It's Time to Turn America's Profiling Arsenal on White Supremacists | Opinion

To fight the scourge of domestic terrorism by white supremacists, we must build profiles, collect actionable intelligence and attempt to identify who might carry out the next attack and where. We can't rely simply on reactive investigations handled by law enforcement. We need intelligence-driven operations handled by counterterrorism agencies.

Many of the laws and resources required for such a fight are already in place—honed by decades of stopping the terrorist plots of extremists who happened to be brown men with beards. While these strategies have certainly led to serious mistakes, ones we must learn from, they have still proved highly effective in the global war on terrorism. Now, it is time to turn them on white supremacists plotting attacks here in America.

There is a fundamental difference between criminal investigations and intelligence collection. Criminal investigations generally occur after a crime has taken place. Intelligence collection detects indications and warnings that an event is about to occur—and neutralizes it before it even happens. Criminal investigations are reactive, while intelligence collection is proactive. And it is this proactive approach that has kept us safe since September 11, 2001.

In the days following 9/11, the full weight of the U.S. government became laser-focused on counterterrorism to prevent the next attack. Nowhere has this proactive approach been more essential than in the Authority for Use of Military Force.

The AUMF allowed the Department of Defense to use force against the 9/11 attackers and "associated forces." Under it, the U.S. military has been able to conduct operations in almost 40 countries. When conventional military forces couldn't be used, the CIA carried out a drone war targeting high-value targets (including American citizens). Even when suspected terrorists were captured alive, they were not tried in civilian courts. Instead, they were sent to Guantanamo Bay and even to "black sites," where torture was used to extract information.

So while we have been able to prevent another 9/11-style attack, this approach has created a dangerous "strike first" mentality that has been used to justify extraordinary actions when it comes to counterterrorism. Clearly, that includes profiling.

President George W. Bush asserted that "the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs." But to effectively search for terrorists, supporters of profiling would argue, the government should focus not on the white grandma from Des Moines, Iowa, but on the young Arab man who prays at the local mosque.

Therein lay the problem in fighting domestic terrorism: Could one build a profile without just targeting every single Muslim or South Asian in the United States? The answer was a solid "maybe."

It's now known that targets did include prominent Muslim Americans who weren't supporters of terrorism. In the case of Hassan v. City of New York, the nonprofit Muslim Advocates filed suit on behalf of 10 Muslims who claimed they were illegally monitored under a secret New York Police Department program. According to Muslim's Advocates, the "settlement sends a message to all law enforcement agencies loud and clear [that]...simply being Muslim is not a basis for suspicion and cannot be a basis for surveillance."

Surveillance and profiling weren't the only areas where the United States pushed the legal envelope. The Joint Terrorism Task Force was always on the lookout for anyone aspiring to be the next martyr. But it needed to show that suspects did not just support violent ideologies or groups but also had the intent to do harm. For this purpose, the JTTF used undercover assets and sting operations, bringing into question how much intent was actually fostered by the FBI as opposed to the suspects.

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People attend a community memorial service honoring victims of the mass shooting earlier this month that left 22 people dead and dozens more injured at Southwest University Park on August 14 in El Paso, Texas. Sandy Huffaker/Getty

The "strike first" mentality has been successful in stopping terrorism, but it has come at a great expense: alienating an entire community.

It is clear we face a new threat, domestic terrorism at the hands of white supremacists, and that proactive counterterrorism will be an essential tool in identifying and neutralizing it. Profiles will need to be built, terrorist groups will need to be infiltrated, and operations will need to be neutralized.

Yet we must also learn from the grave mistakes made in the wake of 9/11. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies must modify the profiling tools that were too broadly applied to South Asian and Muslim communities and make them more precise and predictive.

It's the scalpel, not the hammer, we need to win this fight.

Naveed Jamali spent three years working undercover for the FBI against Russian military intelligence. He tells the story in his book How to Catch a Russian Spy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​