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Mental illness & terrorismAbout 40 percent of lone-wolf terrorists are driven by mental illness, not ideology: Researchers

Published 22 December 2014

Researchers have long studied the relationship between mental illness and terrorism, particularly lone-wolf terrorists. One study examined ninety-eight lone wolf attackers in the United States, and found that 40 percent of them had identifiable mental health problems, compared with 1.5 percent of the general population.Another study reviewed 119 lone wolf attackers and a similar number of members of violent extremist groups in the United States and Europe, and found that nearly 32 percent of lone wolves had been diagnosed with a mental illness, while only 3.4 percent of terrorist group members were mentally ill.The researchers say that there is a significant link between mental problems and the making of a lone-wolf terrorist, leading to cautious hope that future attacks may be avoided. “It’s never an either-or in terms of ideology versus mental illness,” one researcher said. “It’s a dangerous cocktail.”

Researchers have long studied the relationship between mental illness and terrorism, particularly lone-wolf terrorists such as the radical Muslim man who killed a soldier outside Canada’s Parliament; the right-wing extremist who opened fire on government buildings in Texas and tried to burn down the Mexican Consulate; the al-Qaeda-inspired-assailant who killed an off-duty soldier in London; or the Iranian Shi’a who, in the name of Sunni fundamentalism, killed two in a Sydney coffee shop last week. Law enforcement claimed all of them were terrorists who were motivated by ideology, but many researchers, psychologists, and family members say they were mentally ill.

A study funded by the U.S. Justice Department and conducted by Ramon Spaaij, a sociologist at Australia’s Victoria University, and Mark Hamm of Indiana State University, says that there is a significant link between mental problems and the making of a lone-wolf terrorist, leading to cautious hope that future attacks may be avoided. “It’s never an either-or in terms of ideology versus mental illness,” Spaaij said. “It’s a dangerous cocktail.”

The Portland Press Herald notes that lone-wolf attacks do not require sophisticated planning, making them difficult to intercept by using popular counterterrorism strategies, including communications surveillance. “There’s no great complexity to it,” said London Police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe. “So what that means is that we have a very short time to interdict, to actually intervene and make sure that these people don’t get away with it.”

At least thirteen months before Michael Adebowale killed an off-duty soldier in London in 2013, his social media activities and prior history led U.K. domestic intelligence agency, MI5, to suggest that Adebowale be assessed by the agency’s Behavioral Science Unit for mental illness, but the assessment was never done. A parliamentary inquiry into the murder called the suggested assessment a missed opportunity and that “MI5 should ensure that the unit’s advice is integrated more thoroughly into investigations.”

Before twenty-two-year-old Nicky Reilly walked into a restaurant in the English town of Exeter in 2008 with a homemade bomb that went off in the restaurant, injuring Reilly and no one else, in 2003, he spoke with a psychiatrist about making a bomb. The information was shared with local police, who judged that Reilly was not a serious threat.

In Spaaij’s study of ninety-eight lone wolf attackers in the United States, 40 percent had identifiable mental health problems, compared with 1.5 percent of the general population. The study concluded that mental illness is not the only factor that leads an individual to commit terrorist acts, but it is one of the factors. Mental illness can contribute to “shaping particular belief systems and in constructing the enemy, externalizing blame for one’s own failure or grievances onto this all-threatening enemy,” Spaaj said.

In another study, by Paul Gill and Emily Corner of University of College London, a review of roughly 119 lone wolf attackers and a similar number of members of violent extremist groups in the United States and Europe, shows that nearly 32 percent of lone wolves had been diagnosed with a mental illness, while only 3.4 percent of terrorist group members were mentally ill.

“Group-based terrorists are psychologically quite normal,” the researchers said, adding that perhaps terrorist recruiters are likely to reject candidates who appear erratic or mentally ill. Mental illness could make lone wolf attacks more predictable. 60 percent of the lone wolves Gill studied leaked details of their plans, often to friends or family.