Can sliding-scale questionnaires and info-graphics really identify extremism and help protect us from terrorism?

Can sliding-scale questionnaires and info-graphics really identify extremism and help protect us from terrorism?

Have you suffered from poor health, have your family ever had money problems, or do you live in a neighbourhood with above average levels of violence? Answering yes to any of these questions increases your chances of being labelled a terror threat according to a US government test released by The Intercept. If you answered yes to all of the above, you should probably take the test, because, you never know, you might just be a terrorist.

These quiz questions (which are graded on a sliding scale from 0 to 5) are intended to evaluate if individuals, families or entire communities pose a potential security risk. They appear on the US National Counterterrorism Center’s ‘Countering Violent Extremism: a Guide for Practitioners and Analysts’ document from May 2014 and are emblematic of the inadequate and sometimes hilariously inept attempts made by governments around the world to respond to the fear of homegrown terrorism.

It follows attempts by the British government to monitor signs of terrorist sympathies among toddlers and a French chart that suggested cutting down on baguettes or giving up sports could point to radicalism.

Clearly, governments have a responsibility to protect citizens from acts of terrorism, but do questionnaires and info-graphics really make us safer, or do they risk polarising communities and fuelling mistrust?

“There’s no evidence to support the idea that terrorism can be substantively correlated with such factors to do with family, identity, and emotional well-being,” Arun Kundnani, a professor at New York University told The Intercept.

Experts have argued that interventions by government agencies in people’s lives, especially young people, due to views expressed can be counter-productive, while people who work with young extremists report that ending controversial foreign policies or investing in youth support services are far more effective at countering extremist recruitment than law enforcement.

France’s baguette-dodging bombers

French anti terror baguette

In response the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the French government announced a €425m programme to combat extremism, including a glitzy new ‘Stop Djihadisme’ website. It is intended to counter the slick propaganda used by groups like ISIS to recruit French fighters to Syria. Their efforts drew ridicule after an info-graphic that suggested forgoing the traditional French baguette was a warning sign and an eight-year-old boy was arrestedfor allegedly expressing support for the Paris attackers.

Britain’s terrorist toddlers

Plans for the government’s Prevent anti-terror strategy were labelled unworkable by experts as they attempted to draw nursery staff into the effort to root out domestic extremism and report signs of worrying behaviour to authorities. Professor Penelope Leach, one of the world’s leading child psychologists told The Daily Beast it is nonsensical to monitor such young children and dismissed the idea that it was possible for children of that age to be radicalised.

The US’s Kafa-esque watchlist


Graphic from The Intercept

A civil lawsuit in 2014 suggested that the US’s terrorist watchlist has snagged as many as 1.5 million people. The criteria for making it onto the watchlist has been kept secret by both the Obama and Bush administrations, but The Intercept reported that you can be included for as little as being associated with people who are suspected of association with terrorists. It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted. Once you’re on the list, getting the government to acknowledge your inclusion, find out why you’ve been blacklisted and attempting to challenge that decision is incredibly complicated. “If everything is terrorism, then nothing is terrorism,” says David Gomez, a former senior FBI special agent told The Intercept, adding that the watchlisting system is “revving out of control.”