On a warm summer night in London’s Russell Square a young, Muslim migrant randomly stabs members of the public. He kills an American tourist and injures others. Responding to the incident, the Metropolitan police could not initially decide whether the assailant was mentally disturbed or a terrorist. How has the apparent confusion between terrorism, violence and madness arisen?
2016 has witnessed an accelerating pattern of Islamic State attacks in cities outside the Middle East war zones. According to IntelCenter, which tracks acts of terrorism, IS has directed or inspired attacks from Turkey to Indonesia and the United States once every 84 hours since June 8. In the fortnight between Bastille Day and 28 July, France and Germany alone suffered six random incidents often involving knife attacks. Five of these had an Islamic State connection.
Recently these actions have occurred in towns, like Nice, Ansbach or Rouen, not generally associated with the threat of terrorism. This spate of indiscriminate, low-tech acts of violence has induced a palpable sense of fear in Western Europe and eroded faith in the ability of governments to tackle Islamically motivated violence.
They have also provided fuel for the small cottage industry of experts devoted to explaining, or more accurately explaining away, the phenomenon. This is somewhat surprising given that Islamic State, under pressure in Raqqa, has sought to conduct its war on the west and its values by sponsoring attacks in the homeland of the idolatrous, the Christian and the godless, inducing, as its strategic manual, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass explains, a state of ‘vexation and exhaustion’. IS-sponsored savagery represents the precursor to state breakdown, which the revolutionary cadre must manage en route to the purified Islamic realm. Those who oppose it must ‘pay the price’, that is: you bomb us and we’ll bomb you, especially in your heartlands where we know you are weak.
Islamic State, in other words, is acutely aware that they are engaged in a ‘political game’ where ‘coarseness’ and ‘rough violence in times of need’ is seen as all part of the struggle to advance the caliphate and destroy the kafir. Understood in these terms, Islamic State’s violence is a means to their politically religious end.
However, rather than interrogating recent tactical mutations in the evolution of IS strategy, most terror analysts seem unable to see the wood for the trees. The trees, in this case, are ‘lone wolf’ actors, alienated, isolated and with mental health issues that need the preemptive intervention, not of national security services, but of trained psychiatrists.
Australia set the recent trend. Giving evidence at the inquest into the Lindt café siege in May 2016, psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Phillips diagnosed Man Haron Monis ‘a dangerous psychopath’ suffering from ‘a complex personality disorder’. After the recent attacks in Germany, UK Professor Sir Simon Wellesy observed, that we should be looking more carefully ‘at the history of mental health problems among lone actor’ terrorists. In a similar vein, Professor Paul Gill’s study of lone actor terrorists found that although there was no uniform profile , 40 per cent of them had mental health issues. Raffaelo Pantucci at the Royal United Services Institute contended that: terrorists come ‘in all shapes and sizes’. Rather than being ideologically committed, they ‘may simply be using the method of a terrorist attack – under whatever ideology – to excise personal demons’. Terrorists are mad not bad. On this basis, Alice Thomson concluded in the Times that as most terrorists ‘have a history of mental illness’ the UK’s National Health Service should be the new frontline of the war on terror.
Preoccupied with identifying a pathological ‘terrorist personality’, such analysis misses the wood itself, which is Islamic State’s coherent and well organised political and religious assault on secular Western democracy.
Avoiding the fact that the West is engaged in an ideological war with an uncompromising enemy has become a defining feature of terrorism studies and media commentary since 9/11. Commentators and experts look for root causes of an abstract terror in alienation, deprivation and a grievance culture to explain away what is essentially a politically religious and ideological threat.
Thus media commentary hastens to dismiss attacks such as those that have taken place in cities like Paris or Brussels and, more recently, Nice and Rouen as the product of lone wolves. Such terms play into ill-conceived notions that these are the actions of losers, loners or young men with confused sexual identities, mental health and ‘anger management issues’.
In this way relativism and reductionism combine to dismiss a basic precept of strategic theory, that war is never an isolated act, but one of political will. Therefore, the notion of a ‘lone wolf’ functioning in isolation is a misnomer. They are never alone. They act within a social media network plugged into a political agenda and promoted through the cybersphere where a community of like-minded believers operate. This sphere contains all the ideological stimuli to inspire, justify and motivate. Thus the actions of so-called lone wolves serve a wider strategic purpose that fully reflects the thinking of the more important jihadist tacticians since 9/11. Islamic State’s recourse to terror across Europe is the means to their politically religious end.
In response, Western governments and large sections of the media treat the terrorists who carry out these attacks as socially disaffected or mentally deranged, giving rise to policy responses that assumes Islamist violence reducible to the disturbed personality of the individual. This way madness really lies.
As a consequence, there has arisen a disjuncture between what Islamists openly say, and have said for a while, and what the media and security community think they really mean and what Islamists actually do. Self-delusion could ultimately prove self-defeating. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if Islamism’s shahadist foot soldiers are doctors, computer programmers, hotel workers, dunces, losers or psychotics (and they have been all of these): it is the Islamic State’s ideological motivation that remains key to understanding its behaviour, and to how a liberal democratic government might respond to preserve and protect its way of life.