Terrorism and mental illness make poor bedfellows

Most people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the sanity behind terrorism.  Surely those who knowingly and willingly kill themselves by detonating a bomb strapped to their waist or driving a booby-trapped car into a crowd of people cannot be psychologically normal, can they?  It is probable that we also have a hard time accepting that those who commit these acts are anything like us.  We, after all, are normal: they, on the other hand, cannot be.

The problem with this intuitive analysis is that is not backed up by any real data.  Terrorist case studies are difficult to begin with since data is often absent or unavailable (i.e. in the hands of police and security intelligence agencies).  When it comes to clinical data there is even less of this to be used in analysis.  Some studies (here I will cite the work of Paul Gill and Emily Corner in the UK)  offer tantalising hints that there may be some link between certain types of mental illness and terrorism, especially when it comes to lone actors, but even there the relationship has not been 100% established.

In the absence of anything foolproof, we are left with 3 choices, all of which need to be examined.  These three are:

a) terrorists suffer from mental illness at rates disproportionately higher than the general population;

b) terrorists suffer from mental illness at rates disproportionately lower than the general population; or

c) terrorists suffer from mental illness at rates more or less the same as the general population.

My work at CSIS, admittedly not based on accepted social science methodology, suggests that c) is the right answer. In other words, terrorists do not distinguish themselves significantly from the general population. Terrorists are the product of the societies where they live and will reflect those societies.  Through an examination of hundreds of cases over a decade and a half I know that this is true in Canada (but I suspect elsewhere as well) when you measure terrorists against a whole host of factors (socio-economic status, educational background, family dynamics, criminal past, employment history, etc.) and it is reasonable to extend this list to include mental health.

Which leads to the next obvious question: if terrorists reflect the population out of which they come when it comes to incidence of mental illness, what kinds of numbers are we talking about? According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year 1 in 5 Canadians ‘personally experience’ a mental health problem or illness and by age 40 one-half of Canadians will have suffered from some form of mental illness.  Extrapolating from this, 20% of Canadians who radicalise to violence can be classified as ‘mentally ill’ or subject to some form of mental distress.  If the numbers are out of whack that indeed would be interesting, although the very small numbers of terrorists to begin with makes extrapolation difficult.

So what to make of a new study that suggests that mental illness is far more prevalent than we thought?  According to psychologists at Duke University in the US, almost everyone ‘ will develop at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives’.  In fact, those that do not are the exception, giving a new window on what it means to be ‘normal’.

Let’s think about this for a minute.  In our search for drivers or explanations or causes of terrorism many cite mental illness and propose that we can screen based on this.  But if EVERYONE suffers from mental illness at some point of what good is this diagnostic?  The obvious answer is that it is of little value.  In that, it joins the long list of other proffered ‘magic predictors’ of terrorism, all of which have been shown, once you gather enough data, to be woefully short of accuracy.  In other words, we are no further ahead on predicting who becomes a terrorist and why than we were decades ago.  So, instead of wasting our time with new models and algorithms, we really should throw prediction out the window and focus on how and where instead of why.  I, and many others, have long said that the early signs of radicalisation to violence are there if you know what to look for.  We therefore need a lot more training on what these signs are so that those in a position to see them – parents, siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, religious leaders – can be better aware of what are problematic behaviours and attitudes and act before it is too late.

Irrespective of all of this there will still be those who are convinced that terrorism is a manifestation of mental illness.  I realised long ago that we cannot make this ill-conceived notion disappear – anymore than we can stop people talking about the non-existent phenomenon of ‘self-radicalisation’.  Nevertheless, those who work in counter terrorism – spies, cops, academics, social workers – can and must do a better job of communicating what is really happening out there to the general public.  If enough of us do this maybe we will steer the conversation away from the shoals of unhelpful assumptions and towards the open waters of true understanding.

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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