The terrorism-mental health debate, once again

The debate over the links, if any, between mental illness and terrorism never seems to get resolved.  Many people default to the position that anyone who dons a suicide vest or who can wantonly kill innocent men, women and children must suffer from some kind of psychological sickness.  These folks belong to the school that says “I would never do that, there cannot be any justification for doing so, ergo the perpetrator must be nuts.”  It is interesting to note that this stance is often proclaimed in the absence of any confirming information, let alone an actual diagnosis.

The other school, the one I belong to, says that in fact there is little evidence to show that terrorists suffer from mental illness and that if you actually look at the reliable data terrorists are no more likely to be mentally disturbed than the general population which, in Canada at least, represents about 1/5 of Canadians (in any given year), and perhaps are under-represented.

This issue came up in Canada once again in recent weeks – well, twice again as we shall see –  in the form of two cases that involved our citizens engaged in acts of terrorism.  A Canadian from Mississauga, Abdurahman Al Bahnasawy, pleaded guilty in October 2017 to plotting an attack on New York landmarks.  The prosecution is asking for a life sentence – which is standard in US terrorism trials – while the defence is asking for leniency in light of what it calls Mr. Al Bahnasawy’s history of ‘substance abuse, mental health issues and multiple suicide attempts.’  In another case, a Somali who ran down an Edmonton police officer and several pedestrians last September has been deemed fit to stand trial (i.e. mental illness was ruled out).  The incident is being looked at as a possible act of terrorism in light of the discovery of an IS flag in the suspect’s vehicle.

Two cases, two suspicions/suggestions of mental health issues.  Where is the truth in all this?  Frankly I have no idea as I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist, just a former intelligence analyst with CSIS.  What I do know however is that it is very hard to prove that a mental health issue drove either act, even if it can be proven that either suspect did indeed suffer from some kind of diagnosable psychiatric disease.  It is impossible to reduce decision making to one factor.

There’s the rub.  How do we decide, as a society, what role, if any, mental illness plays in terrorism?  Should we rule that terrorists who clearly demonstrate irrefutable mental illness not be found guilty and rather be institutionalised or medicated?  Should people that flail at commuters at Toronto’s Union Station with a machete because ‘the voices told me to do it’ be put in the same category as those that flail at commuters because ‘IS told me to do it’?  Are the two equivalent?

One the one  hand yes: crimes committed by those who do not have the capacity to form criminal intent should all be seen through the same lens.  The target or the reason should not matter.  On the other hand terrorism is seen, rightly or wrongly, as different and it is treated differently under the Canadian Criminal Code.  We have decided, as a society, that serious acts of violence carried out for ideological reasons, are indeed different.

What about law enforcement and national security agencies?  Should they act differently when it comes to possible mental health issues?  Not really.  The foremost task before these organisations is to stop bad things from happening, irrespective of the state of mind of the perpetrator.  The only consideration of mental capacity should come into the calculation after arrest with respect to whether the suspect was capable of acting in a sane fashion, and perhaps when it comes to sentencing.  No one wants to hear that CSIS, or the FBI, or the RCMP did not pursue an investigation because it felt that the target was mentally ill: acts that result in dead bodies are dead bodies after all, and we don’t want  our collective inaction to lead to dead bodies.

I think we need to do a lot more work on the correlation/causation aspect of mental health and terrorism.  I have seen little to support the contention that any single  act of terrorism was 100% the result of mental illness and I am not too confident that we will ever get that level of certainty.  By all means, do the research and test the hypothesis.  But don’t blame our protectors from carrying out investigations that stop acts from taking place.  The alternative is not a good one.


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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