Terrorists Proving Harder to Profile
European Officials Say Traits of Suspected Islamic Extremists Are Constantly Shifting
By Craig Whitlock
March 12, 2007

ZUTPHEN, Netherlands — On the surface, the young Dutch Moroccan mother looked like an immigrant success story: She studied business in college, hung out at the pub with her friends and was known for her fashionable taste in clothes.

So residents of this 900-year-old river town were thrown for a loop last year when Bouchra El-Hor, now 24, appeared in a British courtroom wearing handcuffs under an all-encompassing black veil. Prosecutors said she had covered up plans for a terrorist attack and wrote a letter offering to sacrifice herself and her infant son as martyrs.

“We were flabbergasted to learn that she had become a fanatic,” said Renee Haantjes, a college instructor who recalled her as “a normal Dutch girl.”

People in Zutphen may have been surprised, but terrorism suspects from atypical backgrounds are becoming increasingly common in Western Europe. With new plots surfacing every month, police across Europe are arresting significant numbers of women, teenagers, white-skinned suspects and people baptized as Christians — groups that in the past were considered among the least likely to embrace Islamic radicalism.

The demographics of those being arrested are so diverse that many European counterterrorism officials and analysts say they have given up trying to predict what sorts of people are most likely to become terrorists. Age, sex, ethnicity, education and economic status have become more and more irrelevant.

“It’s very difficult to make a profile of terrorists,” Tjibbe Joustra, the Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism, said in an interview. “To have a profile that you can recognize, so that you can predict, ‘This guy is going to be radical, perhaps he will cross the line into terrorism’ — that, I think, is impossible.”

European authorities said the trait patterns of those arrested on terrorism charges are constantly shifting. In the Netherlands, officials said they are seeing an increase in the number of young teenagers and people of Turkish descent, two groups that used to be low on their radar. Among the key players in the Hofstad group, a cell of Islamic radicals that targeted Dutch politicians and cultural figures, was Jason Walters, the teenage son of a U.S. soldier.

In neighboring Belgium, people are still perplexed over what drove Muriel Degauque, 38, a blond, white Catholic, to convert to Islam and travel to Iraq to blow herself up in November 2005. Nizar Trabelsi, convicted two years earlier of plotting to bomb a NATO base in Belgium, had been a European soccer star before going to Afghanistan to attend al-Qaeda training camps.

In Britain, three of the suspects arrested in last summer’s alleged transatlantic airline hijacking plot were religious converts who grew up in north London’s affluent suburbs. One was the well-to-do English son of a Conservative Party activist; he worked in a bar and loved the movie “Team America.”

A recently completed Dutch study of 242 Islamic radicals convicted or accused of planning terrorist attacks in Europe from 2001 to 2006 found that most were men of Arab descent who had been born and raised in Europe and came from lower or middle-class backgrounds. They ranged in age from 16 to 59 at the time of their arrests; the average was 27. About one in four had a criminal record.

The author of the study, Edwin Bakker, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, tried to examine almost 20 variables concerning the suspects’ social and economic backgrounds. In general, he determined that no reliable profile existed — their traits were merely an accurate reflection of the overall Muslim immigrant population in Europe. “There is no standard jihadi terrorist in Europe,” the study concluded.

In an interview, Bakker said that many local police agencies have been slow to abandon profiling, but that most European intelligence agencies have concluded it is an unreliable tool for spotting potential terrorists. “How can you single them out? You can’t,” he said. “For the secret services, it doesn’t give them a clue. We should focus more on suspicious behavior and not profiling.”

Bakker and other analysts said more attention should be devoted to understanding the personal experiences that motivate people to become radicals. For example, Dutch researchers said they suspect one reason why more young women are becoming involved in radical networks in the Netherlands is that they come under the influence of “Moroccan lover boys.” Authorities use the phrase to describe charismatic Romeos who manipulate emotionally needy women into committing criminal acts. “These are really down-to-earth things that we should not underestimate,” Bakker said.

Indeed, there are clear signs that al-Qaeda cells and affiliates are intentionally recruiting supporters from nontraditional backgrounds as a way to avoid detection, according to European intelligence officials and analysts.

In London, eight male al-Qaeda suspects are currently on trial for an alleged plot to blow up unspecified targets in Britain with bombs made of ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizers. According to testimony at the trial, which began in March 2006, the defendants persuaded a Canadian woman, whom they had met on the Internet, to wire money on their behalf because she was less likely to attract suspicion.

Zenab Armend Pisheh, a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said a member of the cell asked her to wire more than $5,000 so the defendants could go to Pakistan in 2003 to attend an al-Qaeda training camp. “He said it had to be a woman because sisters don’t get caught — brothers get caught if they send money,” Pisheh said in a statement to British investigators.

According to trial testimony last fall, Pisheh met one of the defendants, Anthony Garcia, of east London, in an Internet chat room and quickly fell in love; they became engaged without ever meeting face to face. He introduced her to other accused conspirators, including the man who asked her to wire the cash.

Garcia is of Algerian descent, but testified in September that he legally changed his name from Rahman Adam to further his ambitions as a fashion model and because the Latin-sounding name “had a better ring to it.” British investigators, however, believe he was trying to conceal his Muslim and Arab background from police.

John Horgan, a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said terrorist groups are constantly trying to catch law enforcement officials off guard.

“One guiding principle for terrorist groups is to always maintain the psychological edge and the upper hand by doing things that are surprising to the enemy,” he said. “So you’ll see the use of a child, the use of a woman.”

Among those arrested last August in London in the alleged transatlantic hijacking plot, for example, was Cossor Ali, a 24-year-old mother married to another suspect in the case. British investigators suspect that she or her husband planned to smuggle liquid explosives onto a flight in their infant daughter’s bottle.

In the Dutch study of terrorism suspects in Europe, only five of the 242 suspects examined were women. But Dutch counterterrorism officials said they have seen a significant rise in the number of female suspects in the past two years.

“It seems that it will be simply a matter of time before these women also become actively involved in violence,” the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, known as AIVD, reported a year ago in a unclassified analysis of terrorism trends in the country.

In May 2006, two months after the intelligence analysis was released, British police stopped Hor, the young Dutch Moroccan mother from Zutphen, and her husband at Luton airport outside London. Although it is unclear what prompted the stop, investigators said they found suspicious files on the husband’s laptop computer, including instructions for building a homemade rocket launcher and explosives.

In a search of the couple’s home, police said, they found radical literature, including a document titled “A Training Schedule for Committing Jihad.” They also discovered a letter written by Hor in which she offered herself and their 6-month-old son as martyrs for an unspecified cause.

Hor was later arrested and charged with failing to disclose information to prevent a terrorist attack. Her husband, Yassin Nassari, 27, was charged with possessing documents for terrorism. They are scheduled to go on trial May 23 in London.

Both had been living in Britain, but they frequently traveled back and forth to the Netherlands, authorities said. Dutch police assisted in the investigation, conducting a search of Nassari’s parents’ home in Eindhoven. Prosecutors have disclosed few other details.

Bart Nooitgedagt, a lawyer in Amsterdam who represents Hor, declined to answer questions about the case but said his client was innocent. “I’m pretty convinced she will be cleared of all the accusations that are being made,” he said. “I cannot believe, and will not believe, that this will lead to a conviction.”

In Zutphen, a town of 46,000 people alongside the Ijssel River, former neighbors and friends said they are still struggling to understand how Hor transformed so quickly from a fashion-conscious college student with a secular outlook on life into a burqa-wearing fundamentalist. “She was a modern young girl,” Allal Kaddouri, a friend and owner of a pizzeria in the center of town, told the Apeldoornse Courant newspaper.

Zutphen has had a sizable immigrant population since the early 1970s, when Turks and North Africans began arriving to fill low-wage jobs in the booming Dutch economy. About one-sixth of the town is of Turkish or Arab descent.

Adriaan van Oosten, an alderman responsible for immigration issues, said there have been no overt signs of Islamic radicalism. He said civic and religious leaders met after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States to ensure that there were no problems festering under the surface. “We certainly haven’t had any tensions,” he said.

People who knew Hor speculated that she changed after she married her husband, whom she apparently met in London while on a study-abroad program. Jeroen Ongering, a professor at a nearby community college who taught Hor, said she was a good student but abruptly dropped out in the summer of 2003 without explanation.

“For us, we had no signal at all that there was anything wrong or amiss,” Ongering said in an interview. “She was a Moroccan girl, but she was very Westernized. She knew she was a very beautiful woman. It’s hard for us to understand.”

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