We can’t seem to get away from the whole mental illness/terrorism nexus.  Popular wisdom still maintains that people who engage in acts of terrorism must have some form of mental disturbance.  This argument is being put forward yet again in the case of the Chatanooga shooter, as he was allegedly depressed at some point in his all-to-brief life.  We still confuse correlation and causation.

And we here in Canada are being treated to a front-row seat in the continuing saga of the Via passenger train trial as the defence is arguing that at least one of the defendants is mentally unfit.  I am rather puzzled at the timing of the legal challenge since both Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser were both found guilty earlier this year on multiple terrorism charges.  Wasn’t the actual trial the place to make these arguments? I guess not.

The case is somewhat complicated in that Mr. Esseghaier elected to represent himself during the court proceedings (probably not a great idea in a terrorism trial!) and wasn’t very effective at that.  A defence-hired psychiatrist is arguing now that the convicted terrorist’s behaviour in court demonstrates that he is schizophrenic (see story here).  The psychiatrist has stated that Mr. Esseghaier’s ramblings are signs of his illness: not surprisingly, he rejects the doctor’s analysis (why wouldn’t he?  He has rejected just about everything else).

Full disclosure: I am not even remotely qualified to talk about psychiatry or psychology.  But I am knowledgeable on radicalisation and I fear that the two fields are being mixed up to the detriment of our understanding of the phenomenon and its threat to Canada.

Mr. Esseghaier might suffer from some mental disorder, but his actions and statements also underline his commitment to a cause.  He showed convincingly during the investigation and throughout the trial that he is heavily invested in an extreme interpretation of Islam and believes in the use of violence to achieve his goals.  He rejected the very premise of the court to try him as it is based on Canadian civil, and not Islamic, law (btw a “classic” sign of radicalisation).  His courtroom rants were consistent with this worldview and should not be seen exclusively as proof of an underlying psychological illness.

The judge’s decision on whether to hear this challenge will have implications for this and future trials. If successful, we can expect the defence to play the mental card from here on in.  Don’t misunderstand my position: if the accused really does have serious psychological issues, these should be acknowledged and addressed.  But research has shown categorically that not all terrorists suffer from such illnesses.  In fact, there is nothing to suggest that extremists are mentally ill more so than the general population (about 1 in 5 Canadians have some form of mental disorder).  Putting the mental issue at the forefront will only serve to feed the misconception that it plays a role in all cases.  We don’t need this unhelpful distraction as we continue to try to come to terms with radicalisation.

In the end this defence move may be the equivalent of a legal “Hail Mary pass”.  I hope it falls incomplete.

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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