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Is There a Relationship Between Mental Illness and Terrorism?

By July 28, 2016 No Comments

Earlier this month, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) incubated at the University of Maryland, featured an editorial column authored by Patrick Andres James and Daniela Pisoiu exploring the relationship between mental illness and terrorism.

The authors discussed this relationship, and the subsequent research that both affirms and contradicts traditional knowledge regarding this issue.

They wrote:

“The apparent relationship between mental illness and extremist violence stands against a lengthy and well-evidenced tradition of terrorism studies showing that most terrorists are psychologically normal. This makes quite a bit of sense; terrorist group leaders tend to emphasize the importance of ideological and religious knowledge, and most of all, the ability to acquire specialized skills, be they combat, logistical, propaganda skills, or other types thereof. Thus, groups like al-Qaeda core have typically not been interested in recruiting mentally unstable individuals, who are generally neither reliable nor controllable.

This style of organizational preference seems to have fundamentally changed with the so-called Islamic State, for whom anyone will do; any operative and any type of attack. Unlike groups past, the Islamic State does not seem to care either way if its adherents are mentally healthy or not. Through a savvy social media campaign, they have doubled down on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s ‘Inspire’ magazine ethos, cultivating an organizational brand that emphasizes a ‘do-it-yourself’ approach.”

However, the authors also pointed out that radicalization at the individual level is “complex and over-determined.” For some lone-wolf attackers, like the Orlando nightclub attacker, “mental illness (may be) one of many plausible factors” that may facilitate radicalization. They further stated that in some cases of radicalized individuals, the “radicalization process can be better understood through a lens of traumatic emotional and personal experiences.”

The editorial concluded:

“Mental illness is certainly atypical in the broader population of terrorists. Yet given START’s recent research indicating that mental health conditions may be linked to higher propensities for violent behavior among extremists, it is crucial that we do more to understand the processes involved when these phenomena coincide.”

To read the entire editorial, please follow this link to START’s website.