Traveling by air makes me nervous in the best of times. This recent incident has now destroyed my confidence in airport security, especially if an insider is involved. I travel abroad annually, so in light of this attempted attack, I will rethink my future travel plans. One thing is certain, if I decide to fly to the U.K. (or even domestic) again, my instincts will be running in hyperdrive as I observe my fellow travelers, which begs the question, what kind of people and behaviors should I take notice of?
After searching the internet, I found some answers in a research study titled The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? This study was written in 1999 under an interagency agreement with the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. Although somewhat dated, readers will find the researcher's comments to be prescient and relevant to today. It may surprise you to learn that we may have more to fear from women terrorists because they do a better job of hiding nervousness.
I have placed excerpts from the study below. Since airport security is not the panacea of protection we thought it was, part of the solution mentioned in this report is the need for public awareness, and a willingness to report suspicious behavior.
THE SOCIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF TERRORISM:
WHO BECOMES A TERRORIST AND WHY?
(Also available in book form)
[emphasis has been added in key places]
The emergence of amorphous and largely unknown terrorist individuals and groups operating independently (freelancers) and the new recruitment patterns of some groups, such as recruiting suicide commandos, female and child terrorists, and scientists capable of developing weapons of mass destruction, provide a measure of urgency to increasing our understanding of the psychological and sociological dynamics of terrorist groups and individuals. The approach used in this study is twofold. First, the study examines the relevant literature and assesses the current knowledge of the subject. Second, the study seeks to develop psychological and sociological profiles of foreign terrorist individuals and selected groups to use as case studies in assessing trends, motivations, likely behavior, and actions that might deter such behavior, as well as reveal vulnerabilities that would aid in combating terrorist groups and individuals.
According to Oots and Wiegele, an individual moves from being a potential terrorist to being an actual terrorist through a process that is psychological, physiological, and political. "If the neurophysiological model of aggression is realistic," Oots and Wiegele assert, "there is no basis for the argument that terrorism could be eliminated if its sociopolitical causes were eliminated." They characterize the potential terrorist as "a frustrated individual who has become aroused and has repeatedly experienced the fight or flight syndrome. Moreover, after these repeated arousals, the potential terrorist seeks relief through an aggressive act and also seeks, in part, to remove the initial cause of his frustration by achieving the political goal which he has hitherto been denied."
D. Guttman (1979) also sees terrorist actions as being aimed more at the audience than at the immediate victims. It is, after all, the audience that may have to meet the terrorist's demands. Moreover, in Guttman's analysis, the terrorist requires a liberal rather than a right-wing audience for success. Liberals make the terrorist respectable by accepting the ideology that the terrorist alleges informs his or her acts. The terrorist also requires liberal control of the media for the transmission of his or her ideology.
Existing works that attempt to explain religious fundamentalism often rely on modernization theory and point to a crisis of identity, explaining religious fundamentalism as an antidote to the dislocations resulting from rapid change, or modernization. Islamic fundamentalism in particular is often explained as a defense against threats posed by modernization to a religious group's traditional identity. Rejecting the idea of fundamentalism as pathology, rational choice theorists point to unequal socioeconomic development as the basic reason for the discontent and alienation these individuals experience. Caught between an Islamic culture that provides moral values and spiritual satisfaction and a modernizing Western culture that provides access to material improvement, many Muslims find an answer to resulting anxiety, alienation, and disorientation through an absolute dedication to an Islamic way of life. Accordingly, the Islamic fundamentalist is commonly depicted as an acutely alienated individual, with dogmatic and rigid beliefs and an inferiority complex, and as idealistic and devoted to an austere lifestyle filled with struggle and sacrifice.
In the 1990s, however, empirical studies of Islamic groups have questioned this view. V. J. Hoffman-Ladd, for example, suggests that fundamentalists are not necessarily ignorant and downtrodden, according to the stereotype, but frequently students and university graduates in the physical sciences, although often students with rural or traditionally religious backgrounds. In his view, fundamentalism is more of a revolt of young people caught between a traditional past and a secular Western education. R. Euben and Bernard Lewis argue separately that there is a cognitive collision between Western and fundamentalist worldviews. Focusing on Sunni fundamentalists, Euben argues that their goals are perceived not as self-interests but rather as moral imperatives, and that their worldviews differ in critical ways from Western worldviews.
Edgar O'Ballance (1979) suggests the following essential characteristics of the "successful" terrorist: dedication, including absolute obedience to the leader of the movement; personal bravery; a lack of feelings of pity or remorse even though victims are likely to include innocent men, women, and children; a fairly high standard of intelligence, for a terrorist must collect and analyze information, devise and implement complex plans, and evade police and security forces; a fairly high degree of sophistication, in order to be able to blend into the first-class section on airliners, stay at first-class hotels, and mix inconspicuously with the international executive set; and be a reasonably good educational background and possession of a fair share of general knowledge (a university degree is almost mandatory), including being able to speak English as well as one other major language.
Increasingly, terrorist groups are recruiting members who possess a high degree of intellectualism and idealism, are highly educated, and are well trained in a legitimate profession.
In profiling the terrorist, some generalizations can be made on the basis on this examination of the literature on the psychology and sociology of terrorism published over the past three decades. One finding is that, unfortunately for profiling purposes, there does not appear to be a single terrorist personality . This seems to be the consensus among terrorism psychologists as well as political scientists and sociologists. The personalities of terrorists may be as diverse as the personalities of people in any lawful profession. There do not appear to be any visibly detectable personality traits that would allow authorities to identify a terrorist.
Another finding is that the terrorist is not diagnosably psychopathic or mentally sick. Contrary to the stereotype that the terrorist is a psychopath or otherwise mentally disturbed, the terrorist is actually quite sane, although deluded by an ideological or religious way of viewing the world.
The highly selective terrorist recruitment process explains why most terrorist groups have only a few pathological members. Candidates who exhibit signs of psychopathy or other mental illness are deselected in the interest of group survival. Terrorist groups need members whose behavior appears to be normal and who would not arouse suspicion. A member who exhibits traits of psychopathy or any noticeable degree of mental illness would only be a liability for the group, whatever his or her skills. That individual could not be depended on to carry out the assigned mission. On the contrary, such an individual would be more likely to sabotage the group by, for example, botching an operation or revealing group secrets if captured. Nor would a psychotic member be likely to enhance group solidarity.
. . . the new generation of Islamic terrorists, be they key operatives such as the imprisoned Ramzi Yousef, or leaders such as Osama bin Laden, are well educated and motivated by their religious ideologies. The religiously motivated terrorists are more dangerous than the politically motivated terrorists because they are the ones most likely to develop and use weapons of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in pursuit of their messianic or apocalyptic visions. The level of intelligence of a terrorist group's leaders may determine the longevity of the group.
Unanticipated stress and nervousness may be a hazard of the profession, and a terrorist's nervousness could alert security personnel in instances where, for example, a hijacker is boarding an aircraft, or hostage-takers posing as visitors are infiltrating a government building. The terrorist undoubtedly has higher levels of stress than most people in lawful professions. However, most terrorists are trained to cope with nervousness. Female terrorists are known to be particularly cool under pressure. Leila Khaled and Kim Hyun Hee mention in their autobiographies how they kept their nervousness under control by reminding themselves of, and being totally convinced of, the importance of their missions.
Indeed, because of their coolness under pressure, their obsessive dedication to the cause of their group, and their need to prove themselves to their male comrades, women make formidable terrorists and have proven to be more dangerous than male terrorists. Hizballah, the LTTE, and PKK are among the groups that have used attractive young women as suicide body-bombers to great effect. Suicide body-bombers are trained to be totally at ease and confident when approaching their target, although not all suicide terrorists are able to act normally in approaching their target.
International terrorists generally appear to be predominately either leftist or Islamic. A profiling system could possibly narrow the statistical probability that an unknown individual boarding an airliner might be a terrorist if it could be accurately determined that most terrorists are of a certain race, culture, religion, or nationality. In the absence of statistical data, however, it cannot be determined here whether members of any particular race, religion, or nationality are responsible for most acts of international terrorism. Until those figures become available, smaller-scale terrorist group profiles might be more useful. For example, a case could be made that U.S. Customs personnel should give extra scrutiny to the passports of young foreigners claiming to be "students" and meeting the following general description: physically fit males in their early twenties of Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Algerian, Syrian, or Sudanese nationality, or Arabs bearing valid British passports, in that order. These characteristics generally describe the core membership of Osama bin Laden's Arab "Afghans" (see Glossary), also known as the Armed Islamic Movement (AIM), who are being trained to attack the United States with WMD.
Israel's El Al airline security is much more effective than ours. Two days after 9/11, USA Today published an article titled "Israeli-style security might have averted hijackings".
El Al’s passenger screening system, established in the early 1970s, relies on psychological profiling techniques backed up with high-technology equipment. This system has been highly effective: the last successful hijacking of an El Al jet was in 1968, when Palestinian terrorists diverted a flight from Rome to Algiers.34 Whereas the United States gives priority to screening baggage rather than people, Israel’s security model aims at ferreting out individuals with terrorist intentions. This profiling process relies on access to intelligence and careful observation of would-be passengers.
The main reason for Israel’s primary emphasis on human factors is that advances in explosives technology have made it increasingly difficult to find bombs hidden in luggage. Plastic explosives can now be disguised in almost every conceivable form, including shoe soles, toys, cell phones, and clothing. Moreover, the 11 September terrorists did not carry guns or explosive devices but used small, easily concealed weapons (box-cutters) to hijack four airliners and transform them into flying bombs. Although scissors and box-cutters are now banned from carry-on bags, determined terrorists could employ seemingly benign objects, such as the stiletto heel of a woman’s shoe or a man’s belt, to seize control of an aircraft in flight.
According to David Harel, an aviation security specialist with Shin Bet, some type of profiling system is essential because it is impractical to subject every passenger to a high level of scrutiny. Travelers on El Al are told to arrive at the airport three hours before a flight to go through preliminary screening. Passengers are categorized at the outset as to whether they are Israeli Jews, foreign-born Jews, and so forth, with Arabs and certain other foreigners most likely to be profiled. The fact that the El Al security system is owned and operated by the Israeli government facilitates the use of intelligence and law-enforcement databases to help identify the small minority of passengers who may have criminal or terrorist intent.35
In addition to searching government watch lists, interviewers ask each traveler a detailed set of questions that takes several minutes. Based on this initial screening, the great majority of El Al passengers are classified as low risk and subjected to a routine level of security. About 1%, however, are flagged as high risk because they are on a government watch list or appear nervous at the checkpoint, or because their answers or behavior arouse suspicion. These individuals are diverted into a more intensive screening that takes an average of 57 minutes per person.36 The process involves a lengthy personal interview, a complete search of all carry-on bags, and the use of sophisticated explosives detection equipment. For example, when Richard Reid (the future “shoe bomber”) decided to fly in July 2001 from Amsterdam to Israel, allegedly to check out terrorist targets, El Al security personnel selected him for profiling and subjected him to a full security check from head to toe (including an X-ray scan of his shoes) that showed he carried no bomb or weapon. Although Reid was allowed to board the plane, El Al remained suspicious and made sure he was sitting near an armed sky marshal, who was instructed to keep a close watch on him.37 American Airlines was not as careful, however, and allowed Reid to board a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. This time the al-Qaeda operative carried an explosive device, concealed in a shoe, and he attempted to detonate the explosive in mid-flight. Only timely intervention by the other passengers and crew prevented a major disaster.
Nearly ten years have passed since 9/11. How many lives are we willing to sacrifice to the gods of political correctness before we will lose our squeamishness about profiling?