May 11, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Convergence of Mental Illness and Terrorism

• The suspect in the May 10 knife attack at a German train station reportedly suffered from significant psychological problems—a relatively common trait among so-called ‘lone actor’ attackers

• German police do not believe the suspect had any connection to terrorist groups despite making terroristic utterances during and after the attack

• In many similar cases, the only connection to terrorism is in the troubled mind of the attacker; a mix of propaganda and delusion provides deadly motivation for unpredictable attacks

• The Islamic State’s simplistic and compelling narrative of belonging—coupled with its clear designations of friend and foe—has had particular appeal with a small number of individuals struggling with mental illness.

When Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani exhorted followers to attack Westerners using knives, rocks, or cars in September 2014 and then again in January 2015, the simplistic nature of such attacks—as well as the message behind them—had particular appeal to a very small subpopulation suffering from profound mental illness. In October 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a Canadian soldier near Parliament Hill in Ottawa; he had a long history of mental illness. In December 2014, Man Haron Monis took 12 people hostage in a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia, resulting in the death of two hostages as well as Monis; Monis also had a long history with mental illness. A June 2015 study by Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program reported that lone actor attackers were likely to suffer from 'some psychological disturbances.’ A review of criminal charges related to the so-called Islamic State in the U.S. by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School found that—along with a criminal past—a history of mental illness was common among the approximately 70 cases. 

The convergence of serious mental illness and terrorist motivation—however delusional—appears to have manifested again on May 10 in Grafing, Germany. In the early morning hours at the S-Bahn train station located 25-miles southeast of Munich, a lone suspect—identified only as German national 'Paul H.’—attacked a man on the train with a knife, killing him. The suspect then attacked and wounded three more victims on the platform. Police have confirmed the suspect shouted 'Allahu Akbar' and 'infidels must die' during the assault. Given al-Adnani’s call for precisely this type of random attack, media attention understandably focused on the killer’s reported extremist exclamations. The suspect's apparent mental illness, however, will likely prove far more determinative of his actions.

The overwhelming majority of individuals struggling with mental illness have no violent tendencies. However, those who do commit acts of violence in the name of the Islamic State often suffer from feelings of intense social isolation, perceived persecution, and imagined enemies everywhere. Those three traits—isolation, persecution, and paranoia—figure prominently into much of the Islamic State's propaganda. While the reasons people join or support the Islamic State are as varied and personal as the people joining, the allure of belonging—coupled with the simplistic and well-defined narrative of friend and enemy—can be extremely attractive for those struggling to find clarity.

Despite the ubiquity of Islamic State propaganda, lone actor attacks of any nature are exceedingly rare—including those in which the victims are entirely random and the attacker seriously disturbed. The media coverage of the attack in southern Germany—where violent crime of any sort is rare—stemmed in part from the random savagery, the locale of mass transit, and the fear that yet another person had answered the Islamic State's call to attack in any manner possible. Perhaps because the attack was short-lived and the attacker so obviously mentally disturbed, the media coverage has not become a spectacle; a rarity when it comes to attacks associated—however tenuously—to terrorism. Given the widespread and simplistic message of the Islamic State, the threat of further unsophisticated, yet still horrific attacks by disturbed individuals will persist. Though the occurrence of these attacks is highly unpredictable, the infrequency of such events means the threat is truly quite minimal.


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