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Profile of the potential terrorist

Monday, 28 August 2017 20:37
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by Emanuela C. Del Re (EPOS)
EPOS Insights


Type of terrorism

On the 2nd June, 2007, there appeared in all the world newspapers, the arrest,  in the United States, of a group who had plotted a terrorist attack to blow up the fuel deposits at the J. F. Kennedy airport of New York.  The leader of the group, Russell Defreitas, American citizen, originally from Guyana, former worker of the airport; according to phoning tapping, which started in 2006, he stated that he wanted to hit one of America’s most inviolable symbols, President Kennedy, by destroying the airport which bears his name.

He also cherished a dream to carve out a place for himself in the Al Qaeda universe.

Defined by the FBI as amateurs, the members of the Antilles-Americangroupwerenotfound in possession of either arms or explosives, but were, perhaps, trying to procure them. The attack, therefore, would have been thwarted on the basis of the calculation of probabilities, on the perception of the terrorist potential of the group, in its turn, based on observation, on the analysis of the preceding and on the profile of the individuals in question.

Is there a “kind of terrorism”, an inclination or tendency towards terrorism, where a person, because of individual characteristics, aspects of the social environment in which they live, particular events during the course of their lives could be transformed, inexorably, into a terrorist?

The proliferation of hypotheses in this sense is surprising. “Interpretative ways”  exist,  for which certain scholars launch into the definition of  the  “perfect  terrorist”  who,  at the moment, would be, generically, and following certain arrests made after terrorist attacks, like the one in London, in 2005, a person of medium to high cultural standing, socially integrated etc. etc.

Naturally, in the enormous panorama of terrorism, where one wishes to create an articulated typology, this definition  would  fit perfectly into only one category. In fact, the terrorism machine requires a variety of roles, connected to different activities and know-how. Further, there are  distinctions of nationality, ethnic group, sex, age group,  to which correspond roles, approaches, potential, impact, above all, in the successful fulfilment of  the terrorist act.

From the manpower to the inventor of the project, in short, the panorama of “terrorists” certainly appears many-faceted.

The emergence of colourless individuals  and, for the most part, unknown, or terrorist groups which operate independently, the so- called free-lancers, as well as new strategies of recruitment by some groups, such as the recruitment of suicide commandos, women and child terrorists and scientists who are able to invent arms of mass destruction, make us sure that the study on the sociological and psychological dynamics of the groups and individual terrorists is crucial.

A viper in the breast

The “potential terrorist”, according  to the strategic approach of the European Union, would be identifiable through the use of certain specific data which, inserted in a database and cross-referenced, would  lead to the definition of the degree of potential recruitment in the lines of terrorism, or of potential adherence to it in its various forms.

Since 2002, the Council of the European Union has been clear in this sense, and in    its Recommendations affirms that: “To elaborate a typology of terrorist profiles signifies putting together a series of physical, psychological or behavioural variables, which have been identified as typical of the people involved in terrorist activities and which have a predictability value in such sense” (1).

What are the variables? Nationality, travelling documents, methods and means used for travelling, age, sex, race, particular physical characteristics (e.g. war injuries), level of education, strategies of cover, techniques used to avoid being discovered or to react to an interrogation, places of stay, communication methods, psycho-social characteristics of place of birth, family situations, ability in the use of advanced technology, knowledge in the use of non-conventional arms, attendance at paramilitary technique courses, flying etc.

The identification method would consist in consulting the national  databases,  hoping  to identify equivalent elements with the aim of being able, subsequently, to single out terrorists.

This is part of a complex anti-terrorism strategy of the European Union, which foresees actions  at  various  levels,  based  on the idea of cooperation between the member States with regard to the Law and internal affairs, defined in 2004, in the Hague Programme Freedom, Justice and Security, which was followed, in 2005, by a quinquennial plan of action. The European plan responds to the wave of  legislative adjustments which have assailed all the member States of the EU since 2001, including Italy which had made certain modifications to the regulations, also from the point of view of the definition of the concept of  terrorism itself (2).

The measures provided for in the plan of action centres on the control and monitoring of people’s movements. This question has been so controversial that the Union has resisted the insistence of  the USA because  it permits the indiscriminate access to passengers’ personal data, with the scope of studying their movements.

The policy of the European Union although not diverging very much from that of the USA, in the case of the access to passengers’ personal data (Passenger Name Records – PNR), finds itself against the national policies with respect to privacy. To reply to the request of the USA and also respect the legislative approach to privacy, the EU has suggested that a central database be created to which all the data is sent, which will, subsequently, be made accessible – for example, to the    USA – only at a later date.

The impact of the policies of control is enormous. For example, the registration of foreigners through the Visa Information System (VIS) makes the filing, for five years, of biometric data possible, future  reasons for the refusal of visas and more besides, able to be cross-referenced with other data according to the criteria dictated by the needs of a particular enquiry.

Already in 1995, the SIS (Schengen Information System) had been created to counter-balance the lowering of the frontiers between France, Germany, Luxemburg and Holland, permitting State members to obtain information concerning certain categories of people and property: the member States, in their turn, adding to the database information on wanted individuals etc- In 2003, the system had already collected files on 877,655 people, plus 386,403 aliases (3).

The EU is still doing more modernization and is technical equipping the data bank of Police SIS  of   Schengen,  foreseeing  the adoption of the SIS II, which should introduce adjustments which permit the filing, transferring and requesting of biometric data like photographs and fingerprints.

For technical reasons, the operative introduction of the SIS II has been postponed to the end of 2008, but to allow the new member States of the EU to be rapidly included in the cooperation in matters of Schengen security, the EU has decided to resort to a transitory solution, the SIS ‘one for all’, which will become already operative by the end of 2007.

As has been previously mentioned, these measures have often revealed to be in contrast with the policy for the protection of privacy in the member Countries. In addition, they have raised some preoccupation also in public opinion. Even though the scope is that of increasing the possibilities of guarantee of the security, the degree of interference with the private life of a person is difficult to control, also when it concerns potential terrorists, affirms the CFR-CDF (the EU Independent Network of  Experts in Fundamental Rights).

They also add that the elaboration of terrorist profiles on the basis of the characteristics above mentioned increases the risk of discrimination, and could be accepted only when it is accurately demonstrated, with statistically reliable data, that there exists a relation between the identified characteristics and the risk of terrorism.

Certain episodes like the arrest of six men  at Atlanta and one at Miami,  on the 22nd  of June, 2006, on the charge of plotting to destroy the Sear Tower in Chicago, gives food for thought (4).

Possessing very few arms, but having great ideological fervour, the seven men were defined by the American Government as “aspiring terrorists”, having sworn allegiance to the Al Qaeda, even though they had never entered into contact with them.

It seems that the arrests of  the “potential terrorists”, all American citizens, but of Haitian origin, derives from the fact that they had confided to an infiltrated agent that they were planning a more spectacular attack than the one of  September 11th. However, in consideration of the means in their possession, it seems that the plan would have been extremely difficulty to realize. The arrests have raised doubts as to their being opportune.

Besides, the  religious  and  ideological beliefs are inspired by diverse doctrines: from Marxism-Leninism to Christianity to Hebraism, certainly not only by Islam.What disturbs public opinion and puts the forces of law and order in difficulty is the great variety of provenance of potential terrorists: the variety in the work they do, in the age groups and in the level of education. There are common denominators, but they are evaluated more on the basis of religious or ideological fervour, than on recurrent variables.

Among the arrested in the United States, in 2006, all for involvement in terrorist activities, there are several students, office workers, but also ice-cream sellers. In general, they are people who are not perceived as dangerous by the community in which they live. The most frightening thing in this regard for the American society is that they develop their terrorist tendency in their very own homes – home-grown terrorists, which reveals that the political, economic, educational system, of the United States’ socialization can produce good American citizens, but also “monsters”.

How can one understand what  elements  lead to the failure of the social project for some individuals? Furthermore, it is not only the United States, underlines the Wall Street Journal, analysing the arrests in Great Britain of a group who were plotting to bring down some planes over the Atlantic Ocean: a group of home grown terrorists that the British society had brought up from babyhood: among whom were women and young men from the middle class with university degrees. Also here, it is very difficult to generalize.

The point of convergence is constituted by the terrorist act, not so much by the terrorist profile.  Women  suicide  terrorists acted in Iraq and Cecenia. Women of different nationalities: one from Belgium who killed herself in the name of the Jihad (5).

Which terrorism?

In the meanwhile, preventive measures are put into function, which lead to arrests and charges that in Europe, and for some years also in Italy, are perceived, by some, as controversial. This is the case of Carlo Corrucci, lawyer, (6), who has already published several papers on the theme, referring, where possible, to the trial acts in his possession as lawyer for the defence of those accused of terrorism. He maintains that not always, in the legal system, can be found the necessary instruments to establish what are the counts of indictment which are actually applicable in complex cases in which terrorist elements are recognized:  in other words, whether it is terrorism, or not. He also maintains that there have been numerous judicial errors in this field.

The first to be condemned for international terrorism, on the basis of Article 270 bis- regulations relative to terrorism which considers the association with an end to terrorism, as a crime (Art. 270 bis Criminal Code) were four North Africans, among whom the so-called travelling ex-Imam, Mohamed Rafik and Kamel Hamroui.

The elements gathered for the charge were based on the testimony of a state witness, Chokri Zouaoui, in prison for drug related crimes, who stated that the two condemned men,  together   with   others,   constituted  a terrorist cell unit, which had projected attacks on the Cathedral of Cremona and  on the underground of Milan, in 2002. Furthermore, during the house search were said to be found handbills bearing praises to the Jihad, a document signed by Osama Bin Laden, as well as, money deposits assigned to a training camp in Iraqi Kurdistan (7).

This happened in July of 2005. However, at the beginning of this same year, five people accused of terrorism were  acquitted:  the  last in a long line of accused who were then released. Already in January, 2004, the daily newspaper “La Repubblica” had published and enquiry, entitled “False evidence and manipulations; Investigations on Al Qaeda boomerang” (8) and, following the releases, “Il Manifesto” (9), “Liberazione” and other daily newspapers published, at different times, reflections on whether, or not, such arrests for “terrorism” were opportune.

The terrorist profile

The question of how to identify terrorists before they act is very complex. Not only is it difficult to generalize on the level of variables tied to the person, such as race, sex, age group and geographic provenance, but to this is added also the aggregating dimension, tied to the group. Groups change continually, including the leaders and the members.

This “temporal” dimension of terrorism makes a continual updating of the database necessary, which often renders the old data obsolete. In the cases in which the terrorist groups act in specific territory, the spatial interpretation of such territory could change subsequent to the events, and, therefore, also the location becomes difficult.

New groups take the place of, or join the old groups, some of which seem to disappear becoming inactive. These, however, could suddenly return again, without warning. The fact also has to be considered that the participation in itself in the terrorist act doesn’t always see shining examples of champions of a cause, which would lead to the extrapolation of salient features of the terrorist’s profile, starting from that specific subject. Many move and act in the shadows, and constitute the “manpower” essential to the realization of the terrorist act.

The reasons which lead apparently harmless individuals to adhere to the terrorist project can be tied to many factors, among which, the economic convenience – terrorism responds to a question – a social aspiration – terrorism offers the possibility of a social ransom – a psychological  condition - terrorism resolves the sense of humiliation (10).

Terrorist groups and members of the group are not easy to classify. In these groups are found individuals which present background, social context, nationality, personality, and also different objectives between them. Many maintain that the elaboration of  profiles is  a hazard, and it is even more hazardous to create rigid schemes in which to try to adapt every single case.

The theory which holds that terrorists are characterized by “anomalous” personalities, that   is,   affected   by   psycho-pathologies is misleading, because at the base of the terrorist act, there is rationality, a demand  for coherence, which would be endangered by a disturbed personality. The psychiatric labelling would lead even more to confuse the need of precision which the definition  of the profile requires. Besides, the recruiting process of the terrorists is so selective as to guarantee that there are no individuals with pathological attitudes in the groups, because they would be turned out for the obvious reason that they would jeopardize the survival of the group.

The selected terrorist must be a person whose behaviour is absolutely normal and does not raise suspicion. Nevertheless, it is possible, on the analyses of terrorist biographies, to affirm that there exist personalities which are more inclined to adhere to terrorism. It is also possible that a psychopathic individual becomes the leader of a group.  A  leader like Abu Nidal (leader dell’ANO), Velupillai Prabhakaran (LTTE), Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo) have been described as affected with psychopathic or socio-pathological disturbances.

The question becomes difficult for the definition of  the terrorist profile, when it is discovered that, in general, the terrorist group recruits members whose physical aspect is the most normal as possible. Usually,  they are young because terrorism is an intense activity, especially when it requires a military- type training. In the case of the woman, they are recruited to undertake attacks in certain situations in which they attract less attention and they are better able than men to control themselves under particular conditions of stress. The levels of education are exceedingly varied.

The leaders are often older, which means they can be from 30 years upwards. Their educational level is, generally, higher and this variable seems to affect the longevity, or not, of the group. The political analysis on the part of these leaders is often lucid, by reason of the strong ideological influences they have received. The newness in the characterization of the personality of the leader is not in the degree of culture, at all, but in the change in motivations, which from political they have become religious. The religious motivations are seen to be, in these recent years, more dangerous, insofar as they involve the use of arms of mass destruction to reach Messianic and apocalyptic objectives.

If the terrorists cannot be identified through the personality and physical aspect,  are  there other indicators which could lead to preventive identification? Some analysts reply that information on the selected individuals must be collected (but how is the selection made?), from which a file with descriptions, photographs etc., can be created, like threats on the part of the terrorist groups.

The thing is dubious, because the file can turn out to be ineffective, as in the case of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who, notwithstanding, presented peculiar characteristics and  was on a list of people under observation, he passed through the United States’ Customs undisturbed. In fact, the idea that the terrorist in action can betray himself due to the stress to which he is submitted is confuted by the fact that, normally, the terrorists – particularly, the women, are able to cope with the pressure.

As indicators, those derived from the analyses of the cases already emerged, remain: age group, level of education, the ethnic group to which the subject belongs, nationality, etc.

The discussion goes back to what has been said at the beginning, and the proposed solutions by experts in Europe, as in the United States, converge and demonstrate  the weakness of the strongest means at our disposal in the face of a panorama, so vast and multi-faceted.

If a young foreigner presents  himself  at  the frontier, claims to be a student, has a healthy appearance, is around 20 years old, of Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemenite, Iraqi, Algerian, Syrian or Sudanese nationality, or perhaps Arabic with a British passport, in this exact order, then, Hudson sustains (11), further checks must be made, because these characteristics, in general, converge with those of the member-type of the Arabs, so- called “Afghani” of  Osama Bin Laden.

Security and prevention

That the EU commits itself to find absolutely essential technological solutions, in the strategy of conflict, is important. However, it is difficult to believe that if an infinity of information is gathered on any individual, without the elaboration of an interpretive grid, to adopt already at the moment of  collection of  the data, this data can contribute to prevention. For example, the registration of people’s movements is extremely important in the phase of re-construction  after  the  event, or when there is a signalling. It is not useful in prevention, considering that millions of people move every day.

The tragic 11th September experience tells us that the terrorist appears extremely normal. The collection of information, therefore, must start from a thorough study of the terrorist reality.Numerous reflections and analyses exist on the subject, some also based on direct contact with terrorists and on the collection of their life stories: with socio-economic, psychiatric, political-ideological and other interpretations. Nevertheless, the systemization is completely lacking. The juridical approaches to the problem, different in the EU and in the United States, for example, do not allow a true cooperation in this field.

What is more, the perception that restrictive measures must be adopted to fight the situation, still  exists.  On  the  contrary,  it  is  necessary  to   increase   the   possibility  of potential terrorists to enter “normal” aggregations, leaving the groups, schools, associations to proliferate, allowing major circulation, on the other hand, intensifying the checking. Certainly, this requires major commitment, above all, of force in the field, but permits the reaching of more satisfactory results, because recruitment starts from the innocuous religious association, not from the declared extremist group.

A systematic reflection on the  profile  of  the terrorist is lacking. Analysts and experts must finally dedicate themselves at a national, European and international level. One must not search for the terrorist through his profile, first; paradoxically, one must look him straight in the face.



1.     Council of the European: Draft Council Recommendation on the Development of Terrorist Profiles, Brussels, 14th Oct. 2002, 11858/1/2. Rev. 1 LIMITE ENFOPOL, 117.

2.   This subject has already been treated by a contribution to this same Review, No. 2. 2006, pgs. 45-60, entitled “Terrorism and Religions”.

3.   Ref: B. Hayes, “Statewatch Analysis: from the Schengen Information System to SIS II and the Visa Information System: The proposal explained”. 2004.

4.    Ref: P. Jonsson, “New Profile of the  home- grown terrorist emerges”, in the Christian Science Monitor, 26th June, 2006, www.csmonitor. com/2006/06/0626/p01/s01-ussc.html (visited in August, 2017).

5.   The woman, Muriel Degauque, 38 years old, from a small workers’ town in South Belgium,  seems  to  have  been  converted to Islam, following her first marriage to    an Algerian, becoming a radical activist after her second marriage to a Moroccan. On the 9th November 2005, she drove a vehicle full of explosives against an American convoy in Iraq, but the attack was a failure insomuch as only the woman was killed. Ref: Y. Lempkowicz, Belgium woman carried out suicide attack, in: http:// (visited in August 2017).

6. C.. Corbucci, “Islamic terrorism in Italy: “Reality and Sham”. Rome, Agorà Editorial Group, 2003.

7.  Ref: “Terrorism, the first convictions at Brescia”, in:, 13th July, 2005, “Terrorism, two Moslems convicted” The pm: “They will hit  as in Madrid”, in: 13th July, 2005.

8.  C. Bovini, G. D’Avanzo, “False evidence and manipulations: Investigation on Al Qaeda boomerang”, in the Repubblica, 26th January, 2004.

9. L. Fazio. “The Courts acquit another five Moslems accused of terrorism”, in Il Manifeseto, 10th March, 2005. A. Paloscia. “Investigations and Trials without ever concrete evidence”, in Liberazione, 26th January, 2005.

10.   “Humiliation”, it is  a  recurring  concept in the world of terrorism – opposed to pride and means your pride is hurt as Moslems or  as members of a particular section of society and, in fact, recurs also in the anti-abortion homicides. Al Zawahiri, in her presumed autobiography, defines the “new world order” a humiliation for the Moslems so, therefore, it is better for the young Moslems to bear arms and defend their religion with pride and dignity than be submitted to this humiliation”. Ref: J. Stern. The Protean Enemy, in: Foreign Affairs, July, 2003, pgs.35-43.

11.   R. Hudson, The sociology and psychology of terrorism: who becomes a terrorist and why, The Library of Congress, Washington, 1999,  pg. 65.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 August 2017 21:04

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