(RNS) American Muslim leaders are criticizing new airport security guidelines they say unfairly profile Muslims. More importantly, they say, the new rules are ineffective.
Muslims leaders say the measures, introduced by the Travel Security Administration on Sunday (Jan. 3) after a Nigerian Muslim man nearly blew up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, wrongly scrutinize Muslims. Instead, officials should be looking at security personnel who had ample information to catch the would-be bomber, but failed to act on it.
''The government failed in its execution, and now it's introducing these measures to cover up its mistakes," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
The TSA denied claims of profiling. "TSA does not profile," said TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches. "TSA security measures are based on threat, not ethnic or religious background."
The new rules require airlines pat-downs and enhanced carry-on baggage screening for travelers from Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or Yemen — all (except Cuba) predominantly Muslim nations.
There are many available measures besides profiling to make travel safer, American Muslims and some terror experts say. The Christmas Day terror attempt shows that security problems have less to do with procedures that are in place, and more with the competency of security personnel.
In the Christmas Day failed bombing, officials missed obvious red flags around the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, including his purchase of a one-way ticket, in cash, without checked baggage, critics say. He was also placed on a British no-fly list last May and on an American terrorist watch list soon after.
The most notable warning came from Abdulmutallab's father, a former government minister, who six weeks earlier conveyed worries about his son's radicalization to U.S. embassy officials in Nigeria. Similarly, the father of one of the five young Muslim Americans arrested last month in Pakistan for allegedly joining jihad tipped-off authorities there to his son's whereabouts.
''Muslims are doing their duty. Muslim parents are being attentive. It's the TSA that's not being attentive. It's the TSA that's not doing its duty," said Shahed Amanullah, an editor at the Web site altMuslim.com. "There's nothing more that Muslims can do than turn in their own families."
The newest terror threat has placed Muslim Americans in a tight spot. While mainstream Muslim groups denounce terrorism and claim American identity like any other group, they are confronted with the fact that most terror suspects continue to be young Muslim men, all of them claiming to act in the name of Islam.
Muslim activists are especially angry over the stepped-up surveillance of travelers from the 14 countries. The TSA counters that the measure is not discriminatory because it does not focus on a certain racial, religious or ethnic group, but all individuals from or traveling through those countries.
American Muslims and some terrorism experts say guarding against terrorist attacks begins with better intelligence and hiring more and better qualified security screeners.
''Our suggestion is to build on good intelligence," said Al-Marayati. "Instead of examining its own communications breakdown, the TSA said, 'No, let's profile.' It's just not logical."
Muslims and terrorism experts would also like to see the government pay for more bomb-sniffing dogs and new screening technology, as well as work more closely with Muslim communities.
''I'd love it if every passenger and every airplane that was about to take-off was checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, and searched by well-trained security professionals," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
''I'd gladly pay extra for that kind of security."
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Some terrorism experts agree it is more effective to focus on behavior — like paying for a one-way ticket with cash — than on race or religion. "You need a behavioral profile, not a person profile," said Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and independent terrorism expert.
Sageman also said Washington was not hiring the best people for airport security, and pointed to the legendary security protocols of Israel's El Al Airline as a model.
''Israel takes terrorism seriously. The people they hire for security are doctors and engineers. They are the best and the brightest of Israel," said Sageman. "We don't care about terrorism. We have incompetent people who follow rules blindly. We invest in rules. In Israel, they invest in people."
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While American Muslim leaders found the new guidelines odious, they urged American Muslims to comply as best they can, and to file complaints with a civil liberties group if they detect possible discrimination.
On Tuesday, a Muslim woman flying from Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles complained publicly through CAIR that airport screeners asked her to remove her headscarf, and when she refused, singled her out for a pat down. The TSA responded that "current procedures for the screening of bulky clothing or headwear — which have been in effect since 2007 — remain unchanged. The wearing of a hijab does not automatically trigger security checks."
Amanullah, however, said complaints will not result in changes unless arguments are rooted in the need for better security.
''Nobody cares if Muslims like these measures or not," said Amanullah. "They only care if they work."
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