Mental illness is not the sole reason for extremism

Alan Philps asks: When a man with a history of violent assaults stabs a policeman in London, is this terrorism or the act of an unstable or psychotic individual?

Armed British Transport Police stand outside Westminster Underground Station in London following a terror attack. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
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When a man with a history of violent assaults stabs a policeman in London, is this terrorism or the act of an unstable or psychotic individual? This has been much debated in United Kingdom after a Khalid Masood, a British-born convert to Islam, drove his rented car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and then stabbed a policeman guarding the Houses of Parliament.

A week after the attack, investigations by the security services and the media have failed to uncover anything in Masood’s chaotic life story which would justify a political motive to his killing spree beyond a deep-seated anger against society.

Almost certainly he was inspired by the calls from ISIL for isolated individuals to use whatever weapons came to hand – a knife or a car – to wreak havoc. Perhaps he was in touch with an ISIL-connected recruiter. But was he a terrorist with a cause, or a pathetic dupe?

The United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act defines a terrorist act as the use or threat of violence “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”. The contrast with Irish nationalism, responsible for many acts of terror in Britain, is instructive. The cause was a united Ireland. Even when the victims blown up were innocent civilians, even children, there was no doubt in the minds of Irish nationalists that this was a political cause, even if the boundaries of “acceptable” violence were often spectacularly breached.

Similarly with the Palestinians: during the Second Intifada in the 2000s, families publicly celebrated the death of suicide bombers – whatever their private grief – as soldiers of the cause, at least until it became clear that that form of struggle could never succeed.

An insight into Masood’s lack of political education comes from Farasat Latif, director of a language school in Luton where Masood worked. He recalls his employee’s confrontations with the radical Islamist militants from Al Muhajiroun, who used to picket the local Islamic Centre.

“Khalid was a middle-aged, middle-class, intelligent black man and these were young, highly unintelligent young Asians. There was no common ground between them. He was apolitical, they were politicised.”

Such details and a sense of proportion tend to be forgotten in the scramble of 24-hour news coverage. There are some red faces – to use a tabloid expression – among the journalists who reported from inside parliament as if they were at Stalingrad facing the might of the Wehrmacht, rather than a lone man with a knife who had no chance of gaining access to the heavily guarded building.

In the rush to fill the airwaves, it was often forgotten that in June last year an MP, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed to death by a white “loner” who followed American and South African far-right and neo-Nazi publications.

The case was treated by the media as a tragic one-off, not an act of terrorism, even though he had shouted “This is for Britain” while killing the MP, a prominent pro-European campaigner.

There is a clear double standard here – if the perpetrator has a Muslim name, it will be assumed to be terrorism. And if no clear political goal can be found, conspiracy theorists will fill the void by accusing the police of a cover-up to avoid fuelling racial tensions. In fact, the cases where psychosis, not a political or religious cause, are to blame are many. Zakariya Bulhan, a teenager of Somali heritage, stabbed six people in a frenzied rampage in London last year.

A paranoid schizophrenic, he was later confined to a mental hospital indefinitely. At his trial the judge said: “These were crimes which caused enormous public concern because it was feared initially they might be the work of a terrorist fanatic. As it turned out they were not.”

The Iranian-German Ali David Sonboly shot dead nine people at a Munich shopping mall. Far from being an Islamist, Sonboly was an admirer of the Norwegian right-wing terrorist and white supremacist Anders Breivik. Sonboly delighted in sharing a birthday with Hitler and his motivation seemed to be revenge against Arab and Turkish boys who bullied him at school.

Not every violent jihadist is mentally unstable. The men who attacked the Bataclan in Paris in 2015 knew what they were doing and were well prepared. But they belonged to the “Islam for Dummies” generation, those who have lost their religion and Arabic culture in Europe, and are drawn to a simplified, cartoonish form of Salafism which validates killing and misogyny.

That still does not mean they have a cause, beyond personal redemption in a death cult.

The French researcher Olivier Roy speaks of the “Islamisation of radicalism”. He has said: “They became disaffected first, and then chose Islamism as the narrative of their radicalism.” They have no plan for after the attack and do not believe that they can change society. Their only project is a fiesta of death. They are in fact nihilists – they see nothing in society worth saving.

This absence of a cause or broader purpose is filled by the media, which tends to build up these lost souls into monsters whom other confused individuals will see as heroes in death, even if they were thugs and petty criminals in life.

For public opinion, the impression is given that the Islamic world is teeming with such characters as Khalid Masood. In fact, they are the tiniest minority.

The security forces are obliged to mount huge operations whenever there is a suspicion of a terrorist act. The shadow of the coordinated suicide attacks in 2005 on the London transport system during rush hour still hangs over the city. But when magnified by breathless media coverage, the 82-second attack last week begins to seem as significant as the 2005 bombings.

As the lecturer and author Kenan Malik has written, by giving exaggerated weight to the attack, the police and media “will provide the ‘statement’ that terrorists crave”. And the terrorists actually have nothing to say.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps