever resulted in a conviction for a terrorism offence. Its utility has been questioned publicly and privately by senior Metropolitan police staff with wide experience of terrorism policing,” said Carlile.

He added that such searches were stopping between 8,000-10,000 people a month.

Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the “section 44 stops” allow the police to search anyone in a designated area without suspicion that an offence has occurred. But Carlile is critical of the use of the powers used by the Met police, saying he felt “a sense of frustration” that the force did not limit its section 44 authorisations to some boroughs or parts of boroughs but used them across its entire area.

“I cannot see a justification for the whole of the Greater London area being covered permanently. The intention of the section was not to place London under permanent special search powers.”

None of the many thousands of searches had ever led to a conviction for a terrorist offence, he said. He noted, too, that the damage done to community relations was “undoubtedly considerable”.

Examples of poor, or unnecessary use, of section 44 abounded. “I have evidence of cases where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there is not the slightest possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop.”

The Met has announced a review of how it uses section 44 powers. And the home secretary, Alan Johnson, is to issue fresh guidance to the police, warning that counter-terrorism must not be used to stop people taking photographs of on-duty officers.

Carlile uses his annual report to endorse complaints from professional and amateur photographers that counter-terror powers are being used to threaten prosecution if pictures are taken of officers on duty.

He said the power was only intended to cover images likely to be of use to a terrorist: “It is inexcusable for police officers ever to use this provision to interfere with the rights of individuals to take photographs.” The police had to come to terms with the increased scrutiny of their activities by the public, afforded by equipment such as video-enabled mobile phones. “Police officers who use force or threaten force in this context run the real risk of being prosecuted themselves for one or more of several possible criminal and disciplinary offences,” he warned.

He mentioned an incident in which two Austrian tourists were rebuked by officers for photographing Walthamstow bus station, in east London.


Watch out – that engineer could be a terrorist!

WHO becomes a terrorist? An MI5 report leaked to London newspaper The Guardian in August 2008 concluded that there is no easy way to identify those who become involved in terrorism in the UK because there is “no single pathway to violent extremism” and that “it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the ‘British terrorist‘ as most are ‘demographically unremarkable'”.

The extraordinary lengths the German authorities went to after 9/11 to track down potential terrorists are a stark example of how useless profiling can be. They collected and analysed data on over 8 million individuals living in Germany. These people were categorised by demographic characteristics: male, aged 18 to 40; current or former student; Muslim; legally resident in Germany; and originating from one of 26 Islamic countries. Then they were sorted into three further categories: potential to carry out a terrorist attack (such as a pilot’s licence); familiarity with locations that could be targets (such as working in airports, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the rail service, labs and other research institutes); and studying the German language at the Goethe Institute.

With the help of these categories authorities whittled the 8 million down to just 1689 individuals, who were then investigated, one by one. Giovanni Capoccia, an Oxford-based political scientist who analysed this case, reported that not one of them turned out to be a threat. All the real Islamic terrorists arrested in Germany through other investigations were not on the official “shortlist” and did not fit the profile.

Does it follow, as some scholars now think, that anyone, given the right conditions and the wrong friendships, can end up joining a terrorist group? Not entirely. We found that engineers are three to four times as likely as other graduates to be present among the members of violent Islamic groups in the Muslim world since the 1970s. Using a sample of 404 Islamic militants worldwide (with a median birth date in 1966), we tracked down the education of 284. Of these, 26 had less than secondary education, 62 completed secondary education (including madrasas), and 196 had higher education, whether completed or not. Even if none of the cases where we lack data had higher education, the share of those with higher education would be a hefty 48.5 per cent.

The next move was to find out what they had studied – and we tracked down 178 of our 196 cases. The largest single group were engineers, with 78 out of 178, followed by 34 taking Islamic studies, 14 studying medicine, 12 economics and business studies, and 7 natural sciences. The over-representation of engineers applies to all 13 militant groups in the sample and to all 17 nationalities, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.

Our finding holds up quite well in another sample of 259 Islamic extremists who are citizens or residents of 14 western, mostly European, countries, and who have recently come to the attention of the authorities for carrying out or plotting a terrorist attack in the west. Although this sample contains far fewer people with higher education than the older members of the first group, nearly 6 out of 10 of those with higher education are engineers.

We also collected data on non-Muslim extremists. We found that engineers are almost completely absent from violent left-wing groups, while they are present among violent right-wing groups in different countries. Out of seven right-wing leaders in the US whose degrees we were able to establish, four were engineers: for example, Richard Butler, the founder of the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations, was an aeronautical engineer, and Wilhelm Schmitt, leader of the right-wing, extreme anti-government, pro-localism group known as the Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus, was an engineer with Lockheed Martin. Among the total membership of the Islamic groups, however, the over-representation is still much higher.

This could be a coincidence: if the group founders are engineers they would also be more likely to recruit other engineers via their educational or professional networks. This explanation only works up to a point. It does not explain why engineers are over-represented in groups in which the founders were not engineers, or why the founders of groups that were not in contact with each other were often engineers.

Why engineers? Everybody’s first reaction is that they are recruited for their technical proficiency in bomb-making and communications technology, but there is no evidence for this. A tiny elite tends to do the technical work in these groups, and jihadist recruitment manuals focus on a personality profile rather than technical skills.

So we are left with two hypotheses: either certain social conditions impinge more on engineers than on other graduates, or engineers are more likely to have certain personality traits that make radical Islamism more attractive to them. Our best guess is that the phenomenon derives from a combination of these two factors.

With engineers in the Middle East we have very intelligent, ambitious students who have found it difficult to find professional satisfaction, both individually and collectively in their desire to help their countries develop. Graduates of very selective degree programmes, they may have endured relatively greater frustration in a stagnant and authoritarian environment.

The fact that engineers are not over-represented in Saudi Arabia offers some support for this, for, alone among the countries of origin of terrorists, Saudi Arabia has had a shortage of engineers and has thus offered better employment opportunities. However, even in western countries and south-east Asia, where labour market opportunities are better for all graduates, engineers appear relatively more attracted to violent Islamist groups than other graduates. Why is this?

We reckon that something else is going on, something at the individual level, that is, relating to cognitive traits. According to polling data, engineering professors in the US are seven times as likely to be right-wing and religious as other academics, and similar biases apply to students. In 16 other countries we investigated, engineers seem to be no more right-wing or religious than the rest of the population, but the number of engineers combining both traits is unusually high. A lot of piecemeal evidence suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers.

So the bottom line is that while the probability of a Muslim engineer becoming a violent Islamist is minuscule, it is still be between three and four times that for other graduates.


Can religion really save the world?

Tony Blair is not the first person to think that religion will decide the fate of the modern world.

“The 21st century”, said André Malraux, at the height of the Cold War, “will be religious or it will not be at all.” But can they be right? When we look round the world today, the presence of religion in any conflict seems to make it more intractable, and bitter. Our instinct is to take the principle out of conflicts and turn them into pragmatic disputes, susceptible to reasonable resolution.

That is certainly the approach the Tony Blair’s “peace process” took in Northern Ireland. Many people will feel that the answer to religious wars is less religion, not more of the “right” sort. But there are two problems with this approach. The first is that secularism is losing prestige in the places where wars are actually under way. There’s not enough of it about to quench the fires. The second is a very simple question: if secular common sense doesn’t start disputes, what makes us think it can end them? Perhaps the kinds of dispute for which people will kill, and die, will always have a religious dimension.