The terrorism-mental illness divide

If there is one aspect of terrorism that is poorly understood it is the relationship between mental illness and the execution of a terrorist act. All too often the masses agree in the immediate aftermath of an incident that the perpetrator must have been suffering from an undisclosed – or undiagnosed – mental disease.  We constantly struggle with the “why” of terrorism since we cannot accept that  a normal person – i.e. someone like us – could carry out such violent acts.  Ergo, we assume they must have a psychological imbalance or a pathological weakness.  Once we satisfy ourselves that this is the case, we can comfortably go back to our lives with the reassurance that only “those people” do these things.  We then blame the mental health system which we are convinced should have done something to identify these lost souls before they lashed out in violence and hope that those in authority can do better to prevent future tragedies.

This would all be fine if it were true.  Except that it is not.  Undoubtedly some violent extremists do have identifiable mental sickness and this underlying disease may contribute to their terrorist action (although the correlation/causation problem remains in most cases). But there is no research that has demonstrated that a majority of terrorists, let alone all, are mentally ill.  We must therefore refrain from making these judgments in the absence of facts.

We in Canada were reminded once again today of the danger of jumping to conclusions when the RCMP lay terrorism charges against Ayanle Hassan Ali, who attacked a Toronto military recruitment centre in March of this year, wounding two members of our military.  The initial reaction to the incident was one of certainty that the attacker was mentally ill.  Nevertheless, there is much to be learned in this case and no need to judge prematurely what Mr. Ali’s motivations were.  It should be illustrative, however, that the RCMP has decided to add Canadian Criminal Code section 83.2 charges related to terrorism, specifically three counts of attempted murder, two counts of committing assault causing bodily harm, three counts of committing assault using a weapon, and one count of carrying a weapon dangerous to the public, for the benefit of a terrorist group (emphasis added).  As the Commanding Officer of the RCMP’s O Division noted: “Terrorism-related charges require a significant investigation, which can be time-consuming,” hence the delay in laying them.

In the end the judicial process will run its course and we shall see whether the Crown has enough evidence pointing to a terrorist offence (rather than a normal criminal one) and whether Mr. Ali was indeed not mentally responsible for his actions (just hours after the RCMP announcement, a judge ruled that Mr. Ali was unfit to stand trial due to psychotic symptoms of a “major mental illness” although the situation would be reassessed after he undergoes 60 days of treatment). The lesson here is to refrain from labeling alleged terrorists as “crazy” before the facts are in. Contrary to accepted wisdom, most terrorists do not act out of psychological delusion and are in truth rational actors with a well-designed ideology and end game.  Just because the world view of a violent extremist is not congruent with ours does not make it fantasy and beyond our comprehension.

The attack itself was consistent with similar incidents in the West over the past few years in which the military was the prime target. It will indeed be surprising if the alleged attacker does not express support of the Islamist extremist narrative, the belief that the West is at war with Islam and that his actions were aimed at pay back for the perceived acts of aggression by the Canadian military against Muslims.

Our reaction to terrorism needs to evolve.  We have to work towards a better grasp of motivation without preconceived bias and not resort to facile explanations that only serve to comfort us but do not contribute to our collective 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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