The difference between mental illness and radicalisation

When we come across a phenomenon that is new and strange to us we often struggle to gain an understanding.  What we are seeing or hearing is beyond our realm of experience and hence our ‘comfort zone’, and we don’t have a readily available framework to make sense of it.  As a result we have a tendency to do one of two things:

a) throw up our hands and say ‘I don’t get it and I won’t get it’, or

b) use what is familiar to us and cram the new event into that box.

(I suppose there should be a c) learn what is really going on)

I think that b) is what happens often when we are faced with cases of violent radicalisation.  A really good example of this is what is transpiring in a Toronto courtroom these days in the matter of R. vs. Rehab Dughmosh.  To bring you up to speed on this proceeding, Ms. Dughmosh attacked staff at a Canadian Tire back in June with a golf club and a knife and claims that she is with Islamic State.  Since her arrest and incarceration pending trial she has refused to leave her cell or cooperate at all with the judicial process and refuses to be represented by a lawyer.  Some are questioning whether her rejection of a normal court appearance may indicate an underlying mental health problem (see the National Post’s Christie Blatchford’s excellent report on the latest shenanigans of Ms. Dughmosh here).  After all many would say that her words are just ‘crazy talk’ (no offence intended towards the mentally ill – this is a common phrase).

Ms. Dughmosh may indeed be mentally ill – I am not a psychiatrist nor a psychologist so this is well beyond my expertise.  But, based on the few words she has said so far I do know one thing for certain: she is heavily radicalised and her behaviour is 100% consistent with Islamist extremist ideology.  Whether or not there are additional mental health issues is incidental as far as I am concerned (although I clearly recognise that these would have a significant effect on whether or not she stands trial).  My fear, though, is that we see radicalisation and ‘bizarre’ statements as nothing more than mental illness and in this we would be very, very wrong.

According to what we know, Ms. Dughmosh traveled to Turkey to join IS but was ‘intercepted’ and sent back to Canada.  That in and of itself suggests that she had made a choice to hook up with a listed terrorist entity (interestingly she has been charged with terrorist offences in addition to assault and other crimes, showing that the Crown sees enough to make a case under the terrorism provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code).

There are other things that make me certain that she is indeed radicalised and not necessarily mentally ill.  She has refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court and said “I do not worship what you worship”.  This may strike some as merely an obvious religious statement: she is Muslim and most of the people in court are probably not (in fact she calls them ‘kuffar‘ – infidels).  But there is much more than that going on here.  Ms. Dughmosh is telling us that she does think that our laws and our system of governance apply to her.  That is why she has denounced ‘any law that is not Allah’s’.

Islamist extremists reject civil law and democracy for a simple reason: they violate what they believe in.  To an extremist the only real law is that which is found in the Quran and is hence divine.  Everything we do, from elections to the drafting of legislation, is human-based and hence inferior.  Terrorists opt for what is not only superior in their minds but they also cast aspersion on what democracy stands for.  Actually, this visceral hatred for our way of doing things is a classic sign of radicalisation and Ms. Dughmosh is demonstrating it in spades.

This case recalls that of Chiheb Esseghaier, the convicted terrorist in the 2013 VIA Rail plot.  He made very similar outbursts during his trial.  There are those that are trying to overturn his sentence as they are convinced he is schizophrenic.  It will be interesting to see where this goes.

In the end though, Mr. Esseghaier was heavily radicalised.  So is Ms. Dughmosh at first blush.  There may be some underlying psychopathology but that must not eliminate the fact that both individuals embraced a hateful, violent ideology and sought to kill on that basis.  It is not that Ms. Dughmosh ‘does not understand’ the court process: she understands it very well and rejects it as beneath her.  We must not reduce radicalisation to mental illness from the outset.  The two may co-exist but they are VERY different psychological phenomena.  We ignore that at our peril.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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