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Global Affairs Blog

Mental Illness: A Key Factor in “Terror”

By: Engy Abdelkader, LLM ’13

Increasingly, in the court of public opinion, an attacker’s race and religion is more likely to determine whether a violent attack constitutes terrorism than legal definitions.  An attacker’s identity as an Arab, South Asian and/or Muslim, is a marker for terrorism that is emphasized by some news media to the exclusion of other relevant inquiries such as mental illness.  The most recent attack in London, however, reminds us that this latter factor - mental health - may be critical to averting future acts of violence.


In the aftermath of last week’s knife attack by a 19-year-old Briton in Russell Square that left one American woman dead and half a dozen injured, London police confirmed that mental health played a role in the tragedy.  This horrific story from the U.K. comes on the heels of a series of violent attacks in the region (and around the world). 


A recent attack against a Catholic church in Normandy, France left a senior priest dead.  Neighbors described one of the attackers, 19-year-old Adel Kermiche as, “too strange,” and “crazy, he was always talking to himself.”


In Nice, France, a man who launched an attack via truck against a crowd of compatriots celebrating Bastille Day left 84 dead, including a disproportionate number of Muslims.  As a local imam observed, while Muslims constitute approximately 7% of the total French population, the group accounted for 30% of those hurt, with 35 fatalities.


Similar to the attacks in London and Orlando, where a gunman murdered 49 and injured 53 at a gay nightclub, mental health played a role there, too.  In Nice, the French attacker had a history of mental illness.  Those who knew him claim that he was unstable, depressed, aggressive and violent.  Apparently, he was seeing psychologists in his native country of Tunisia before he moved to France.


Then, there was the attack In Munich, Germany.  A teen’s violent rampage near a local McDonald’s left more than 30 injured, and 9 dead.  There, too, a disproportionate number of fatalities appeared to be Muslims, including a Greek 17-year-old who died while attempting to protect his sister; two Turkish teens; a 45-year-old Turkish woman; and two Kosovan Albanians (the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims).


During that mass shooting, the deadly youth – inspired by Norwegian white supremacist and far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik – arguably demonstrated psychological trauma as he spoke publicly of being bullied in school.  A police search of the 18-year-old German shooter’s home yielded a book titled, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.


And, in another recent tragedy, an asylum seeker who was scheduled to be deported from Germany, killed himself and wounded 15 others outside a music festival.  In addition to a criminal record, the suicide bomber had a history of mental illness, including prior suicide attempts


In the wake of such horrific acts, public officials on both sides of the Atlantic often seize on these tragedies to help legitimize calls for expanded restrictions on immigration from Muslim majority countries or enhanced surveillance and other police powers targeting the minority faith community. 


Just last month, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders expressed his public support for Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration ban.  He explained to delegates that Europe was “imploding” from terrorism because of “millions of Muslim immigrants.”


Arguably, the common thread above isn’t necessarily race, religion, ethnicity or even immigration status, but mental illness.   


In fact, according to a 2015 Georgetown study, lone wolf attackers, responsible for many of the attacks making news headlines in recent weeks, were found to suffer “some psychological disturbances.” And, it’s these mental health challenges that make such individuals vulnerable to violent extremist ideologies including those propagated by the likes of ISIS.


Significantly, in its survey of 119 lone wolf attackers, Georgetown researchers found that despite diverse levels of education, about 40% of the attackers were unemployed when they attacked.  Beyond that, however, lone wolves have no clear profile.  Researchers found that the majority are white men with criminal records.  More than half were found to subscribe to white supremacist or extremist far-right ideologies. 


The study further asserts that violent extremism by self-identifying Muslims “poses no greater threat to the public than other forms of domestic radicalization.”  While noting that the rise of ISIS may account for a potential uptick in violent attacks, the research study warns against “unfairly” profiling or targeting the Muslim community as dangerous, counter-productive and self-defeating. 


This is an important message that public figures and officials should heed here and across the pond.  Increased resources should be allocated to ensure mental health and stability across diverse communities and irrespective of their racial, ethnic, religious or socio-economic make-up.


Anti-Muslim prejudice continues to spread across Western Europe.  Islamophobia is also at its highest levels in the United States, with more acts and threats of anti-Muslim violence than at any time since 9/11.  Anti-Muslim political rhetoric and policy posturing by public officials will only exacerbate an already worsening problem while distracting us from achieving more effective solutions to ensure our collective security. 


Engy Abdelkader is a senior fellow and adjunct professor at Georgetown University where she teaches courses on international terrorism and human rights as well as civil liberties and national security in the post 9/11 era.




Engy Abdelkader is a Georgetown professor and senior fellow at the Alwaleed Center for Muslim Christian Understanding where she teaches seminars about civil liberties and national security and terrorism and human rights.  At Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative she researches and writes about Islamophobia, a dangerous phenomenon that she has worked to combat both domestically and internationally since 9/11.


The author of When Islamophobia Turns Violent:  The U.S. 2016 Presidential Elections, her legal scholarship has been published in the Fordham International Law Journal, Asian American Law Journal at Berkeley Law and the UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, among other journals.  Her writing has been featured in, or her work covered by, CNN, TIME, Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, CBS News, Slate, The Washington Post, The Catholic Reporter, Newseum Institute and others.  


Abdelkader holds two U.S. law degrees including credentials from the University of Pennsylvania Law School where she served as a Constitutional Law Teaching Fellow and she graduated with academic distinction.  

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