Are Terrorists Mentally Insane?
In light of the recent terrorist activities in Paris, the Russian plane that was bombed, and countless shootings, stabbings, vehicular attacks, kidnappings, beheadings, suicide bombings, etc., one has to really wonder what is taking place in the minds of these killers. In the United States, we have had over 50 school shootings just this year alone. What is happening in the world?
As a graduate student in a clinical mental health program, I have spent a lot of time pondering these questions of late, and I have asked myself how much of the problems are related to the mental health of these individual perpetrators. It seems like common sense that something must be mentally wrong with all of them to commit such heinous crimes, but there is something about labeling these criminals as mentally ill that does a real disservice to the “normal” mentally ill patients out there.
The point being that there is something worrisome about people making automatic associations between mental illness and murder and terrorism. To be clear, the majority of people with mental illness, whether or not they have depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or schizophrenia, for example, never harm anyone. In fact, most of the time, they are the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. It is a travesty that people who are already labeled and face terrible stigma must then be lumped into the same group as those who commit such brutal and terrible crimes against humanity.
That said, how do we understand the minds of this particular brand of killers? We have spent years studying the minds of psychopaths and serial killers in prison after capture, but how many terrorists have been studied? Why does it matter, you might ask? Well, how do we prevent future generations of terrorists if we don’t begin to figure out what draws them into the life?
According to Sarah Kershaw of the New York Times, since their capture from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former terrorists are now speaking out and going through de-radicalization programs, allowing psychologists and psychiatrists to study them and collect data that might help us understand if terrorism stems from mental illness.
It is agreed by most experts that the pathway to terrorism often begins with propaganda, much like Hitler used. The Internet and television channels operated by extremists are sometimes the only media that impressionable children see and hear. Obviously, however, not all who are exposed to this will grow up to strap bombs on themselves. Many who do come from privileged backgrounds and different environments, never being exposed to propaganda early in life at all. But this does not mean one can’t be exposed to propaganda later. Whenever the exposure occurs, the mind of the terrorist reacts with intrigue and sympathy for the cause through some form of identification with it, if other important risk factors are also at play.
So while economic status appears to be inconsequential, there is apparently a pathway to violence that does begin very early in life. Children who grow up feeling victimized, alienated, or have a strong belief that it is justified and morally acceptable to inflict harm on another if the other person has perpetrated an unjust action, are likely to start down the path to violence. Likewise, if a child is taught that his or her particular ethnic or religious group is special or being victimized, he or she may feel that the only way to find power is through violence. Victimization and/or feeling that things are unfair or unjust are hallmark traits that lead to violence.
Many terrorists are criminals first, but not all criminals become terrorists, obviously. It takes some event to accelerate radicalization. For example, a person may have experienced a loved one being killed in a bombing or have been bullied in school unmercifully. At some point, if some of the other risk factors mentioned above are present in the individual, something snaps.
Dr. Ervin Staub is a professor of psychology, author, and expert on the topic of terrorism. In his research, he has concluded that there are three types of terrorists. There are those who identify with the suffering of a group, those who react to the experiences of their own group, and lost souls who feel no purpose in life until they join and identify with another group’s cause. These lost souls appear to be the ones heavily targeted and recruited on the Internet.
Dr. Clark McCauley, another professor of psychology, author, and expert on terrorism, makes a clear distinction between terrorists who act alone and those who join groups. The two seem to differ in their psychopathology. While it is easier to think of terrorists as crazy, the truth is that those who join groups are no more likely than the rest of the public to suffer from any psychopathology prior to radicalizing Because of the fact that those in the group rely so heavily upon one another, they would never want to trust a “crazy” person with their lives and the goals of the group.
Lone bombers and lone gunmen, however, do tend to suffer from mental illness. So it is important to break it down. It is also important to understand that out of the three types of group terrorists, the most likely to have mental problems are the lost souls recruited on the Internet. These are more likely to fit the profile of the lone gunmen, being more isolated, misfits of society, and misunderstood.
The sociopath who loves the gore of watching beheadings, for example, can be lured into reading and learning more about the movement. Many of these people are not even Muslim. But these recruits make up a very small percentage of the overall numbers of people inside terrorist groups. We may hear about one homegrown terrorist who is mentally ill and believe this one person represents the majority, when in fact, he or she just receives all of the attention. Boston bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is a great example of this.
Perhaps it is easier to imagine that a person must be “crazy” in order to join a radical terrorist organization because we can’t wrap our minds around the fact that a sane person is capable of such atrocities. But when enough risk factors exist towards predisposing a person towards violence, a normal person may not realize they are moving in that direction. In fact, it is hypothesized that under the right conditions, any normal or sane person could kill if they thought the reason was justified.
Most people have a sense of values, and religion is only one reason a person feels a strong enough intensity towards a cause as to go killing for it. According to Dr. McCauley, any group that influences an individual can bring about a sense of moral judgment and give a person a cause or a reason to fight for the group. Sometimes, violence against the enemy is not a choice. Look at soldiers who are drafted into war, as an example. They fight and kill for their cause. Some have killed innocent women and children. Many have been seen as terrorists by their enemies, but are hailed as heroes at home. This is not far from the way many jihadists are viewed.
According to Dr. McCauley, the strength of any group comes from the bond. In the case of terrorists, the cohesion of the group is critical. It acts as a family. Nothing about it is abnormal at all except for the intensity behind the cause that creates such brutality. These groups have supporters to the cause, even from those who do not agree with the violence or methods employed. These supporters are often termed as “moderates.” In other words, they may be Muslim and believe that people of the Middle East have been victimized by the United States and other governments, but they do not agree with the violent acts committed by terrorists.
The problem is that society often lumps moderates together with terrorist groups through stereotyping and prejudice, which is, by the way, exactly what the terrorists want. By stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists, for example, a hostile environment is created for Muslims living in the United States. This encourages these Muslims to experience victimization, which is the pathway to violence, so the terrorists claim victory when this happens and know that it will help bring many of these people to support their cause who otherwise might not have.
Many Americans try to make the distinction between “radical” and “peace-loving” Muslims when speaking about terrorists, but for the Muslims in the United States, they have no way to identify themselves in public, so naturally, they are always suspect.
By the same token, when Americans unleash a crusade against Muslims in the form of war, the terrorists begin the jihad they hoped for all along. The terrorists are able to gain support around the world where they otherwise could not. This occurs because people of the world who also feel victimized, dominated, or humiliated by the United States side with the terrorists and sympathize with their cause. The more the U.S. wages war, the more the radicals show innocent people being killed all over their controlled airwaves and cyberspace, and the angrier the people become. Anger turns to hatred, and the vicious cycle perpetuates.
This is not to say in any way that you cannot fight these people or shouldn’t go to war. It is just to explain the dynamics of the psychological warfare being played. Terrorists are very cunning and smart. They know exactly what they are doing in order to lure others into war and pull others into fighting for their cause. They bring attention to their cause, and for them, this is progress. For someone who felt belittled, alone, and powerless prior to joining the movement, it feels justified. These group terrorists may be cunning, manipulative, and willing to resort to brutal and barbaric tactics, but they are not for the most part, mentally ill.
Dr. McCauley states that whether we are fighting a war on drugs or fighting ISIS, it is the response to acts of terrorism that unfortunately adds the deadly fuel to the fire that makes the terrorists so dangerous. We must remember that terrorist groups do everything they do in order to incite a reaction, which is why they behead people and film the massacres, for example. They cannot walk peacefully into the office of a government official, for example, and ask to be heard. They cannot commit some small act of violence and cause a reaction. The only way to get the attention they desire around the world is to do something barbaric and brutal. It works, and it works well.
The intense reaction is the goal. By being so brutal, they incite the enemy into battle, which makes them feel powerful. They know when their enemy fights back, they have caused suffering or pain to the masses, if anything, through fear alone. The more their enemy fights, the more sympathy and support they receive from people who identify with their cause. More and more join the group, and the cancer spreads.
Once a person is desensitized to killing, there is no more shock. The process of radicalization makes it impossible to turn back. To be a martyr is honorable, and dying for honor is all that is sometimes left. Being extracted from family, having no more ties to a community, and having no marital support or relationship makes it easier to be motivated to become a suicide bomber. It is important to remember that these people have been desperately longing for meaning in their lives and have committed everything to the cause. In the end, many find that the only meaning comes from death. This is the probably the most difficult aspect when it comes to trying to fight them.
Many terrorists do, however, choose to leave and stop the violence. Often times they feel disillusioned by promises of excitement and glamor, only to find out that living in the group is nothing like that. Some grow older, and their priorities shift. Sometimes, as the group becomes more and more extreme, it becomes too much. Some sympathizers go into the group believing in the cause but do not realize they will be killing women and children or have any idea of the brutality of the killings until they experience it in person. To some who have played violent video games their entire lives, it is more of a game until the experience is realized.
So who becomes a terrorist? It is difficult to profile them now because many people do not fit the stereotype. More and more women are joining radical groups, for example. They Instagram and Tweet like loving housewives and mothers, and turn around and commit heinous atrocities, even against other women. But it is important to remember that women are often victims in places like Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, so the only way to become empowered is to join forces with the enemy. Remember the pathway to terrorism often begins with victimization.
In all, it appears that most are young, with the average age being anywhere from 24 to 27. This year, it is estimated that one-third of all terrorists are under the age of 21. In the United States, there is an ethnic mix of Arab and non-Arab. Some have criminal records and prior convictions and arrests. At least 200 Americans have tried to leave the country this year and join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq thanks to online propaganda, social media, and other media.
So before we make blanket remarks about terrorists as sociopaths, we must understand what drives the behavior and realize these people often seem as normal on the outside as anyone. They may have held normal jobs at one time, interacted with others socially, or even have spouses and children, etc. They may be young or old, male or female. They may be misdirected or disillusioned, but the majority are not mentally ill by any clinical standards. So we must understand the pathway to this way of life and begin to recognize who is impressionable. We must look for those who have lost hope and the misfits in need of belonging or fitting in with a group. We must learn the risk factors that make certain people vulnerable and protective factors that can keep them from going down this path.
For the others who act alone, there is far more justification in looking at mental illness as the culprit, although, as mentioned earlier, it is not always the case. Studies show that less than 3% of US crimes involve those with mental illness, and fewer than 5% of crimes involving guns are committed by those diagnosed with mental illness. Of course, lone gunmen who are mentally ill and carry out a mass shooting are the ones who become the poster children for the media. People make claims that only the mentally ill use guns to kill people, and that if guns were not sold to the mentally ill, there would be no mass killings. The sad truth is that, while common sense dictates that those with mental illness should not have guns, in the grand scheme of things, it likely won’t change their ability to carry out their intent via some other violent means if they really are crazy.
One thing is for certain. The victims of terrorist activity all need mental healthcare and will likely need treatment for years to follow. Because victimization is a pathway to violence, we need to make sure victims are helped by professionals. As parents, we need to make sure our own children are not desensitized to violence and criminal behavior and that they are protected as much as possible from bullying and victimization, especially inflicting it upon others. As far as how to handle terrorism in Europe and abroad, we need to think carefully about our actions and the ways in which we inadvertently breathe life into the movements through our actions.
While all terrorists may not be sociopaths or psychopaths, it is clear that they are fighting a psychological war. By manipulating us into changing our behaviors and living in fear, we play right into their hands. The cancerous groups multiply while they divide and isolate members of the larger society. As they draw us into battle, the sympathizers come out in droves to support their cause, the cancer grows, and the terrorists’ ideology metastasizes. When you are in psychological warfare, the terrorists want to make YOU crazy by running you down mentally and emotionally, and then knowing you will eventually fight back, relishing in the fact that they have broken you down. When it comes to the psychological game, the way to win is to refuse to live in fear. Cut the terrorists off at the knees by disrupting their communications and monetary flow. When war is necessary, know what you are up against…not a bunch of insane, socially inept, unintelligent madmen, but people who desire to create the same hell for you as they believe their people and cause endures.
It might do well to begin to look at the collective mental health of a nation, rather than of the individuals themselves. On a societal level, there is a pervasive sickness indeed. Where people in societies and entire nations feel trapped, full of fear and hate, experience continuous oppression, and when people have no hope for a brighter future, the disease will grow. War may cause temporary disruption, but I am afraid that when dealing with terrorism, killing more people does not cure the larger problem. We used to be able to kill the enemy and they were gone, but terrorism does not work that way. Now we shoot the enemy and it grows new arms and legs. The answers are complex, but a psychological war requires an in-depth psychological analysis of the leaders at the top and the individuals. For now, I am surprised but convinced that most are free from diagnosable mental illness, but as stated earlier, I am saddened by the amount of mental illness they inflict onto others.