The FBI has sent a team of behavioral scientists to create psychological profiles of suspected Al Qaeda imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
The effort is aimed at helping agency directors and field agents understand the new generation of young terrorists who have been recruited by the group blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We are trying to get more cultural knowledge and get into the minds of radical fundamentalists," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The results of the interviews will be compiled, analyzed at FBI headquarters and shared with the CIA and the National Security Agency, the official said.
The behavioral scientists have full access to those suspected of being Al Qaeda members and are asking questions designed to uncover the detainees' personal histories, why they joined forces with the terrorist group and how they view the United States.
Another law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said several detainees already have been profiled.
The profiling is still under way and the results have not been used in any law enforcement effort.
U.S. intelligence efforts initiated after Sept. 11 indicate Al Qaeda stepped up its recruiting efforts during the past decade. The profiles would be used for developing ways to disrupt recruitment and in hunting terrorists within the United States.
"This is an important piece of our plan to look beyond today and tomorrow and think about preventing attacks even further down the line," the official said.
The United States is holding 564 people at the base in Guantanamo Bay, most of whom were captured in Afghanistan. How much valuable information has been gleaned from them is unclear.
It's not the first time the United States has attempted to profile prisoners of war. Government contractors conducted similar interviews with Viet Cong prisoners during the Vietnam War and enemy soldiers in the Korean War.
That data was used for propaganda pamphlets dropped over enemy cities aimed at undermining support, according to several researchers.
Some experts who study terrorism say the government must develop a better understanding of young Islamic extremists. They say the population is growing because of an ongoing backlash against globalization and Western culture.
"We've seen an enormous rise in Islamic extremism in the young," said Emilio Viano, a terrorism expert and professor at American University. "We are seeing the rejection of the Western world -- an attempt to find an identity in a world that has been denied to them. Al Qaeda offers religion, nationalism and a way to strike back against feeling powerless against the United States."
The law enforcement official also said the profiling effort was aimed at fostering a better understanding of what the "Sunni side of radical fundamentalism is about."
The two major factions of Islam are Sunni and Shia. Al Qaeda is led by Sunni Muslims.
U.S. counterterrorism has its roots in combatting Shiite fundamentalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden is credited with giving rise to anti-U.S. extremism among Sunnis in the early 1990s, gaining allegiance from groups in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
While the number of formal Al Qaeda members has remained fairly constant at about 200 since 1990, the fruits of that recruitment have led to a large increase in the number of young men who are willing to carry out directives from the group.
Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, said he was skeptical of the government's profiling effort and doubted it would lead to any change in efforts to deal with extremists.
"Much of the public comment from the government has reflected the idea that they hate us because of our freedom and democracy," Zunes said. "I'm as proud as any American but the unfortunate truth is they are angered by a policy in the region, which has nothing to do with freedom and democracy. I don't think the profiling will lead to a better understanding of that by the government. They don't want to acknowledge it."