The debate on the link between mental illness and terrorism goes on

I am fairly certain that the average citizen sees terrorists as ‘not normal’. In a strict linguistic sense this is of course true as terrorists do not hew to the ‘norm’: hence they are not ‘normal’. In a larger sense, however, it is far from clear what ‘normal’ means. Are we talking about their backgrounds (socio-economic, education, etc.), the extent to which they are willing to use violence, the extent to which they are willing to kill and, if necessary to die, for a cause, or some other standard of ‘normal’? Is it hard to believe that ‘the guy next door’ is a terrorist? This last one is demonstrably false as I have given up counting how many times I have read someone quoted as saying “but he was the nicest of neighbours” in the wake of a terrorism arrest.

Normalcy also extends to mental fitness, and it is here that we find perhaps the greatest degrees of difference as well as serious academic debate on whether or not mental illness is a factor and whether not terrorists suffer disproportionately than the population at large from these afflictions. Research that I would like to point you in the direction of is that of two UK friends of mine, Paul Gill and Emily Corner, who found that lone actor terrorists did indeed appear to have mental disorders at a rate higher than the general background population.

A new study that just came out and which I was able to read thanks to another friend, Canadian right-wing extremism specialist Ryan Scrivens (otherwise the paper was hidden behind a paywall), in which Pete Simi and Bryan Bubolz ( The Problem of Overgeneralization: The Case of Mental Health Problems and U.S. Violent White Supremacists ) found that, at least within their data set, “a large portion of our sample of former violent US White supremacists report mental health problems before and/or during their involvement.” Their findings are in part a push back to the previous accepted wisdom that studying mental health is not a useful line of investigation when considering terrorism. More work is required and I would encourage those with this interest to do so, especially if they can gain access to lots of primary data (i.e. cases)

Not being particularly knowledgeable on mental health I want to limit my remarks to what, if anything, this means for practitioners. I believe that this knowledge is useful – to an extent. For those in law enforcement who have to gather evidence to be used in filing charges, and make arrests of people who may in fact be mentally unstable, this work can be helpful insofar as it gives the police something to think about when they are carrying out their duties. This is important as there have been a few instances in Ottawa where suspects were killed by the police in confrontations and post-mortem analysis – as well as commentary from the ill-informed peanut gallery – lament that the situation could have been better handled if the mental illness aspect had been taken into consideration (NB frankly a lot of this criticism, even if some of it is clearly valid, is akin to Monday-morning quarterbacking by those with no real expertise to lend). The Abdi Abdirahman case is a good illustration of this dilemma.

Secondly, when it comes to the courts the mental capacity of the accused is obviously important as it is my understanding that a suspect cannot be found guilty if s/he is incapable of understanding the nature of the acts of violence s/he committed (I am sure I am oversimplifying how this works but you get my drift). Curiously, however, a few recent Canadian court cases of Islamist extremist attacks ended in bizarre rulings. A man in Markham (near Toronto) was acquitted for a May 2016 attack on a Canadian Armed Forces Recruiting Centre when it was decided that his “radical religious and ideological beliefs were largely the result of his mental illness” (i.e. schizophrenia): how did the judge know this?. And yet, Rehab Dughmosh, the woman behind a strange golf club attack at a Canadian Tire in Scarborough (also near Toronto) in 2017 was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison despite the fact that the judge found ” her mental illness played a key role in her crimes.” Consistency this is not.

When it comes to a security intelligence agency like CSIS, however, I am not certain that mental fitness should play a role in whether or not the spy service investigates someone. CSIS is mandated to “collect, by investigation or otherwise, to the extent that it is strictly necessary, and analyse and retain information and intelligence respecting activities that may on reasonable grounds be suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada”. CSIS takes what it collects and passes it on to it partners, including the RCMP and other police forces, which can decide whether to pursue for criminal prosecution and which are in a much better position to take mental health into consideration. Things may have changed since I was at CSIS, although I doubt they are that different, but I am pretty sure investigators are not trained in mental illness detection (NB the Service does have in-house psychologists that can provide their expertise but I am not sure how this affects the decision to investigate or not). Furthermore, even someone with a serious mental illness can pose a threat to public safety (a much better term than national security when it comes to the impact of terrorism in my view) and I think Canadians want CSIS to have eyes on those individuals. Besides, as I have written elsewhere, I think that judges have leapt to questionable conclusions about the links between mental illness and radicalisation to violence. As CSIS collects intelligence and not evidence, and can launch an investigation at a lower level of cause (reasonable grounds to suspect vs. law enforcement’s reasonable grounds to believe), it should be allowed to do its job and leave the determination of mental fitness to those more qualified to make that judgment.

It looks like the conversation on mental illness and terrorism is far from over and I hope we get more data-rich studies from people like Gill, Corner, Simi and Bubolz. While I do not think anyone has the answer to this question, we will only get better at our collective understanding if qualified specialists weigh in. And although I am not in favour of amateurs telling spies and cops how to do their work good advice from those in the know is usually worth listening to.

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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