Counter-terrorism, tracking and transliteration

Lost In TranslationUS President Barack Obama expressed last June his concern about a possible influx into the US of European extremists who’d returned from Syria, taking advantage of the fact that they don’t need a visa to enter his country. He also mentioned that over 100 Americans were in Syria and may return with radicalised views. His statement echoes a major concern shared by almost every country in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. European security sources estimate that several thousands of European Union residents made their way to the war theatres of Syria and Iraq. Australia and New Zealand also have their share. And Indonesia and Malaysia are in the same boat.

Behind that shared concern lies the difficulty of tracking the movement of suspects. Many factors contribute to that, including the absence of a workable PNR (Passenger Name Record) system, relatively unconstrained movement inside Europe’s open borders by trains and buses, and the limitations of signals intelligence against individuals trained not to use their mobile phones, not to speak of those who travel on forged documents. Those challenges are frequently aggravated by structural problems of intelligence- and data-sharing, protection-of-privacy measures and local legislation.

Some suggest that if those problems are overcome likeminded states could do much more in terms of coordination and international cooperation. That’s true. But in all likelihood we’d simply confront a further set of entrenched issues which would have to be addressed to achieve satisfactory results.

We need to remember that the difficult task of spotting and arresting extremists, or ‘foreign fighters’ as they’re commonly called, falls in many cases on the shoulders of immigration officers and police patrolling the streets, not special counter-terrorism squads. The immigration officers at airports and border crossings and patrol policemen are typically the first to come into contact with suspects. It’s they who check documents presented. If there’s a match with one of the ‘black’ or ‘watch’ lists, then ‘bingo’—but that happens mainly in TV series. Real life is much more complex.

The fact is that in many cases authorities possess a suspect’s name as provided orally by an informer or secured through eavesdropping communications. The spelling is not necessarily the same as on the suspect’s passport, driving license or credit card. And, of course, we have typos like the one in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber whose name was re-entered into the airport system with a different spelling.

The Financial Times reported early in June 2014 that Western intelligence agencies had handed Turkish authorities the names of nearly 5,000 people they feared were attempting to travel to Syria. One wonders how that list was composed. Did each European country contribute its own list of suspects? Did anyone check for duplicates or investigate whether the list could be integrated seamlessly into Turkish data systems?

The complexity of this phenomenon is even graver when we deal with Arabic names. There’s a significant difference between the way people with Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch or Polish background and education spell the same Arabic name in their mother tongues. Not to mention how an Arab person chooses to spell his full name in Latin letters.

A glance at Facebook provides clear examples of the multiple choices one encounters. A standard name like Mahmud is spelled as Mahmoud, Mahmood, Magmoed, Machmud, Machmoud and Maxmoud among others. The possible permutations of ‘Qaddafi’ are almost as great. It was Thomas Edward Lawrence (a.k.a. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) who remarked in the introduction to his classic book Seven Pillars of Wisdom that ‘there are some “scientific systems” of transliteration helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world’.

Naming challenges as a subset of the broader identification and tracking challenges certainly aren’t confined to the Middle East—indeed, they’re global. But it’s clear that any effort to compose a consolidated and workable global list of suspects has to overcome those ‘Tower of Babylon’ hurdles. It’s a tremendous task requiring trial and error (and funds) to produce a tool which will be accessible from every laptop in a police car in every country participating in that enterprise. No exceptions. Europe, North America, ‘Down Under’ and even Middle Eastern and North African countries should be part of it.

Any attempt to bypass that challenge may result in all of our efforts getting lost in transliteration.

Ambassador Jacob Rosen is a Senior Counselor at the Centre of Political Research in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Alfonso.