Sunday, September 03, 2006

Turning the Ethnic Profiling Lemon into Lemonade...

As I was saying...

...thanks to the involuntary sacrifice of a Brazilian electrician, we’re all just a little bit safer from the threat of arbitrary execution by the forces of “Laura Norder” in the UK than we might otherwise have been. The police have been somewhat more restrained and circumspect than they would have been if the Stockwell execution had been a “good call”. They are still inclined to occasional hyperbole (given the deaths we’ve witnessed in the past century, speaking of "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" betrays a very limited memory and severely constrained imagination), but they have also been pointedly reserved about their claims and scrupulously concerned with proper forensic and legal procedures.

All of which is a good thing.

Better still, after a year of such public debacles, albeit on a lesser scale, the vast majority of those prepared to comment have now clearly indicated that they no longer trust the information we’re being fed. I believe that, too, has its merits. The more people who understand how incompetent our constitutional rulers really are (and have nearly always been), the better and safer we will all be. Eventually.

There is, however, in the short term, the minor matter that, in this particular instance, it looks likely that the authorities’ cry of “Wolf” has actually been in response to a small but potentially lethal pack of them. We should be content to let nature take its course and see what the court cases reveal, but, in line with the formal prediction in my previous blog, I’m not going to be surprised if convincing evidence emerges which endorses most of the claims made by the authorities to date. I expect to have my views confirmed that this was indeed a real attempt at an attack and the authorities have done a damn good job interdicting it.

The problem that this produces is that it undermines the turning of the worm I welcomed in my previous. If even respectable sceptics are proved conclusively wrong, it will leave them in the position of crying wolf which, in turn, will lead to them being lumped in with the rabid Conspiracy Theorists who howl “Wolf” from the rooftops about once every 3 minutes. This will weaken the opposition we will need to mount to their inevitable push for increased State powers and further impositions on our Liberty and Privacy.

For what it’s worth, therefore, I urge - at least - extreme caution in those who want to convert the current plot, prematurely, to yet another “intelligence failure”.

I have to admit that such restraint is going to be difficult; especially when you can read extremely interesting analyses like this one from Nafeez Ahmed writing for RINF.

His first charge is that the alleged plot is going to be used to support another attack on the 90 days. This Guardian story, appearing within 4 days of the plot revelations, would seem to support that charge (and my own "formal prediction" if the approach is sustained)

His second charge is that, despite an apparent level of urgency such that the airports could not be given any warning, not to mention the reports, on the day, that the attack was imminent, it became clear after a few days, that it was anything but imminent. This is supported by a number of American sources, such as this MSNBC story and this one which "Frontieruk" mentioned in his comment on "Faith Hate and Charity".

If those stories are true then he is right to point out:

“If British security officials knew that an attack was not imminent, the decision to raise the alert level to critical, indicating an imminent threat, was unjustified by the available intelligence — this was, in other words, a political decision.”

We also learn that a key source of intelligence, the alleged mastermind behind the plot, a British born muslim called Rashid Rauf, provided the alleged evidence under Pakistani police torture. We've been here before. Remember the Ricin Plot where the key evidence was extracted under torture by the Algerian police? It took two years to expose the lies involved in that case and Colin Powell even referred to it as part of his presentation to the UN justifying the forthcoming invasion of Iraq.

One key feature of that case should ring alarm bells. Because the source clearly had no idea about how Ricin could be "weaponised", under torture he just invented details to mollify his torturers. This was exposed in court, when the defence experts ridiculed suggestions that smearing ricin on car door handles and the like would make it a serious terrorist weapon.

My own first reaction on hearing that the current case involved so called "binary liquid" explosives was puzzled scepticism. I don't claim to be an expert on such matters though I have more than a passing familiarity. I was obsessed with making things go bang from about the age of 12 till my mid 20s. One of my former lives was as an assistant research analyst in a Chemical Test Laboratory. In addition, I was allowed to build miniature rockets in school (imagine that being allowed today!), with a respectable range (18 miles) and built many small bombs and "improvised explosive devices" in my youth, with a variety of explosives, just for the sheer fun of it. I have, for example, nearly blown my own head off with one of those combinations which could come under the category of binary liquid explosives. If you mix liquid iodine with liquid ammonia, the resulting brown sludge is the delightfully unstable nitrogen tri-iodide - which begins to "pop" as soon as it begins to dry out. A fly landing on it is enough to detonate it and a couple of ounces of the stuff could certainly blow a hole in the skin of a passenger plane.

However, to get any reasonable "yield", you need concentrated ammonia and, preferably crystalline iodine rather than liquid. Working with concentrated ammonia outside a fume cupboard is lethal, not to mention extremely easy to detect, so it's not a realistic contender for aircraft sabotage. I couldn't think of any other binary liquid mix which would be easier to work with and more easily camouflaged. But my ignorance doesn't constitute evidence. Fortunately more expert practitioners have considered the problem and their comments suggest that the "sports drink" reports are on a credibility par with the "smearing ricin on car door handles" plot also extracted under torture. In other words, it looks like, once again, a torture victim has given the torturers whatever story is necessary to persuade them to stop torturing him. (Imagine our surprise)

We've already let the bastards - who condone if not actively encourage these illegal and immoral interrogation techniques - take us into a war based on similar false confessions and invented or inflated evidence like this. The signs are that the public is slowly "wiseing up" and won't be so easily misled next time round. We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, because there is another lesson from the ricin case. And this is why I disagree with Nafeez Ahmed. Although the ricin case torture evidence was useless and misleading, there is no doubt that the plotters were plotting with lethal intent. It was merely our good fortune that they were incompetent bumbling amateurs.

Similarly even if the binary liquid plot is as incredible as it appears, I suspect we will learn that the same applies to this gang. They really were plotting to bring down several loaded passenger planes even if they were deluded about their ability to deliver.

None of which should work in their favour. The mere fact that they probably wouldn't have succeeded shouldn't reduce their eventual custody by a single minute. Guy Fawkes' plot was similarly flawed (his gunpowder was damp and "decayed". It probably wouldn't have exploded, or exploded with reduced force) but that didn't result in a more lenient sentence either.

What it does do, however, is cast severe doubt on the legitimacy of the continuing ban on liquids in aircraft cabins. If no credible explosives could be created this way, then why continue with the ban?

Even Ahmed's fourth charge - that this may be a "P20G" "counter-terror" plot orchestrated by the CIA and its allies in order to "flush out" potential terrorists by provoking them into situations like this where they could be entrapped - doesn't let the conspirators off the hook. What it does do, however, is raise the obvious question - how many of these alleged plots which our Intelligence services claim to be intercepting on our behalf are the real deal and how many are cooked up by the Pentagon and its poodles?

That last is the real value of Ahmed's contribution. What he cogently illustrates is that we have no earthly reason to believe a damn thing we're being told by those we pay to protect us. And that is a very dangerous situation to be in. We'll come back to that later.

I asked the question, in my previous post: “What if the police had killed a real bomber last July?”. If we consider that as one end of the conjectural spectrum (try saying that when you’re drunk or stoned!) then Niall Fergusson, writing for the Daily Telegraph has addressed the question at the other end. What if the bombs had exploded and the plot had succeeded? Check out his nightmare vision of the consequences for Britain had this attack – or another with similar ambitions – succeeded.

He envisages civil war with UK's Muslim population on one side and the rest of us on the other. Frankly I think it would be more accurate to talk of ethnic cleansing than civil war because it would hardly be the kind of reasonably balanced struggle that is inherent in the notion of “civil war”. I think the pogroms of the middle ages are more appropriate precedents but that’s hardly cause for comfort.

He is, though, a trifle hyperbolic himself. In support of his argument, he points out, for example, that 81% of British Muslims feel that their Islamic identity takes precedence over their British Identity and he describes how the percentage of non Muslim UK subjects who feel "threatened by Islam" has risen from 32% pre 9-11 to 53% now.

Both of these points are presented as evidence to support not just the perception of threat, but its reality. However, if I was a practising Christian or Jew, I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t give precisely the same answer. I would expect any sincere Christian – for example Tony Blair – to put God and his religious convictions well ahead of human considerations like nationality. And on behalf of atheists the world over I’m sure the vast majority of us would consider our membership of the human species vastly more significant than our arbitrary citizenship.

As to the increase in threat perception, first, I’m astonished that 47% still don’t feel "threatened by Islam"! It is not, of course, the bunch of antiquated religious ideas which constitute Islamic ideology that frightens us. They’re no more frightening than most of the other religious nonsense. Nor is it most of the people who widely share a belief in Islam that we’re afraid of.

The problem is that the large pool of peaceful believers are hiding – mostly unwittingly – the few believers who are a very real threat to both us and that pool of peaceful believers.

During the IRA "troubles", close to 100% of the threat came from male Irish visitors or residents in the age range 17-50 (I seem to remember one or two stories of local non Irish sympathisers - although none actually committed acts of violence - but can't find any statistical sources. I also seem to remember one or two bombs were alleged to have been planted by women rather than men). Given that the British population at that time included about 3% of ethnic Irish origin, that about a quarter were in that age range and roughly half of those were male, then, statistically, any randomly chosen Irish 17-50 year old male was about 240 times more likely to represent a threat than non Irish or female citizens.

Doing the same calculations in the context of the threat from MIFT, it is obvious that the potential threat from a randomly selected "non white" male is similarly elevated.

How many white suicide bombers have their ever been in England? Zero. How many non white? 8, 4 of whom succeeded.

Extrapolating data from the 2001 Census UK's 15+ population is a little over 50 million, of whom non-whites form 7.9% or roughly 4 million. The attacks have been launched, to date, exclusively by males in the age range 18-35. There are roughly half a million non white males in this range. Thus, without doing any further analysis, it is obvious that if you are sat next to an 18-35 year old non-white male, the probability of that person being a potential suicide bomber is immediately 100 times greater than if they are not in that group.

Press reports tell us that the Intelligence services are warning that:

Britain faces a full- blown Islamist insurgency, sustained by thousands of young Muslim men with military training now resident in this country.

with at least 10,000 prepared to support those who are prepared to be suicide bombers; and MI5 have been telling us since March 2005 that there are now approximately 200 muslims prepared or preparing to take part in those kind of attacks. In fact, BBC Newsnight, in its coverage - 14 Aug 2006 - of the Ethnic Profiling issue, quotes MI5 (mp3) as being:

involved in the active surveillance of between1,200 and 1,600 suspected terrorists

but I suspect that includes "support staff", so I'll stick with the estimate of 200 actual potential bombers.

Let us take a leap of faith and assume that, on this occasion, despite the public intelligence failures of the last few years, these estimates are reasonably close to the truth. Then from what we know about those arrested or dead so far, it seems that about 50% of the perpetrators are of Pakistani origin, most of the rest are of North African extraction and a a handful are converts (including at least one white) In the August 10th arrests, we also know that 2 women were included. Let's apply these proportions to the problem.

It would imply that of that 200 potential attackers MI5 are warning us about, 190 are likely to be from the "non white" community and 10 might be converts, of whom perhaps 2 or 3 might be white. They are likely to be overwhelmingly male, but we ought to allow for the possibility of up to, say, 5 being female. They all appear to be in the 18-35 age range.

Some of the 'non whites" can be reasonably excluded. As far as I know, for example, no oriental or native american (north or south) or inuit muslim suicide bomber has yet been identified and these ethnic groups are all reasonably easy to identify visually. Which takes the half million pool down to about 350,000.

Thus, the probability of any random 18-35 year old non white male sitting on the bus with you and planning to be your nemesis, is about 190 in 350,000 or roughly 540 in a million. However, the actual risk is massively reduced by the encouraging fact that a successful suicide bomber only ever succeeds once! Thus only one public journey, among the hundreds he or she might make during that age range make will ever be a lethal one for fellow passengers. It is impossible to decide a sensible figure for the number of journeys so I’ll take 1000 as an arbitrary starting figure. If that is broadly correct, then, for any given journey, the actual risk is reduced a thousandfold to.0.54 in a million or roughly 1 in 2 million.

None of which means anything until you start to compare it to other risks. As it happens, in the UK, the risk (of death resulting from an accident) every time you get in a car is roughly 1 in ten million (you have to knit the statistics from these sources to get to that 1, & 2) . So now that non white male sitting next to you on the bus represents about the same combined risk as 5 average UK car journeys. If you find that particularly alarming, you need to get out more.

For visiting Americans - whose per capita road deaths are approximately 3 times as high as ours, that non white male is only about as risky as 1.7 of your car journeys.

In fact that risk on the bus can probably be reduced still further, even in the UK, to way below the risk of a car journey. We don’t know for certain, but everything we’ve so far seen suggests that MIFT are not particularly interested in blowing themselves up on the 9.38 from Yate to Chipping Sodbury. In fact, despite the politicians mantra that “we’re all under threat”, it is not strictly true. The targets of choice are the juiciest ones. Big cities, particularly our capital, are clearly far more attractive than smaller fry.

So if you live outside the M25, and, perhaps, Birmingham and Manchester, I think we can safely divide the risk by another 10, leaving our non white male stranger equivalent, in risk, to half a UK car journey. So stop worrying.

Unless, of course, you do live inside the M25, in which case, the opposite has to apply and the non white stranger sat next to you is actually the same risk as 50 UK car journeys. Still nothing to panic about – I don’t see many people having anxiety attacks at the prospect of a month’s motoring – but no longer insignificant. But there are circumstances where the risks escalate considerably and, right now, the main circumstance is when boarding a plane; particularly if it is run by a British or American company and even more so if it is flying between Britain and the United States.

As of now, we know that airplanes are – or were until very recently - a major target of choice. It seems reasonable to allow that any British or American airline carries at least 10 times the risk of a ground based target inside the M25. And a flight between here and the US must be - say - 5 times as risky as that.

So if you're flying to Malaga on British Airways, the devout looking Somali across the aisle in your 777 represents a risk equivalent to 500 car journeys, or about the risk of a an average year of British motoring. Still not huge, but difficult to ignore. And if you're destination is New York then the risk is equivalent to 5 years of motoring. These are clear and substantial risks which it is utterly futile to ignore, particularly just because it appears to be politically incorrect to mention the Elephant in the room.

It is frankly insane to waste our limited resources rifling through the handbag of a 65 year old grandmother from either Dorset or Delhi when we know that 99% of the threat comes from a clearly delineated target group.

The obvious common sense strategy is to focus chiefly on that group and reduce checking of passengers outside that group to the "normal" random sampling rate. That means, in a typical plane load of 300 passengers, about 5% of whom are non white males in the 18-35 age range, we might perform a "standard" security check on 90% of the rest, with a random 10% subject to intense scrutiny, whereas 50-75% of the target group can expect the intense version. So about a dozen non white males and a couple of dozen of the other passengers will be subject to the serious inspection.

Clearly, if you're an innocent non white male in the target group, being 5-7 times more likely to be closely examined is an unfair burden. What can we do about that?

Answer: Accept that the inevitable increased security is a genuine burden and a necessary infringment of civil liberties. And compensate those who have to suffer the consequences.

How much and where does the money come from? Well, how much would you be prepared to pay to improve the security and your own confidence on your next flight? Do I hear £15 per flight? No? £14? £13? £12? Alright £10 and that's my final offer!

If 300 passengers all pay £10 into the kitty for each flight, then the 3 dozen or so who get the heavy treatment can each be compensated to the tune of £83. (I would personally prefer a nice round and reasonably attractive £100 compensation if I'm going to be grilled; that and my kitty contribution back. The minimum to make that self financing with 300 passengers and 36 being compensated for intense scrutiny is £13.14 per head.) The money will be refunded to their credit card there and then (provided, of course, they don’t turn out to be the terrorists we’re actually looking for).

Now, although it's still a pain in the arse to be thoroughly vetted (hopefully not literally - I'd demand at least £1000 for a "routine" cavity search!) the vast majority of us, white or non white, will be a lot less hostile to the - reasonable - intrusion if we're paid a hundred quid for our co-operation. Indeed, if we were stupid enough to allow it, with that kind of compensation, you’d even have people volunteering to be searched.

The intensive searching must, however, be properly randomised but based on current intelligence, so, today, the profile of those subject to thorough vetting would be similar to my illustration above.

I suspect that even if 100% of the non white male target group were routinely searched you wouldn’t hear too many complaints at 100 quid per inspection.

Indeed you might even hear racist complaints in the other direction – “why should the pakis fly cheaper than we do?” Answer: – because, for reasons beyond their control (if they're innocent) you and I cannot trust them as readily as we trust other passengers. So we have to put them through more serious security checks to reassure ourselves. But the vast majority of them are as innocent as you and I, so we are obliged to pay them to compensate them for the consequences of our fear.

Basically it's a simple, imaginative example of how the financial carrot can go a long way towards turning the justifiably increased security lemon into lemonade. The intelligence and recent historical evidence compel us to regard the 18-35 year old non white male as statistically more likely to be a threat than all other identifiable groups. It is common sense, therefore, to focus more of our security effort on them than on other ethnic groups.

One day, this situation might change and middle aged white male computer programmers might become the obvious threat, in which case I will look forward to my own flights being a hundred quid cheaper, but in the meantime that benefit would rightly goes to those who must bear the brunt of the new regime today.

In short, this proposal provides an equitable, self financing solution to the thorny issue of ethnic profiling, increases the effectiveness of our security counter-measures by focussing (not exclusively, but largely) on the credible target population and reduces the instinctual and partly rational fear most of us admit to feeling in those high risk situations. Not a bad result for one blog!

But all that has done nothing to solve the problem which led us here in the first place - the spreading collapse of confidence and trust felt by We The People for our Rulers.

Growing numbers of us realise that we no longer have good reason to believe a word they say and, as I said earlier, that is a very dangerous situation to be in. For my next trick, I'll be trying to outline the solution to that even bigger problem. Goodnight.

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