No, mental health does not explain away terrorism

Here we go again.  Another terrorist attack, this time in Melbourne, Australia, another chorus of ‘he was mentally ill’ and, I guess, not responsible.  Last Friday (November 9) an ethnic Somali man drove to that city’s central business district with a bunch of gas cylinders turned to the open position (seeking one surmises to cause an explosion – unsuccessfully it thankfully turned out) and pulled out a knife, stabbing three men, killing a 74-year old restaurateur, Sisto Malaspina.  The terrorist was shot by police and later died in hospital.

Within days of the incident all the ‘explanations’ came out, to wit:

  • he had led a troubled life
  • he was delusional of late
  • his life had ‘spun out of control’
  • he was ‘agitated’
  • he had been kicked out of the family home several times
  • he had recently split up from his wife

As I have confessed on many, many occasions I am not a psychiatrist nor a mental health specialist so I have no reason to refute any of this.  I will simply note, however, that as the terrorist is dead it is going to be very, very hard to confirm any of this.  Dead men tell no tales as the old saying goes.

So, his mental health ‘issues’ notwithstanding, here is what else we know about the assailant:

  • he was known to have held radical views and had had his passport revoked in 2015
  • he was known to Australian police and security agencies (my good friends at ASIO) for family ties and friends who held radical views
  • he was likely ‘inspired’ by Islamic State (IS): although the terrorist group called him one of theirs there is no evidence to point to a link between the two
  • he was on an ASIO national watch list

OK, which one is it: was he an unfortunate delusional man or a dangerous terrorist who killed an innocent Australian?  Why can’t he be both?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Not in my books.  Whatever problems the terrorist had, was he incapable of holding violent, extreme views (ASIO sure thought so!)?  Is it not possible for mental health and radicalisation to co-occur?  Of course it is.

We really have to stop this ‘either-or’ way of looking at terrorism.  Some terrorists are cold, calculating murderers who meticulously plan their acts months or years in advance.  Others are spur of the moment attackers. And there are a tonne of those somewhere in between.  Furthermore, as I tried to point out in The Threat from Within, there is simply no profile to these individuals, and that includes their mental status.  So stop saying there is one.

Before signing off, there is another aspect to this case that I would like to weigh in on.  Australian PM Scott Morrison dismissed the mental health angle and added that “Australian Muslims need to take greater responsibility in helping to uncover potential terrorists….here in Australia, we would be kidding ourselves if we did not call out the fact that the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam.”  He  urged the Muslim community to be more “proactive” claiming some imams and community leaders will know who is “infiltrating” and radicalising members of their congregations.  While I agree that many people, including our Muslim neighbours, can do more to identify those who pose a risk I think the PM was a little harsh.

Based on my experience in Canada, many Muslims, leaders and ordinary people, do step up to the plate when they notice someone radicalising to violence. They do call authorities, be they CSIS, the RCMP or the police.  They do their civic duty to help keep us all safe.  Others do not, for a whole host of reasons (none of which are justified in my books), but to call on the community to be more proactive ignores the good news side of this issue.

When all is said and done an innocent man is dead at the hands of someone who thinks IS is a role model.  Enough said.  RIP Sisto Malaspina.

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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