What terrorist watch list?

Stop apologizing for profiling and start educating our nation

As a Palestinian American who has donned the badge, served in the U.S. Military (with a Top Secret clearance), operated within the Intelligence Community, and one who continues to travel throughout the United States and abroad to teach and preach, I suggest that we must start educating dispatch and patrol with relevant and important cultural skills and stop apologizing for necessary profiling.

It is professionally irresponsible to not second guess or question the identification of an Arab, a Muslim, or a Middle Eastern potential suspect. We must be more assertive and better at framing our argument around the necessity to further scrutinize identities without fear of being accused of “profiling.” It is not your fault that Arab or Muslim cultural names are complex and confusing — and as such, require additional cultural forensic skills.

Can you quickly verify a “John Smith” in the United States without prior intelligence? Probably not.

So what makes people think we can quickly and accurately verify a Muslim name which includes compound names and multiple honorifics? In addition, Arabic names grossly change in transliteration and fluctuate significantly in raw appearance.

How useful is a name when 20,000 people have it? Are all those same names a representation of different individuals? How useful is a DOB when it is randomly given “at birth” or later — often much later? To which calendar is that date ascribed? How important is the name on an ID card when the same Arab or Muslim with an Arab name may have his insurance, his vehicle, and his home all registered with a different spelling and combination of the same name?

Deriving actionable intelligence from our present terrorism watch list could be compared to finding the “wrong needle” in a haystack. Policy makers scramble to present pointless issues like the one Mayor Bloomberg of New York City made during an appearance before a Senate committee considering a bill introduced in June 2009 that would ban sales of weapons to people on the FBI watch list. What good is a ban on “John Smith” — how many terrorist and criminals remain capable of finding alternatives, such as purchasing illegal contraband weapons?

We seldom send Dispatch to intelligence courses even though they often conduct critical preliminary analysis for the field officer as well as make critical judgment calls whether or not to contact additional authorities for verification of potential terror suspects. After interviewing several highly experienced dispatchers (15-20 years in the profession), I asked how confident they were in the accuracy of the watch list. Surprisingly, all stated they were quite confident in receiving a timely response within 5-15 minutes of a potential high value target or suspected terrorist.

I chose to first interview experienced dispatchers because they are your number one asset in disseminating actionable intelligence out into the field. They are the conduit between Fusion Center analysts and officers in the field. They are in essence the ultimate coordinator prior to any establishment of command and control.

The accurate name of a suspect is the most important part of all evidence collected during a routine patrol stop; yet we continue to step all over the crime scene and not even know it. When you fail to properly identify the suspect your case lost all credibility. Our courts will not grant a search warrant to investigate a case with a series of legal or administrative holes, in addition to the potential political backlash of accusations of racial or religious profiling.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Ghazal, who is our Director of Middle East intelligence as well as the adjunct National Defense Intelligence College Arabic resident expert for over ten years, is known for asking “What’s in the Name?” While an accurate name is required to build any investigative case, he tells you that you can acquire and derive an enormous amount of critical intelligence to further your questioning or interrogating of a potential suspect in an investigation.

Here is an example of the “Abd” compound name in the most recent Detroit terror plotter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Abdul” portion of his name could have read Abd al, Abd el, Abdul, Abdel or Abdal. The spelling of “Farouk” gives insight into what region of the world he comes from. Street officers need to know how to extrapolate actionable intelligence from the moment they receive that ID card.

• What part of the world is he/she from?
• Who is his/her father; his/her grandfather or is he the oldest son?
• Is the suspect illiterate in his/her native tongue?
• Has the suspect’s Arabic name been translated improperly by immigration and customs, or his native agency that granted initial ID documents?

Who is going to support our field personnel who have been falsely tagged with racial profiling when they apprehend the wrong guy at no fault of the officer? I don’t expect every officer to learn how to speak, read, and write in Arabic but there is no reason we can’t learn how to more effectively break down the “Kunia” most common nicknames, or jihadi nom-de-guerre, or social and religious honorifics that would include names like Abu, Bin, Umm, Jihad, Ammar, Sayyed, Amir, Imam, Sheikh, Sultan, Caliph, Mufti, Hajj, mullah. Illiteracy among Muslim immigrants can also add to law enforcement’s challenge of transliteration. When names are misspelled by native authorities, and they are very often, this makes the formidable task of accurate data collection nearly impossible. Knowing this fact alone, is a great asset to our law enforcement professionals.

Our street officers typically lack this important tradecraft, yet they are more than willing and capable to learn. The field officer is critical for effective collection; yet they are often forgotten and overlooked. Joint Fusion Centers have their intended purpose; but will lose their capability when we fail to recognize our best sources of information, the beat officer on the street.

When questioning an immigrant who happened to be of the Muslim faith, remember to make sure they are not giving you dates and timelines from the Western (solar) calendar and not the Muslim (lunar) calendar. If this detail is missed, your collected information will not match up in the database and you could misidentify an individual for having a legitimate or verifiable alibi.

The moment an Arab or Muslim suspect realizes you can’t even make sense of their name, they will proceed to walk circles around your investigation. Developing a cultural forensic skillset will help you maximize your data base search abilities to both validate known intelligence and extrapolate unknown, yet critical, timely, and actionable intelligence.

Arabs and Muslims take great pride in their roots and reputations represented in their names. They also understand very well how complex and ambiguous their names are to American law enforcement. Policy makers must support the need for special training to provide cultural intelligence abilities and cultural forensic skills to law enforcement and stop apologizing for the conduct of legal, fact-based investigations.

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