Here we go again: mental health and terrorism

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 16, 2017 (

What is it about terrorism that people fail to grasp?  I’ll put it as simply as I can: there are individuals (and groups) out there that plan and carry out heinous acts of violence we label as terrorism because they really believe in what they are doing.  Whether it is divinely inspired (or mandated) or self-styled legitimate action to right a wrong, some people will engage in these acts out of a sense of justice or to impose on the rest of us what they see as the only way to conduct our lives.  There is nothing inherent in any of this that points to mental illness.  We really need to stop leaping to the conclusion that perpetrators are suffering from psychological imbalance just because we don’t understand why they are doing these kinds of attacks.

In this vein the man accused of running down an Edmonton police officer and four pedestrians a month a half ago has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment based largely, from what I can determine, on concerns that his lawyer has.  I could reply cynically by dismissing this as a typical defence lawyer ploy but I won’t.  But I will ask a few pertinent questions: is Abdulahi Hasan Sharif’s legal representative a medical expert?  Is he qualified to ask for this assessment?  Are his ‘significant concerns’ about his client’s mental health worth much?  I have no idea but I would have thought that this procedure should be requested by an independent court-appointed expert and not a defence lawyer.

The more important point here is what it says about collected wisdom on terrorism.  Unfortunately, like many ‘accepted assumptions’, the one that terrorists are all mentally ill is very, very wrong.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Yes, some violent extremists do have mental diseases but, and this may surprise you, they are no more likely to do so than the average population (here is an interesting statistic: studies have shown that their incidence of mental illness falls in with that of the general population in Canada – one in five Canadians according to the Canadian Mental Health Association).  This underscores the reality of terrorists: they are part and parcel of all of us and they come from within our general societies: they are not outliers as a rule.

Two other recent cases in our country should be seen in this light.  Rehab Dughmosh, a woman accused of attempting to injure/kill employees at a Canadian Tire store last summer, has been found fit to stand trial despite what everyone initially thought.  And the legal team for a convicted terrorist in the 2013 VIA passenger train plot, Chiheb Esseghaier, is now asking that he be assessed for schizophrenia in what strikes me as an attempt to overturn his sentence.

What really worries me is our inability to recognise that behaviours and attitudes we see as evidence of mental illness are actually perfectly sane: they’re just different and not what we are used to in Western society.  They may not be normative, but they are logically consistent and incredibly similar across thousands of cases.  I am referring here to the process of Islamist extremism and violent radicalisation, two phenomena I worked on while at CSIS and which I continue to study into my retirement.  For the record I am still learning but I see myself as somewhat knowledgeable about both.  The ‘shenanigans’ of Ms. Dughmosh and Mr. Esseghaier in court may strike many as the goings on of those who have lost some of their faculties but they are in truth highly emblematic of very dangerous and severely radicalised Islamist extremists and we ignore that at our peril.

Look, I am not dismissing mental illness.  If the accused are indeed incapable of distinguishing right from wrong they cannot, in our system of justice, be found accountable for their crimes (not that this is any relief for their victims).  If they are found mentally ill then by all means get them help.  But don’t leap to the mental illness conclusion just because their behaviours seem odd and are not consistent with our ways of doing things. Courts, and by that I mean Crown prosecutors, judges and juries, need to learn a lot more about violent extremism and radicalisation to be in a better position to render judgment.  And defence lawyers need to accept that some of their clients are terrorists.

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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