- April 18th, 2017
Somebody pitches a Molotov cocktail inside a church or takes a gun into an office and starts shooting. As he does so, he screams ‘Allahu Akbar!’.
Later, police find the attacker has never been to a mosque, is of (for argument’s sake) mixed Scottish-Vietnamese extraction, doesn’t own a computer, and was a loner whose most frequent conversations were with himself. However, they do find a hand-written note dedicating his act to ISIS.
Are we dealing with a terrorist incident or not?
The question is moot, not least because analysis of terrorist risk needs reliable statistics. Unfortunately, most legal definitions of terrorism are soft and indistinct, largely because terrorism itself is indistinct.
When does a protest campaign – like the animal rights or the pro-life movements – cross over from legitimate protest to engaging in terror? With the first group, the argument is easy to make – the Animal Liberation Front deliberately uses violence to break the law even if nobody regards them as a threat to match that offered by ISIS. In the second, most Pro-Life advocates were appalled to find some loner they had never known was responsible for firebombing an abortion clinic or sniping at clinic staff.
Terrorism is often linked arm-in-arm with organized criminal activities. The list of terrorist campaigns that turned to crime is a long one. A more perplexing question is when does a criminal society like the Sicilian Mafia or MS-13 cross the line from being crooks working on protecting their nefarious industries, and become terrorists in their own respect?
The question is even more important when mental illness intersects with terrorism.
The literature on terrorist motivation suggests that most members of a terrorist group like the Abu Nidal Organization, the Tamil Tigers and the PKK are mentally normal. The same might not be true of leaders like Abu Nidal, Villupilai Prabhakaran or Abdullah Öcalan – all of whom exhibited the traits of sociopathic narcissism.
It is the so-called “Lone Wolves” that are more problematic. Some studies suggest as many as 40 percent of them are driven by mental illness, and select a cause in order to act out rather than be driven by the cause itself. So, when do we distinguish between a mentally-ill attacker and the true ideologue?
The border will be a fuzzy one; but perhaps there are three criteria to look for:
- Were supporters of the group/cause the attacker claim to represent aware of him?
- Did they encourage or abet his attack in any way?
- Does the group acclaim the attack and/or celebrate the achievement of the attacker?
If the answer to any of these is ‘Yes’, then the same answer should apply to the greater question and the attacker, ill or not, is truly a terrorist.
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