Analysis: the war on terror leads to racial profiling

Analysis: the war on terror leads to racial profiling


Written by: Arun Kundnani

As IRR News first warned last year, the threat of terrorism is being used as a pretext to discriminate in police stops and searches, particularly against British Asians, a trend confirmed by new figures published last week.

Even before September 11, the fight against terrorism was being used to justify a host of new powers to stop, search and detain suspects. IRR News and the civil liberties group Statewatch first warned about these dangers last year, arguing that the headline figures on the use of stop and search under normal powers concealed worrying trends on the use of stop and search under the Terrorism Act 2000.

In response, the police have now published fuller statistics on stops and searches under suspicion of terrorism. These figures reveal that, in the year 2002/03, police in England and Wales were stopping and searching an average of 60 people a day as suspected terrorists, the majority while driving. That amounts to 21,577 stops and searches a year under Terrorism Act powers. Whereas 13 per cent of stops and searches under normal police powers resulted in an arrest, the arrest rate for stops and searches on suspicion of terrorism was just 1.7 per cent. And the overwhelming majority of these arrests had nothing to do with terrorism. Only eighteen arrests in connection with terrorism were made in that year as a result of the 21,577 stops and searches carried out.

And even these eighteen arrests should not be seen as successes in the war on terror. Research by IRR News, to be published later this week, has found that, of the 563 people arrested under the Terrorism Acts since 11 September 2001, only two have been convicted for involvement in a terrorist threat by political Islamicist organisations – and none of the convictions appear to have resulted from the use of stop and search powers.

Racial bias

Moreover, the application of these stops and searches was racially biased. From 2001/02 to 2002/03, there was a fourfold increase in the number of Asians stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act 2000. Blacks and Asians were four times more likely than Whites to be stopped under these powers. And people categorised under the police’s ‘Other’ category – which would presumably include those from Middle Eastern and North African refugee communities – were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites.*

Of course, it is no surprise that these groups are under greater suspicion than others. But the numbers of people subjected to these powers in an apparently arbitrary way, and to little or no effect in actually tackling terrorism, indicates the criminalisation of entire communities and the placing of tens of thousands of innocent people under suspicion. Anti-terror policing on Britain’s streets thus appears to be based on simple stereotypes of what the ‘profile’ of a terrorist looks like: anyone of Asian or Muslim appearance. American academics call this method of policing ‘racial profiling’ and warn that it is not only discriminatory but counter-productive.

Lawrence Inquiry

In the past, it has been Black communities that have been subjected to ‘racial profiling’ in the use of stop and search – and have fought long and hard against it. According to the figures published last week, Black people in England and Wales continue to be almost six times more likely than Whites to be stopped and searched under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act – the power used to conduct the majority of stops and searches. Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence acknowledged that the disproportionate use of stop and search by the police of the Black community was discriminatory.

As a result of this, in April 2003, new guidance on the use of stop and search came into effect which clarified that stop and searches were only meant to be based on ‘reasonable grounds for suspicion’. That was defined as ‘suspicion based on facts, information, and/or intelligence’ and specifically excluded suspicion on the basis of a person’s race or on generalisations about ethnic groups. We do not yet have the figures to judge whether this new guidance has made any difference. But, in any case, separate provisions in the Terrorism Act 2000 do now allow police officers to conduct a search on the basis of a suspect’s ethnic origin. So, what was taken away from police officers with one hand, by the Lawrence Inquiry, was given back to them with the other, in the name of countering terrorism.


This is a picture that is emerging across Europe. Research by the Institute of Race Relations European Race Audit, to be published later this month, describes developments in ‘racial profiling’ across the EU, justified by the need to counter terrorism. For example, the ‘fishing expeditions’ that the UK state is conducting on our streets is, in Germany, being attempted through computer database scanning. The German government has placed public and private institutions under a duty to hand over to police authorities information from databases on individuals whose personal profile corresponds to specific criteria on the police’s search grid for potential terrorists.

The result is that the German state has compiled a vast database of six million personal records, of which 20,000 have been singled out as potential terrorists, even though there is no concrete evidence against them. To qualify for inclusion on this list, a suspect has to be, among other things, a (presumed) Muslim, ‘from an Islamic state’ and not previously involved in crime. This huge accumulation of data culminated, on 10 December 2003, in the largest police-raid operation in post-war Germany, in which 1,170 Muslim homes, businesses and other premises were searched in a single day.

As each EU country develops its own techniques of racial profiling, the danger is that more and more communities will be drawn into the loop of suspicion. David Blunkett met this week with four other European Interior Ministers, including Otto Schily, the German Minister responsible for his country’s counter-terrorism measures. While the Ministers compared notes on each country’s efforts to police terrorism and discussed new policies for sharing data and intelligence, there appeared to be little concern with the dangers of an increasingly discriminatory and arbitrary deployment of state power across the EU.

Related links

Home Office Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System – 2003 (pdf file, 617kb)


‘Anti-terrorism’ policing leads to arbitrary use of stop and search – IRR report

* The ethnic categories used in this article are drawn from those which the police themselves use and their reliability should be treated with caution. Data is based on police officers' visual assessment of a suspect, using four categories (White, Black, Asian and Other).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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