Early reports quote witnesses as describing the Oslo suspect who is in custody as “blond,” “Nordic-looking,” and “Norwegian.” Naturally, MSNBC is going up in a balloon over this, reporting that a “specialist in Islamic movements” is “caution[ing] that widespread assumptions that the attacks were connected to international terrorism could be wrong.” The expert, Magnus Ranstorp, concludes that the description of the suspect points “to an internal rather than an external extremist.”
Again, it is premature to draw conclusions at this stage. Still, having debated the subject of profiling for years, I am always amazed at how quickly the people who say we must not profile become committed profilers when it suits their purposes.
In point of fact, if one of what appears to be several conspirators is neither a Muslim nor from an Islamic country, that does cut against the likelihood that this is another episode of Islamic terrorism. On the other hand, there are facts and circumstances that cut in the other direction – including that a jihadist organization has already claimed responsibility; that most terrorism is carried out by Islamists; that al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have for years been seeking European and American recruits (precisely because such operatives would defy the profile, drawing less suspicion); that al Qaeda tried to attack Oslo last year; and that Mullah Krekar recently appeared to threaten attacks if legal action were taken against him, and now legal action has been taken against him.
The point is that, correctly understood, profiling is a natural, sensible thing to do, and we all do it — not just MSNBC but everyone from intelligence analysts to the father eying the guy at the door who wants to go out with his daughter.
Nobody is convicted over fitting a profile — any more than some organization’s claim of responsibility necessarily means that organization actually carried out an attack. But the fact that claims of responsibility are notoriously suspect right after a terrorist attack does not mean investigators should ignore them. And in the same way, you can’t avoid considering the profile. It is simply a way for investigators to organize their suspicions in a rational way, to beam their attention on the most likely culprits first – recognizing that you still need to show by evidence, not by mere characteristics, that the suspect is guilty. Profiling avoids constitutional problems because the Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and it is unreasonable to regard every single person as a suspect just to avoid offending the tender sensibilities of this or that group.
If it turns out that the suspect in custody is a non-Muslim with no connections to jihadist groups, it would be unreasonable to focus the investigation on Muslims and Islamic terror groups. I imagine Muslims would be the first people to make this argument (or, I suppose, the second people after MSNBC). But you can’t have it both ways. It makes no sense to contend, as the anti-profiling crowd does, that you can’t profile terrorists because some terrorists (e.g., the British Muslim Richard Reid, or Jose Padilla, an American Muslim from Puerto Rico) do not match the profile, but then to insist that a plot must necessarily be unrelated to Islamic terror because a suspect fails to match the profile. Moreover, it is self-evident that not all terrorism is committed by Muslims and that most Muslims are not terrorists. That, however, does not alter the fact that the vast majority of anti-American, anti-Western terrorism is committed by Muslims who follow an interpretation of Islam that is alarmingly mainstream. It would be ridiculous to ignore this reality when conducting terrorism investigations.