LONDON // A radical Muslim killed a soldier outside Canada’s Parliament in October. A right-wing extremist opened fire on buildings in Texas’ capital and tried to burn down the Mexican Consulate in November. An Al Qaeda-inspired assailant hacked an off-duty soldier to death in London last May.
Police said all three were terrorists and motivated by ideology. Authorities and family members said they may have been mentally ill. But a growing body of research suggests they might well have been both.
New studies have challenged several decades of thinking that psychological problems are only a minor factor in the making of terrorists. The research has instead found a significant link between mental problems and “lone wolf” terrorism.
“It’s never an either-or in terms of ideology versus mental illness,” said Ramon Spaaij, a sociologist at Australia’s Victoria University who conducted a major study of lone wolf extremists, funded by the US Justice Department. “It’s a dangerous cocktail.”
Mr Spaaij and Mark Hamm of Indiana State University studied 98 lone wolf attackers in the US. They found that 40 per cent had identifiable mental health problems, compared with 1.5 per cent in the general population.
Their conclusion? Mental illness is not the only factor that drives individuals to commit terrorist acts, but it is one of the factors.
The study preceded Tuesday’s ending of a 16-hour siege involving a gunman who took hostages in a cafe in Sydney. The gunman, Iranian-born Man Haron Monis, was already facing charges including sexual assault and accessory to murder in separate cases, and his former lawyer said the standoff was “not a concerted terrorism event” but the work of “a damaged-goods individual.”
With groups like ISIL spreading violence in Syria and Iraq – and bloodthirsty rhetoric on the internet – authorities around the world have issued increasingly insistent warnings about the threat posed by lone wolf attackers.
They can be difficult to stop with a counterterrorism strategy geared toward intercepting communications and disrupting plots.
“[Solo terrorism] doesn’t take an awful lot of organising. It doesn’t take too many people to conspire together. There’s no great complexity to it,” London police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe said recently. “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.”
Police forces and intelligence agencies are now examining whether insights from research by Mr Spaaij and others could help.
A British counterterrorism unit is working with the researchers of a second study which found that solo terrorists are much more likely to have mental health problems than either members of the general public or participants in group terrorism.
Paul Gill and Emily Corner of University College London looked at 119 lone wolf attackers and a similar number of members of violent extremist groups in the US and Europe. Nearly 32 per cent of the lone wolves had been diagnosed with a mental illness, compared to only 3.4 per cent of terrorist group members.
“Group-based terrorists are psychologically quite normal,” the researchers said, adding that one reason for this may be that terrorist recruiters are likely to reject candidates who appear erratic or mentally ill
Some experts dispute whether there is a link at all, however.
After Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s deadly attack on a soldier October 22 in Ottawa, Jocelyn Belanger, a psychology professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, told the Canadian Senate’s national security committee that “to believe that radicalised individuals are crazy or not playing with a full deck will be our first mistake in developing effective counterterrorism strategies.”
But the UCL study suggests mental illness could make lone wolf attacks easier to foresee. Mr Gill said 60 per cent of the attackers he studied leaked details of their plans, sometimes telling friends or family.
* Associated Press