3 January 2019

You can’t kill the terrorist threat with kindness alone – but it’s a good place to start


There’s a pretty chilling video currently doing the rounds on Twitter. Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian woman, is being interviewed for her part in a suicide bombing that took place in 2001. In this attack on a Jerusalem Pizzeria, her accomplice blew himself up and murdered 15 people including eight children.

Tamimi, who departed before her accomplice destroyed himself and all those others, had a specific role in this outrage. She has spoken about it with calm articulacy on many TV channels since. She was the scout for the target and looked for places, specifically including schools, where casualties could be maximised. She is reported as ‘smiling broadly’ when she learned that more children had been murdered than originally thought. She has demonstrated no remorse at all for her actions and now lives as a free person in Jordan as a result of a prisoner exchange with the Israeli government.

Is Ahlam Tamimi merely a terrorist or is such depraved indifference, such enormous and callous disregard for human life a sign of someone with very serious mental illness? Can it be both? Does it matter in how we understand and counter terrorism?

The recent upsurge in lone actor terrorist attacks here in the UK and abroad brings these questions into sharp focus. In 2018, murderous attacks in Munster, Melbourne and Manchester had similar characteristics – they were all apparently carried out by lone male assailants with a history of mental health problems. The mental status of the assailants is irrelevant in one sense – however disordered the motivation, these attacks killed six innocent people and injured 25 as well as throwing whole cities into fear and turmoil.

The conflation of mental illness and terrorist attacks by the state and the (social) media in the aftermath of such events does little to assist a clear understanding of the motivation of these offenders or how they can be stopped. Those on the right stand ready to pounce on the mental illness ‘label’ as a tactic used by governments desperate to minimise and obscure the provenance or severity of these attacks on their citizens. On the left the addition of illness often serves as a comfortable excuse for barbaric behaviour, usually citing the conditions imposed on the assailant as bearing more responsibility than their actions. The dead of these attacks have no vote and are just as dead as if murdered by people of sound mind.

We must not be deflected from a careful, clear-eyed examination of this relationship by the noises of conspiracy or advocacy. It’s surely beyond question now that people made vulnerable by mental impairment are both targets and instruments of terrorist organisations, whether inspired by them remotely or cynically manipulated and directed. Such a focus might help us understand more about the trigger points that turn disordered thinking into murderous action.

There are two powerful caveats to this prescription. While some terrorists are diagnosable as mentally ill, the vast majority of people who are afflicted, if they are dangerous at all, are primarily a danger to themselves. Moreover, searching for precursors that might assist us in diverting thought from action in counter-terrorism might be wishful thinking. Simply labelling people as mentally ill is not a ‘master explanation’ for a person’s motivation whether in relation to extremism or anything else.

This latter point touches on a very relevant concern, that of stigmatising a marginalised and vulnerable community of people still further. People with mental illness experience high levels of discrimination in our society already. This stigma often prevents people accessing services to help them, assuming those services exist.

For all the sensitivity required there needs to be renewed urgency into investigation of this link in order that mental health services are equipped where possible to identify people at risk of being drawn into violent extremism. While there is no settled view on the salience of this relationship, researchers such as Emily Corner and Paul Gill (2015) have come up with characteristics in a detailed survey of the mental status of lone actor terrorists versus groups both between and within those cohorts. Lone actors in the sample surveyed were in their estimation over 13 times more likely to have suffered mental illness compared with terrorist group members.

Research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation has shown that asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population and more than 61 per cent will experience serious mental distress. The data also shows they are less likely to seek or receive treatment than the general population.

In terms of national security it seems logical then that understanding more and doing more to improve the mental health of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is a wise investment in community safety and cohesion. Embedding mental health workers in the Government’s counter terrorism ‘Prevent’ screening programme when there is a concern about someone being radicalised would also be a useful way of bolstering capability.

Ahmed Hassan, sentenced to 34 years for an attempted bomb attack on a London Tube train in 2017 that could have killed dozens, was known to mental health services in the months before his attack. Yet the lines of communication were hopelessly confused between agencies, with the result that he slipped through the net. The NHS — and specifically the GP service — is the gateway to identifying and meeting need, yet there is little evidence of widespread training and awareness amongst hard-pressed family doctors in this area.

We can’t allow either oversensitivity or propaganda to cloud the issue. The danger from lone actor terrorists, weaponising their deluded beliefs is lethal and apparently growing, accelerated by online platforms that can remotely inspire and mobilise them. Isolated and fragile people who have fled sometimes horrendous conflict zones and who fail to integrate here ought to be on our protective radar and we should do everything possible, in our own interests, to assist them to integrate. You certainly can’t kill this threat with kindness alone, but it’s a starting point.

Ian Acheson is a prison safety expert. He led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.