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Counter-Insurgency and Racial Profiling

(Today we begin a week of articles on Gillo Pontecorvo's film "The Battle for Algiers," a film portraying the battle of French Colonialists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiera. The preeminent film on counter-insurgency (political war), it is a must watch for all soldiers, diplomats, and any one working on national security or foreign affairs.)

Pontecorvo’s The Battle For Algiers is so packed with lessons about counter-insurgency that the Pentagon has put on regular showings of it for the military. Today, I want to take one scene and explain its clear lesson: racial profiling doesn’t work.

The scene's dispassionate and straight-forward representation of terrorism shocks the viewer. It begins with three women cutting their hair, putting on make-up, and dressing up to look like classy French women. When they are ready, the leader of the FLN enters and gives each a bomb to hide in their purses.

For the Arabs living in the Casbah at the time, leaving required ID cards and searches by armed French soldiers and police officers. As far as the three women--each armed with a bomb--their only interrogation was mild flirtation on behalf of the guards.

The scene ends brutally, of course. Bombs planted in a bar, a dance hall and an airport detonate, killing dozens of civilians. Bloody bodies litter the wreckage. Store fronts collapse.

Racial profiling is wrong because it is morally wrong, first and foremost. But forget about that. Racial profiling is ineffective because it makes you predictable. If a terrorist knows we won’t search an eighty year old woman, a terrorist will find an eighty year old woman. If a terrorist knows our soldiers will flirt with young women instead of searching them, then they will use young women. Most insurgencies receive some positive support from the population. This includes women, children and the elderly; all of whom fought against the French.

And remember the most important lesson of the above scene: it was based on actual events. We’ve written about the flaws in using the category of "military aged males" to distinguish targets in counter-insurgency before. Similarily, racial profiling, or gender profiling, or any profiling, is bad counter-insurgency.

five comments

I agree. It’s foolish to assume any enemy is confined to a race, sex, or creed. And it’s morally questionable.


We come across this same issue at work. The drug and human trafficking organizations use all sorts of people to smuggle their loads. Old, young, black, white, hispanic, families, cute flirtatous girls wearing revealing clothing. The bad guys know what the good guys are looking for and are continuously mixing it up to keep us off track. A one track mind won’t work.


ver true. never underestimate anyone!
But there are clear signs: you can judge them by mental profiles and by oberserving what actually is going on!


Whats funny though is some people complain either when young kids or old people are searched at airports, saying it is a waste of time. And second, some people defend racial profiling. Strange.


Sarah nailed it — what we need to do is look at the actions of the individual, not what demographic the individual comes from.